What happens after the apocalypse?
It’s a question that so many entertainment properties have explored, from zombie flicks to mecha anime television series.
But Terra Nil asks the question, yes, but what after that? What happens when everything is gone,
diseased, poisoned? What would a new caretaker do to fix our mistakes and reforge the land?
Terra Nil bills itself as a reverse city builder, and to a certain extent that’s a very accurate description.
Your aim in this peaceful and reflective title is to rejuvenate desolate landscapes, transforming them into fresh land and reversing the damage presumably done to them by us. Rather than building a bustling civilisation on top of empty land, your job is to make sure all remnants of humans and their deleterious impact on the world are
Played from a top down, isometric perspective your job involves putting in place the (temporary) infrastructure needed to deliver this goal. Introduce windmills to get power, install scrubbers to clean the ground, water it and then utilise the forestry management tools to restore various types of flora and fauna until you can deconstruct your tools and leave the land better than it was.
It’s a super pleasant experience, with a chill soundtrack that is the opposite of many stress-based citybuilders. While you do have goals, resources to manage and strategic decisions to make about where to place your buildings, it feels different even if in reality you are doing the same things as any other city builder.
As the levels progress you unlock more complex building environments, terrain layouts like a string of islands that make you plan more carefully with greater forethought than a relatively open plain. These provide interesting challenges in developing interconnected systems under unusual restraints.
Each of the regions of the game have a different environmental focus, and the gameplay shifts in interesting ways for each.
I found that the pain point in each map was the deconstruction stage, where you must use drones on boats or on monorails to collect all the buildings you’ve created and send them back to your spaceship. It was, at times, frustrating to have to restart an entire map just because I had made a decision that I couldn’t have possibly known was not ideal 50 turns ago.
Maps are randomised too, so there’s no one best path to meeting all of your goals. This helps with the game’s replayability of course but it does mean that you have to get better at strategy, not just an individual map. Given the game’s focus on being relaxing, perhaps a timeline of your build which you can go back to any point of at any time or a limited number of times could work well.
Nevertheless, Terra Nil is approachable for people new to the genre and presents a good entry point if games like Frostpunk or Cities: Skylines are too intimidating. Particularly as
Terra Nil isn’t a long game, one that could be over relatively quickly if you blast through the four biomes on the easiest setting.
There are multiple difficulties, and objectives that you can go back to achieve, such as building suitable habitats for animals that have particular needs e.g. in a forest, on a hill, with a beehive, and reaching atmospheric goals to unlock certain behaviour like a salmon run.
Terra Nil presents a utopian vision of restoration that many of us would love to see happen even with our current system. Surely all of us would love for a benevolent force to come restore our planet with advanced technology that leaves no traces.
It made me reflect and ask “what’s next?” Does our restored world remain free of human contact, is there an ulterior motive to our actions, how will the rejuvenated plants and wildlife be protected from future harm?
And perhaps that’s the point of the game – to direct us to what we can do with Earth to restore what we can and what does remain in our world and how we should be caring for it. But perhaps ironically in each environment you engage in deep terraforming and manipulation of the planet’s structure, so I guess we have to assume that every human intervention is, in fact, beneficial.
Terra Nil is out on PC and mobile (with a Netflix subscription).
Released: March 2023
Platforms reviewed: PC
Developer: Devolver Digital
Publisher: Devolver Digital