There’s something about city builders that really appeals to the ape brain inside all of us. While it can obviously take an immense amount of planning and preparation to be able to get your electricity system working in Cities: Skylines, or to stop the people from wanting to overthrow you over every little mistake in Frostpunk, seeing new buildings pop up across the landscape truly is a simple joy in building. But what if you were tasked with deconstructing a city instead and taking away humanity’s mucky, mucky handprints instead?
This is the unique selling point of Terra Nil, a reverse city builder in which you have to basically undo all of humanity’s worst habits and leave a planet with a thriving ecosystem, one that animals will flock back to and flourish in. It’s a striking concept and one that’s far more intricate than many might initially believe. While it’s billed as a relaxing game, Terra Nil has a lot of layers and moving parts that may at some points overwhelm, but feel extremely satisfying when you pull off your plans and finally depart from one of the planet’s many varied regions.
Terra Nil’s gameplay is isometric and tile-based (think Sim City meets Into the Breach), with you able to place down different mechanical tools to help kickstart the ecosystem. You’ll first need to create electricity by placing a specific unit upon a rock tile, which then allows a “cleansing” unit like the Toxin Scrubber to clean water and soil the ground. From there, you can begin to place grassland and promote flora growth with the ultimate goal of attracting wildlife back. Once the penguins and turtles are back where they belong, it’s time to remove up all the machines and leave behind something that Bob Ross would be proud of.
It’s a satisfying loop that really leaves you with a sense of accomplishment, a bit of pride as you fly away from a new paradise that used to be a barren wasteland. You can even have different biomes that attract unique wildlife, though the “campaign” does somewhat dictate the style of your utopia. While one region can start off as a lava-filled hellhole, another looks like something out of The Last of Us, a crumbling city almost entirely submerged in water. While it may not have the most stunning graphics, Terra Nil regularly stuns with the landscapes it provides and the way it makes you think about your own imprint.
The unique scenarios on offer in Terra Nil also make it so that you never got bored of being a Fix It Felix, too. At one point during my “friendly” terraforming of a ruined city, all of my drilling and fiddling caused an old nuclear installation to implode, irradiating the surrounding tiles and meaning that I had to install new machinery to clean up my own mess. You can even convert old skyscrapers into giant planters and convert what used to be basically sludge water into a coral paradise.
Once you’ve made your new paradise as good as it can be, it’s time to get out of dodge before your sticky human fingers inevitably wreck it all again. This is where the game arguably gets a bit too fiddly, as some levels require you to use Monorail Nodes to transport recycled materials, yet the drones you send out also recycle the node they’re on, meaning that you sometimes have to rebuild nodes and essentially have to sit there patiently and click each node. Nonetheless, when you do manage to figure it all out and fly away to be left with a lovely montage of your hard work, it is super fulfilling and may even give you pause for thought as you reflect on life and look at the cool penguins.
For as tranquil and fulfilling as Terra Nil can be, there are some spots where it can frustrate. The most common bugbear for me was just trying to find the right machinery, as the simple menu was almost too simple. Your machinery is separated into numbered menus and not types without text to say which tool is which, which does make the UI cleaner but also means it’s harder to remember where things are and what they do. I spent too much of my playtime just flicking through the same 3-4 panels and muttering about irrigators like a dad of four trying to garden on his day off.
Another annoyance is that it can be a bit too easy for bad decisions to snowball without you really realising, meaning that you have to end up restarting whole sections. There’s only so much room for machinery across the maps, so there may come a point when you’re essentially just stuck and unable to put down the specific machinery you need. No manual saving doesn’t help, so you can’t really save, do a load of random experiments, then reload back to a safe point if it goes wrong.
Some irritations don’t take away from what an accomplished, unique strategy game Terra Nil is, one with plenty of puzzles and questions to ponder. There’s loads for the perfectionists to do too, with full completion attainable by completing cleaning up maps and introducing all animal species. If you want a unique reverse city builder with lo-fi charm, Terra Nil is a must-play.
A Steam key was provided by PR for the purposes of this review.
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