When I was offered the chance to play Terra Nil, I was keen. I’m a former environmental scientist, currently working in conservation, and reviewing a game about ecosystem restoration seemed like something I was uniquely suited to do.
I was right. That’s why this review is so long.
A World Apart
Terra Nil is set on something resembling Earth, with no humans in sight and ruined landscapes galore
The music and sound design is beautiful and chill; I sat listening to a pause menu for a good few minutes. It’s also impressively engaging, with my playthrough bringing me comfortably past midnight without my noticing… Might not sound impressive, but I get very sleepy.
The graphics are, and I mean this in the nicest way possible, Age of Empires 2 level. Animals, when they arrive, are endearingly poorly rendered, and much of the building in this sim is like, well, the Sims. But if they were more polished I don’t think I’d like them so much. It’s cute and comes off as the team having a passion for the Encarta interactive encyclopedia.
Showing my age there, eh?
Save the ecosystem, save the world
Each level has its own unique twists and mechanics, be it rainforest canopy protection, geothermal manipulation, or good old fashioned radiation. If you liked Spore, you’ll also like the three phase approach to restoration here. First you make the barren wasteland green again, then you tweak until it’s self sustaining, then grab all your junk and move on. Rebuild, restore, recycle.
However, that’s it, and while slightly remixed versions of levels become available after the credits roll, once you’re done with them you’re possibly done with Terra Nil.
Or are you? As a game it’s inspired but derivative, free but constricting, fun but insists on holding your hand. As a teaching tool? Borderline perfection. While some of the science is a little lacking, the processes are there, from the importance of humidity and temperature to the roles of coral and predators in the ecosystem. If you go in knowing nothing about ecosystem management, you will leave knowing more, and that’s a good job right there. And it’s nice to see a studio passionate about their hope for the future.
Side note, I do not share the team’s hope for the future. Weird thing to announce in a video game review, yes, but relevant. Even if we did invent magical toxin scrubbers tomorrow, I don’t think they’d be used; hell, all we need to do to stop the current climate crisis is quit fossil fuels and they won’t even do that. We could, at any point, choose to fix the plant, and every day we decide not to.
So Terra Nil’s message of hope that we can repair the damage done to our planet is a hope I don’t share. I think, after capitalism has buried our species, Earth will bounce back on her own. She always does.
But I digress. You want to know about the fun game. And it is definitely that.
A Terra Thrill
Well, Terra Nil is expensive for what it is. And while I’m always keen to blame capitalism, in this case some profits go to real world ecosystem restoration efforts. It’s very have your cake and eat it too, although if COD did the same thing we wouldn’t be so pleased? It’s also quite short. Terra Nil is here for a good time, not a long time, and the four levels take maybe an hour each.
Possibly trying to gamify the real time collapse of the real life global ecosystem is a bit optimistic. But damned if I didn’t have a good time with Terra Nil. In a world that is actively heating up in an attempt to destroy the infection causing it to die – that’s us in case I’m being too subtle – it’s nice to play around with what might happen after we inevitably all die.
What? Too bleak? Then do something about it.