Video games are usually based on a power fantasy. We wish we could slay the dragon, overthrow the evil king, or run faster than any hedgehog ever should. However, perhaps the greatest power fantasy of all is offered by Terra Nil, which allows you to confront the crushing existential fear of climate change.
In Terra Nil, you have a simple task: repair a ruined and barren planet, bringing plants and animals to the surface until the world is teeming with life. It’s a beautifully simple concept that’s almost perfectly executed by developer Free Lives. It takes a delicate touch to turn one of our world’s most stressful topics into a truly relaxing interactive experience, but it’s a wonderfully balanced game that accomplishes exactly what it sets out to do and never feels repetitive.
The planet you have been sent to restore has four distinct regions that need to be repaired. This is done by detoxifying the land and water, planting grass, and then diversifying the biomes. Later levels require adjusting the climate, raising and lowering the temperature or humidity to allow different life forms to thrive, but this never becomes a terribly complicated undertaking. The resources you use to purchase new machines are abundant and easy to recover. Only once during our ten hours of play did we have to restart an area because we made too many stupid mistakes.
That doesn’t mean we didn’t have to start over several times. Unfortunately, the Switch version of the game is more unstable than expected. It crashed several times while we played it, once taking about an hour of progress and forcing us to restart from the very first map. This, combined with some frame rate issues and issues getting the recycling drone to navigate properly, prevents Terra Nile from being a must-have title on Switch.
Even with these issues, we had a hard time tearing ourselves away from the game. It plays like most city-building strategy games. You need to plan how you place your power sources and how you position your machines to try to change as much area as possible. There are four regions to restore in the main game, each building on mechanics introduced in the previous one. The main challenge becomes space: integrating all the different biomes into limited areas. Some buildings require access to fresh water or must be built into the side of a cliff, requiring further planning as you go.
Once you’ve restored each map’s biomes, you need to scan to see what wildlife has returned thanks to your efforts. This is probably the most interesting puzzle in the game because each animal needs a different environment to thrive. Bears, for example, only live on top of a hill with a forest and a beehive, requiring you to modify your carefully designed environment to attract the animal. Trying to create a world in which every creature can thrive is a delicate balancing act, but it’s incredibly satisfying once you find the right setup.
However, the most rewarding part of the mission comes at the end when you clear the last pieces of equipment from the map, recycling them to allow you to remove all traces of your actions from the face of the planet. Even though the recycling drone got stuck in some of the waterways we had built, slowing our efforts considerably, watching the last turbine being packed into our airship was the perfect message to end on. After all, nature thrives without human intervention.
Even at higher difficulty levels, Terra Nil is not a particularly difficult game. Those looking for a challenge won’t find it here, but that accessibility is intentional. It will take most people around eight hours to complete the game’s four base maps, plus an additional two or three to complete the optional variants that are unlocked when you’ve cleared the planet. There’s not a lot of content here and a few more cards would have helped make this a more attractive purchase. Aside from the instability of the console port, our biggest complaint about Terra Nil is that we simply wanted more.
The developers said a patch to address some of these issues, including frame rate issues in the flooded city region and issues when placing particularly tall buildings, was in the works, but it didn’t. had not been released while we were playing Terra Nil within two weeks of release. It’s a shame because the visuals have wonderful attention to detail. Watching deer graze in fields or crabs scurry along sandy beaches is a visual reminder of your mission. You can watch each barren wasteland slowly but surely come back to life before your eyes.
Terra Nil is one of the most relaxing city building simulators we’ve gotten our hands on. Everything from the ambient sound of birds to the light soundtrack playing in the background gives the game a wonderfully relaxed vibe. The short length left us wanting a little more and those looking for a real challenge should look elsewhere, but the game manages to convey its environmental message with minimal text or dialogue. It’s just a shame that the multiple crashes and performance issues spoiled the atmosphere and prevented the Switch version from being the definitive edition of this fantastic title.
Despite its technical flaws and short gameplay, we couldn’t put Terra Nil down on Switch. Just rebuilding a broken and polluted world is so satisfying and well-crafted. From the moment you lay your first wind turbine to seeing your airship remove all traces of your hard work, the game gives you a sense of hope in the face of our own climate crisis without needing to explicitly say a word. It’s pure relaxation in video game form and worth picking up, especially once the promised first patch rolls out.
Gn En tech