Terra Nil isn't a city builder, it's a nature builder


Leave no trace

Builder games are usually built around consuming resources. The goal is to locate a good place to harvest and spend a great deal of consumable products, so your empire can keep expanding and encompassing more territory, eating more resources along the way, and all the while managing consumption and scarcity.

I got a chance to play the demo of Terra Nil, the next project from Broforce and Genital Jousting developers Free Lives, and it is a sort-of inversion of the resource consumption-based builder. It tasks you with plotting out infrastructure and interlinking synergistic buildings to max out numbers. But rather than eating the resources of the planet, you’re returning them to the barren landscape.

The process is fairly straightforward. Wind turbines power your structures and act as the focal points for your expanding empire. Plotting out irrigators and machines that clean the soil, the dreary wasteland starts to change shape before your eyes. Greenery flourishes and cascades across the area you’ve designated, and in the place of rocks and sand, there’s grass and trees.

At this point, Terra Nil launches into the goals: restore life to the soil and expand diversity through different biomes. The first part is straightforward: you simply construct more wind turbines, lay out more of your basic soil-cleansing solutions, and watch as the world springs back into life.

Biomes are a little trickier, and where Terra Nil starts to feel a bit more like a puzzle game. Putting beehives in trees can help to pollinate the surrounding area, allowing flowers to dot the landscape; land near rivers can be converted to wetlands, allowing nautical flora to appear; and, most drastically, grasslands can be lit ablaze using solar power to create a “controlled burn,” from which a woodlands can be built.

My first time doing this was essentially playing with fire. I didn’t really appreciate the breadth to which Free Lives would allow me to set this plain, upon which I had just spent 20 minutes carefully molding into a flourishing grasslands, ablaze with the power of the sun. One poorly thought-out decision later, I at least had a lot of room to create some forests.

Getting good biome diversity means boosting each of these three concepts, making sure they each have their own space and enough to go around. It was a very careful process that required a little bit of trial-and-error. It also meant doing some terraforming of my own, opening up new river canals or stone to place wind turbines on so I could expand and reach further.

It’s fascinating how Terra Nil still manages to feel like a city-builder, even as you’re constructing nature rather than civilization. And so it becomes all the more intriguing when you’re asked to tear it all down, piece-by-piece. The final project, once you’ve restored nature to the area, is to build an airship by recycling every bit of machinery you’ve just constructed.

As you plop down silos to collect your buildings, watching them disappear into a flurry of greenery and then get sucked into a container by a drone and converted to building materials, it’s rewarding. Dismantling an empire and leaving no mark of your presence behind is bittersweet, but as you do so, wildlife starts to emerge. Deer start roaming and grazing. Life is coming back to this place, once a desolate wasteland.

A screenshot of Terra Nil

And so the airship sets off, and the demo ends with a planet left to replenish—save one area, now starting to look full of life again thanks to my efforts. It’s a nice touch. I’ve played and enjoyed a lot of building and management games, and some even address the toll of rapid construction, expansion, and consumption on the environment and the climate. But Terra Nil isn’t just about the tack-on effects; it’s about undoing the damage and restoring life where it once existed. I’m looking forward to clearing many more grasslands for families of deer in the future, just hopefully with fewer accidental blazes.

Terra Nil is coming to PC, though no release date has been set yet. A demo is currently available as part of the Steam Next Fest.