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Terra Nil is the video game version of ‘nature is healing’

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But can its systems support more complex play?

Free Lives is best known for its 2014 side-scrolling action game, Broforce. The game features pixelated caricatures of action movie heroes blowing stuff up with big guns and even bigger American flags. So imagine my surprise in early June when the team announced its next project, Terra Nil, a “reverse city-builder” about restoring wild areas after an ecological disaster.

After spending a few hours with an early demo of Terra Nil, it’s hard to imagine a bigger departure for the studio, but I’m all in. After nearly two years of homebound hyper-vigilance brought on by political chaos and a global pandemic, this is the deeply chill distraction that I needed.

My demo of Terra Nil started out on a flat plane laced by dry riverbeds and dotted with cracked earth. The first step in rejuvenation was to build wind turbines, which in turn powered up to four small structures that purified the soil. The trick was in placing them. Each one shows an effective footprint, and the secret is matching the shape of the terrain while maximizing the amount of good each structure can do. From there, I was able to place irrigation systems that would turn the land green and lush.

A wildfire scars the land. Arid river basins divide green islands, which are burning.
Once you’ve grown fields of flowers, you can use controlled burns to make room for dense forests. Riverbeds serve as natural firebreaks, but they require planning to get the most benefit.
Image: Free Lives/Devolver Digital

That’s where things got a little interesting. Unlike a normal city-builder, I wasn’t just placing squares on the ground anymore. Each irrigation system could be configured to shower water in multiple directions, creating tetromino-like areas of greenery on the now fertile soil. I could choose which of these shapes worked best to cover the most area.

As these interleaved systems — power, soil, and irrigation — spread to other corners of the map, I began to refine my design. Instead of crowding four soil cleaners around each wind turbine, I found that using only three of them would allow for more efficient irrigation. There was a delightful tension to using the least amount of resources possible to have the greatest impact on the land.

But it was a thoughtful, distant kind of tension, mind you, the same sort of tension felt when planning the layout of a vegetable garden or picking which wall to make an accent color in the living room. And that tension was at all times mitigated by the game’s delightful, Ghibli-inspired landscapes and animations. As the land came back to life, flocks of geese crowded the sky, while frogs and herbivores caroused in the forests.

A screenshot from Terra Nil showing a river running through a verdant landscape.
Using explosive equipment, it’s possible to carve new rivers. That can change the geometry of certain sections of the map, allowing for more efficient placement of power and irrigation systems.
Image: Free Lives/Devolver Digital

Certainly, Terra Nil is one of the most charming little games that I’ve seen in some time.

My only wonder is if the many interleaved systems can sustain more complex, advanced levels. So much of the game’s success will depend on the final rounds of polish — on how Terra Nil introduces players to new kinds of landscapes, and what tools are offered for cleaning them up.

Some of that design work appears to have been done already. You can explore the original version of Terra Nil on Itch.io as a pay-what-you-want download. That earlier version of the game allows you to explore an entire island setting, with many different maps to choose from. Developers say that this new version, due out for Windows PC in 2022, will include “better levels, a better metagame, a bunch of new gameplay features, [and] new content.”

You can try this latest iteration of Terra Nil for free on Steam during the Next Fest, which runs from June 16 through June 22.