City builders are a great genre – they’re accessible, easy to understand, and highly addictive. But what if there was a game, where instead of building cities, you were restoring ecosystems?
That’s the whole point of Free Lives’ “Terra Nil,” which was recently picked up by Devolver Digital Games. The game will be available on Steam. The release date is still unknown but the prototype is available for download on the Free Lives website.
You start the game out on a barren piece of land, with a polluted river. It’s your job to bring it back to life by adding things like greenhouses and water pumps. As you progress and move to different areas of the map – you can diversify the land with different biomes, fix the weather system, and recycle the machines leaving no trace that humanity was there.
As you create more and better ecosystems, birds start flying over ahead and the shadows of clouds become visible on the screen. It’s a very peaceful game, which is enhanced by the instrumental soundtrack – which seems like something right out of a Studio Ghibli movie.
The Game Play
I downloaded the prototype and found the mechanics easy to navigate – like most city builders. The instructions are clear – yet, the game is still a challenge.
There’s a lot of technique and strategy that needs to go into how you go about purifying the land. During the first round of the game, which is located on a flood plain, all you have to do is make the wasteland habitable. It’s just a way of getting the player used to how the game works. You clean up the water, make some grass and that’s it.
It’s when you enter the map’s second location that things start getting challenging, After making the land habitable you have to create three different biomes – wetlands, forests and meadows – using the materials from the last round.
It sounds easy until you realize you need to create meadows to burn down so you can create fertile soil for the forests. I spent many rounds burning down all the meadowlands because I hadn’t placed the firestarters strategically enough.
There’s nothing stopping you from rebuilding the land in the first round in a way that makes the second round impossible to win.
It took me a long time to recognize the connections and develop a strategy that could enable me to get that done as quickly and easily as possible.
Then the third round, which I haven’t beaten yet – had me getting rid of all traces of humanity.
Materials had to be recycled and turned into parts for a rocket – but the recycling process would pollute the water. And at the same time, I had to create steam plants to create rain. Which only made things more difficult.
What I do know – is that placement of the rocket silo is key. It has to be located near water so the materials can be delivered by boat. I haven’t figured out the best place to put it yet. At first, I placed it as far away from everything as possible but I quickly ran out of money doing that.
Earning the in-game currency is simple – depending on where you place what you’re building you can either make or lose money. But the devices and buildings can add up pretty quickly. Once you can’t afford any of the materials, it’s game over.
The most frustrating aspect of the prototype is that there’s no save feature for individual levels -only regions. So I had to go through the whole process of rebuilding the second region over and over again. Which got really annoying, because there was no way to pause or save the game where it was if I wanted a break.
Hopefully, that’s something that’s unique to the prototype version. And hopefully, the new version will also come with a few more in-game tips when it comes to rebuilding the ecosystem.
But overall – I really enjoyed the game. It’s deceptively simple, which makes it a nice way to challenge the brain and is still interesting enough to keep me playing,
I’m probably going to continue playing until I complete the game. I’m interested in what other kinds of landscapes and ecosystems there are in the other regions. Every region has a few different procedurally generated layouts, some of which are more difficult than others – which helps keep the game fresh and interesting,
The New Version
There’s not a whole lot to say about the Devolver version as it hasn’t been released yet. But from the looks of the trailer it seems things have been improved on. The graphics have been changed to look more fluid and animated – instead of pixelated. To me, this makes more sense with the themes and goals of the game.
The preview also shows animals like deer, bears and frogs returning to the land as it heals – in different biomes and regions.
It doesn’t seem as though the actual gameplay will differ at all in any significant capacity. It looks like you’ll begin with purifying the water and soil while building the beginnings of the ecosystems. Like the original, there will be different regions with different flora and fauna. Each area is procedurally generated -so no two playthroughs will be alike.
I’m excited about the Devolver version of Terra Nil – it looks really interesting and it seems like the gameplay will be much smoother and the game will be much more expansive in both play, visuals and audio