So much of the traditional city-builder template revolves around you taking from the land: set up your base, engineer machines to extract resources from the ground, and pave over everything within sight in order to build up your industrial compound. You take from the land, but never give anything back – maybe you’ll sketch out some neatly manicured lawns or public green spaces, but you’re doing it for amenity, not for sustainability. You’re doing it for a better rating, or a happier population, not because you’re trying to give back to the planet that’s supported you and acted as the foundation for all your ambition.
Terra Nil rejects the notion of the city-builder wholeheartedly. Instead, it asks you to do the complete opposite of what you may be used to in genre rivals; rejuvenate, reinvigorate, revive. You land on a dead planet – a place withered and dried and poisoned by the short-sighted industrialisation of a population long since lost – and get to work on making it right again. Whether it's the tundra, tropical islands, or a dilapidated city, Terra Nil gives you an area of dead earth and says “save it,” no questions asked.
From here, a pattern begins to emerge. You need to breathe life back into your struggling ecosystem in three stages. The first stage always involves you eking some power from the landscape – but there are no fossil fuel-burning factories here, no cooling towers within sight. Instead, you need to figure out what this environment is better at generating for you – are you going to be able to power your toxic scrubbers with wind turbines or geothermal plants, for example?
Once you’re powered up, and the toxins extracted from the ground, you can get to work on transforming this dried out brown-and-beige disaster zone into something altogether more… verdant. Placing machines that generate grass and sow the land for you is a remarkably chill affair, and a gentle, tidal pull into Terra Nil’s core gameplay conceit: environmental puzzling. Finding the right balance between the power drawn from the local area and how much ground you can cover with living green is the first step in Terra Nil’s tantalising gameplay loop – and it’s liable to get you hooked nice and early. After all, you can’t leave a place this beautiful only half-revived, can you?
No, you cannot. So, next up, you need to increase biodiversity. Over the four levels in the game, this can vary dramatically – are you bringing life back to the world by letting bamboo nurseries crawl over the derelict foundations of ancient skyscrapers? Are you introducing coral reefs back to once oil-ridden oceans? Are you delicately placing algae greenhouses in order to cultivate an algae forest over the surface of otherwise-uninhabitable rockland?
Here, the puzzling element of Terra Nil becomes more obvious. Cultivating Tundra, for example, requires you to plant an irrigator on high ground whilst maintaining low humidity. So, you can burn away part of your greenery – ideal for encouraging more biome variety – and meet the requirements for Tundra, whilst establishing even more biodiversity. There aren’t too many moving parts as to get overwhelming, but enough that you can start to see the gears turn once you get into the finer parts of ecosystem development. Perfecting the balance and watching all your various biomes start to work together? There’s a satisfaction to it that feels unrivalled in the city-building space.
Given that you’re only ever pulling from a very scant supply of energy, what little you can responsibly draw from the earth, the resource management element of the game blends perfectly with the diversification. Use as few buildings as possible, leave as small a trace as you can, and you’ll play by Terra Nil’s rules. And this will set you up for the third and final part of your campaign: pack up and go. Leave no trace you were ever here. The antithesis of the city-builder genre, realised with great effect.
This is the hardest part of the game – and perhaps that’s the message that developer Free Lives is trying to foster. It’s all well and good supporting conservation, but the most difficult part is stepping back wholly and letting nature take its course. So, you build recycling stations that break down all your planted machinery. You collect up your building with drones, load them onto dropships, and blast off. In your first level, you might be messy; spreading buildings out far and wide in an attempt to convert every inch of the map. But then you realise, this has consequences – it’s harder to pack up and go. So, in later levels, you keep things more centralised, or build along an easily-defined route so it’s easier to pack up and go when the time comes.
From locale to locale, you feel your grasp of reclamation improve. Small, optional objectives (humidity over 80%, toxicity below 10%, and so on) give you encouragement to operate beyond the bare minimum, and seeing weather effects take hold as a result of your hard work is nothing short of breath-taking. One level, in particular, will reward you with the return of the aurora borealis – if you rejuvenate the area well enough.
The whole reward loop at the centre of Terra Nil is designed to keep you invested in the natural rejuvenation of the planet. From seeding the ground to fine-tuning the biome balance, there is not a game like this – environmentally conscious, utopian in its outlook – in the genre, or in gaming more broadly. An intelligent puzzler dressed up with a wonderful message, Free Lives’ experimental anti-city-builder is a breath of cool, fresh air in a genre that’s been stagnant for a while. Breathe it in, and feel the change in the air.