Thinking about the tension in my neck and shoulders, I feel so lucky that not every game is a hyper-competitive shooter. Every once in a while we need to give ourselves a break. Gaming can be a part of that break, it can also be part of the problem. Thankfully there are relaxing games like Terra Nil.
Developer & Publisher // Free Lives & Devolver Digital
Platforms // Mobile via Netflix, Steam, macOS
MSRP & Release Date // $24.99 or Netflix, March 28th, 2023
Terra Nil is a reverse city builder. Think of the 1996 hit movie Bio-Dome. Instead of building cities, or worrying about how many people your theme park killed, here in Terra Nil, you bring life to desolate soil. In this sim-builder, you use advanced technology to create a balanced ecosystem. Start with polluted soil to then restore forestation, rivers, and even wildlife.
The gameplay feels more like Tetris than it does Roller Coaster Tycoon. The games can be shorter than a typical strategy-building session. The maps are quite small. You may never have an “epic build” or a long run with a map. Yet how it is designed will have you playing for a week or two and will be more friendly to portable devices. Also, the placement of everything you do is going to be critical to your success.
Of course, you can start a fire and burn everything down but, I found myself unable to clear areas surrounded by water. If something was set up in a way that did not work for the map as a whole and I could not burn it down, it was stuck there. You will make these mistakes as you play, and might even start over a few times before completing your first run. It feels like part of the experience and makes the game seem like it has more content.
How Does Terra Nil Play?
Before you begin, you have three difficulty options, Gardner, Ecologist, and Environmental Engineer. The higher you go, the more challenging the building’s sim elements are. I recommend you start with Gardner, not for an easy playthrough but to allow yourself to play through the tutorial. There are a lot of systems to learn and everything you do will impact your map hours later. If you get stuck or want to experiment and learn the systems, there are custom options and sliders in the menu to remove the economy elements altogether.
When you begin you will be limited to only a few tools. Place wind turbines to generate electricity, connect them to toxin scrubbers to clean a polluted area, then use irrigation tools to begin your restoration. After that you will gain access to research centers to influence the climate, solar amplifiers to start fires, and recycling drones to help recycle equipment as you leave. This is only and small sample, there is a lot there.
The equipment will allow you to build a handful of biome types, welcome some of twenty-four different animals, and organically manifest around ten different climates. As you play through your ultimate challenge will be to recycle all of the tools you used and leave with nothing left on the map but natural habitats. As you can imagine, the placement of each object is going to be critical to how you make your exit. This is an incredibly unique gameplay mechanic, something that sets Terra Nil apart from all other games.
Audio, Visual & Technical
After you complete your first sample run, the game will open up to four regions. These four regions are River Valley, Volcanic Glacier, Flooded City, and Desolate Island. To me, it feels like this is really where the game begins. Once you can see more unique areas and build more interesting ecosystems it really feels like the game begins there.
Once you get into the deeper regions and more complex biomes the beauty of the game truly starts to shine. The team at Free Lives has made a fantastic looking sim game while not having to take a stylized approach found in other modern sim games. The first thing you will notice about Terra Nil is just how interesting and fresh it looks.
The audio design is just as good as the art direction. The calm soothing music will not get trapped in your head all day but creates a nice ambiance that compliments the game as a whole.
From a technical standpoint, my playthroughs on the PC and Steam Deck have been bug-free. There are a handful of things that the team could do to make for a better experience on the Steam Deck, like natively working with the controller. Although sim games are rarely designed with a controller in mind. I will be interested to see how Terra Nil plays on phones when it launches later this month via Netflix.
Terra Nil is a relaxing game that will help you wild down. The game’s portability by being available on iOS, Android, and Steam Deck, will make this a great game to bring with you on vacation this summer. Plus its lightweight demand from the hardware will not kill your laptop battery. While the ending may not answer all of your problems, Terra Nill is a fantastic way to wind down. If you have Netflix and have not checked out the games yet, this is a great place to start. Along with a nice way to mix up your game library with something unique.
A portion of the profits from sales of Terra Nil on Steam will be donated to the Endangered Wildlife Trust.