Review: Relaxing Terra Nil Features a Novel Twist on City Builders

It’s rare to come across a video game with a novel twist on a tried-and-true genre. City builders have been around for over thirty years, and mostly consist of building various types of structures while balancing the needs of people. But Terra Nil isn’t about building civilization--it’s about rebuilding a wrecked ecosystem.

Terra Nil is what developer Free Lives calls a “reverse city builder.” Your job is to take a barren landscape and reintroduce flora and fauna. But instead of leaving a network of machinery and various buildings behind, your goal is to leave no trace. There is no timer, so Terra Nil is a game you can play at your own pace—and I suggest you take it slow and plan each move, because it’s easy to get stuck without resources before you complete your objective. In fact, failure seems part of Terra Nil’s design.

Screenshot: Terra Nil

There isn’t much in the way of a tutorial for Terra Nil. While the campaign mode does ramp up its complexity and explain its basic mechanics—it also leaves a lot of details for you to discover through tinkering and tool tip perusal. This lead to some early frustration for me, but it grew on me over time.

Gameplay consists of three phases. In the first phase you have to establish sources of power, and purify the soil to create green patches. In the second phase, you’ll further refine these patches into specific biomes like beaches, forests, etc. And finally, during the third phase your goal is to remove any trace of your interference. This means recycling all of your buildings. This can be a test in planning, because if you don’t think ahead you might have to create infrastructure to remove any hard to reach buildings.

Screenshot: Terra Nil

Succeeding in Terra Nil isn't as easy as simply putting things where you want them to go. You have to make sure there are proper atmospheric conditions by burning plants, freezing water, or creating humidity from water sources, etc. Also, a lot of the terraforming equipment is tied to various power generators, which are important to place strategically, lest you run out of room to expand. If you misplace a building, especially in the first or second phase, you may not be able to remove it in the third. There is an undo button, but that only allows you to undo your last action. And any mistake, especially in an earlier phase, can eventually cascade and make your life harder.

Though there isn’t a timer in Terra Nil, so you can take your time making decisions, be prepared to fail at least once in each region. Luckily, you can reset your current phase—but sometimes that isn’t enough, and you have to restart the whole level. While the game never says it outright, I think this is by design. But when you fail, you can go back into a level with a better idea how to tackle it.

Screenshot: Terra Nil

There are four regions in Terra Nil, each with its own quirks and region-specific buildings to deal with that region’s challenges. Each region will require special consideration, and contain unique challenges, like the lack of land in Flooded City or the frozen ground of the Volcanic Glacier.

While it doesn’t overstay its welcome, I do wish there was more to Terra Nil. I was able to get through its campaign in less than a dozen hours, where I’m used to city builders that can easily grab my attention for hundreds of hours. That said, Terra Nil does have replayability because of its procedurally generated landscapes.

Screenshot: Terra Nil

There’s no doubt that Terra Nil carries an important environmental message. But it’s more about the appreciation of the beauty of nature as you wipe away the dirt left behind by failed civilization. It manages to somehow be both challenging and relaxing—but there might be a bit of learning curve while you discover Terra Nil’s quirks.

Terra Nil is available tomorrow for PC via Steam and on Netflix.

A Steam key was provided to us for this review

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Antal Bokor

Antal is video game advocate, retro game collector, and video game historian. He is also a small streamer, occasional podcast guest, and writer.