Terra Nil's Chill City-Building Is a Welcome Reprieve
Inverse Score: 8/10
You can’t help but smile when, after so much time spent transforming a barren wasteland into a thriving ecosystem, adorable waddling penguins emerge to brighten the scenery.
Devolver Digital's Terra Nil is billed as a “reverse city builder” where instead of building cities, you’re restoring desolate environments, creating biomes, and bringing nature and animals back through the use of advanced technology. It’s a fascinating game that uses the framework of a city builder but ultimately ends up feeling like a puzzle game more than anything. Its strong environmental message is backed up by a gorgeous aesthetic and tremendously chill vibe that gives a nice reprieve from all of 2023’s abundance of over-the-top action.
Terra Nil’s campaign is split up into four different zones, each of which has a randomly generated map for you to work your restoration magic. The game is intentionally cryptic about its story and setting, seemingly suggesting that you’re working to restore an Earth that’s been decimated by some kind of apocalyptic climate event. The loose structure works to Terra Nil’s advantage, as the mystery only adds to the calm and silent aesthetic.
Essentially, each map is split into a three-step process, and you’ll have to meet some kind of requirement to progress. The entire game is played from an isometric perspective on a grid, and you’ll quickly learn that the placement of your buildings is absolutely vital, not just because of your short-term goals, but because of how you’ll need to recycle everything at the end of each map.
Your first step is generally to build turbines, or some equivalent, to provide electricity, which will power your toxin scrubbers that restore the contaminated soil or water, letting you continue building. The first map is a simple matter of placing turbines and scrubbers, laying the foundation for mechanics that increase in complexity. Each mission also brings some nice little twists on that core formula, such as having to prepare hollowed-out skyscrapers to use as bamboo forests or working to balance the atmosphere and temperature so your lava flows don’t harden and destroy your power source.
After cleaning toxins, you move on to restoring the area’s unique biomes, which always have specific requirements. The third step in the process is by far the most interesting, as you need to recycle all of the buildings you just placed, using crafts that navigate rivers or drones that can travel rail lines.
During each step, you’ll have a limited pool of money to construct buildings, and you earn more money for each portion of land that you restore. This means you need to be careful and piece things together thoughtfully, finding the optimal position for your toxin scrubbers, turbines, etc.
As you advance into the later stages, you’ll get extra tasks you need to solve before your airship can fly away, namely bringing animals back to the environment. Each animal has certain needs. Bears need a certain amount of trees to thrive, and those trees need to be in close proximity to a water source. It serves as a compelling enough reminder of the real-world interconnectedness of various ecosystems.
As you recycle your buildings in the final stage you’ll need to scan the environment to find the right place for animals, and you’ll need to meet the needs to bring back at least three before advancing. This brings an interesting little spin to Terra Nil’s building gameplay and could force you to take a look at how you constructed your biomes. Of course, while you redo biomes you, again, need to keep building placement in mind, and how easy it’ll be to get recyclers through.
Terra Nil’s puzzle-focused city building is a nice twist on city builders that requires you to be tactical in ways you don’t typically have to, but the best part of it all is how accessible the overall experience is. The game introduces a scaling difficulty option that changes the cost of your buildings based on how “challenging” you want things to be.
The lowest option scales things back to the point you don’t ever need to worry about money, making Terra Nil a chill experience where you’re thriving in your advanced environmentalist paradise. The slow, piano-filled soundtrack strikes a somber but hopeful tone to enhance those vibes.
Reduce, Reuse, Recycle
Unfortunately, the biggest issue with Terra Nil is an overall lack of content. While each of the four missions is memorable thanks to some unique variations, there’s not much of a reason to return after you’re done. Once you’ve beaten all four you do unlock slight “variations,” but once you’ve seen what’s there, you don’t have any more surprises.
As much as I love the core experience of Terra Nil, I couldn’t help but feel like I wanted more. Its mix of puzzle-solving and city-building is a huge breath of fresh air for the genre, but it feels like it needs more room to breathe. With a few more mission types or areas Terra Nil’s gameplay could really shine, and I’m hopeful that’s something that might happen with future updates or expansions.
Terra Nil’s focus on ecological restoration is refreshing to see, and it feels particularly poignant in the face of worsening global warming. Luckily, that strong theme is backed up by equally strong gameplay elements that all tie into that overarching theme. Generous thought has been put into each step of the restoration process, and whether you want a challenging city builder or a laid-back puzzle game, Terra Nil can fill either role.
Terra Nil is currently available on PC, Android, and iOS. Inverse reviewed the PC version.
INVERSE VIDEO GAME REVIEW ETHOS: Every Inverse video game review answers two questions: Is this game worth your time? Are you getting what you pay for? We have no tolerance for endless fetch quests, clunky mechanics, or bugs that dilute the experience. We care deeply about a game’s design, world-building, character arcs, and storytelling come together. Inverse will never punch down, but we aren’t afraid to punch up. We love magic and science-fiction in equal measure, and as much as we love experiencing rich stories and worlds through games, we won’t ignore the real-world context in which those games are made.