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Of all the demos featured in this past week’s Steam Next Fest, indie environmental ‘reverse city-builder’ Terra Nil has performed exceedingly well for itself. The demo has cropped up among the top 50 on the most-played games on Steam over the weekend, and is currently nestled between Mount & Blade II: Bannerlord and Vampire Survivors. Not bad for a chill game about rewilding a barren planet.
Broforce and Genital Jousting developers Free Lives are behind Terra Nil, and it’s another typically diverse experience from them. I can only think that the staggering heatwaves being experienced throughout much of the US, Europe and the rest of the world recently have driven people to take to Steam, to find some escapism in taking charge of making the environment something approaching pleasant again. Terra Nil certainly makes you feel like you’re scoring wins for an environment even if it’s not the environment.
The demo is fairly short but very sweet. You’re plonked down in a map that wouldn’t look too out of place in any other strategy game except that it’s full of precisely nothing, with the goal to “rejuvenate this wasteland”. If you’re not a fan of wind turbines then look away now, because they’re key to providing eco-friendly power for the rest of your efforts to rewild the toxic sludge that’s everywhere. Once you’ve built a few turbines then that lets you pop out ‘toxic scrubbers’ to clear up the soil, accompanied by a lovely swoosh of flying leaves whenever one’s built.
Those leaves are your currency, which you can invest in building more structures for reclaiming the polluted wilderness for plants, trees and various animals. Finding sites for some irrigators comes next, which start to turn the freshly cleaned patches of brown mud a much more appealing green. Once you’ve got some plants growing then the demo’s map opens up a whole lot, expanding into areas that sport riverbeds. Building pumps along these floods them with clean water, and cleanses adjoining tiles along the length of the bed. Some new machinery like excavators becomes available too. These can make more riverbed, but pollute the surrounding tiles.
In the bottom right is a little indicator of temperature and humidity in the map, which can unlock rewards if you hit a sweet spot. For me, this came as a torrential downpour that turned any unreclaimed mud that I hadn’t yet reached with my environmental jiggery-pokery into freshly grown vegetation. To manage that, though, I had to increase biodiversity in the landscape by introducing more biomes. The demo’s selection included wetland, created by hydroponums that convert an irrigator near water when placed on top, grasslands with plenty of flowers that are generated by beehives attached to trees, and forests that sprout from arboretums that are built on ash caused by fires you have to carefully control.
Starting just one controlled wildfire by building a solar amplifier to focus sunlight, and then following that with a thoughtfully placed dessicator, managed to wipe out a quarter of the buildings I’d constructed on the map. It also took out all the plants and trees there. Doing that left nutritious ash to scatter arboretums atop, which quickly sprouted forests. Sorting out all these lush and diverse biomes left me with one project left to complete: getting all human-created machinery the heck out of there to let nature take its course.
You need to build an airship to achieve that, disassembling all your many buildings by creating silos scattered around the map. Do that by linking them all together by water through a hovercraft network. Then you’re ready to press the big red launch button to get your airship ready to fly off and rewild somewhere else. Seeing all the machinery disappear aboard my airship felt a bit like tying a pleasing big green bow around the map that I’d seen burst into life over the hour-or-so-long demo.
Yet no environmental issues in the real-world can be as easily solved as those in Terra Nil’s demo. It’s a calming diversion, a way of pretending that we have the power to take charge of our environment for a little while. I can imagine, though, that the messages of rewilding, building eco-friendly sources of energy, and planting and caring for diverse biomes could help encourage more people to see the potential for change around them. I hope so.
Terra Nil doesn’t have a release date yet, but it’s coming soon to Steam. I’ve started it now, so I’ll most likely finish whenever it’s out. What a cheerfully verdant game.