Terra Nil - PC Preview

Terra Nil
by developer Free Lives and publisher Devolver DigitalPC (Steam) preview written by Hayden with a copy provided by the publisher.

Estimated reading time: 4 minutes

What is it:

A eco-builder that challenges the player to undo the sort of industrial damage that city-builders and factory-builders normally inflict on their worlds.

Terra Nil is an interesting concept, turning the city-builder on its head by asking the player to guide efforts to clean up and restore an environment after it has been exploited instead of being the one to do the exploitation. At press time, Terra Nil has released a playable demo through publisher Devolver Digital, and our impressions here come from that. That said, this is a game with a history as noteworthy as its concept, and the original prototype of the full game from before it was taken on by current developer Fee Lives is still available on itch.io on a ‘pay what you want’ basis.

Bringing life back to a dead wasteland - from grey and brown to green and blue.

Terra Nil presents the player with a blasted, dead landscape. Brown and grey tones on soil and dried-up channels reinforce a barren, poisoned feeling to the map when you first see it. Quickly walking through the placement of the first wind turbine, soil cleaning equipment and irrigation equipment, the player is rewarded with their first sight of green grass smoothly rolling into view across the small patch of cleaned land. From there, the world gets bigger, and progressively more equipment is introduced that will flood streams, carve channels, and more.

Clean the soil, then just add water and you’ll start to get life in Terra Nil.

The core of Terra Nil is broken into four stages, introduced one at a time: soil cleaning, biome creation, atmosphere balancing, and recycling. Progress is limited by a few factors to challenge the player: currency (shown as a leaf), limited locations to place wind turbines (around which all other things must be placed), and the limited range of each building that the player can make. The game currency is interesting, in that it seems to represent the ecological balance - while it is spent to place buildings, it is earned through the restoration of areas by the very same buildings as they are placed. The more area restored by a single building placement, the more currency is earned. This is shown in-game by pop-up text while placing the building, showing the relative currency gain or loss due to the proposed action. This forces the player into careful placement choices, as trying to fill in small gaps between restored areas could be costly, while treating large swaths of land all at once is profitable enough to fund further operations.

Animals returning - deer, birds, frogs, bears and fish can all be seen as you restore the land.

Graphically, Terra Nil uses an isometric perspective view and simple but clean animated sprites. Menus are limited to a bottom-of-the-screen UI bar reminiscent of many classic RTS games, with tooltips that show requirements for placing and using particular buildings. As the player begins to repopulate biomes and meet their objectives, the fairly static imagery of grass and trees slowly begins to be supplemented by animal life that brings motion and life to otherwise static-looking areas. This is a perfect thematic move, as the reintroduction of animals really caps the feeling of bringing a dead region back to life.

A nice little easter egg here - “I prefer factories” directs you to the Steam store page for Factorio.


In order to finish the Terra Nil demo map, the player has to do something that runs very counter to the experience of most other games: they have to remove everything they have built. This becomes a game in itself, as the player needs to progressively recycle their structures with an eye towards having the final material pile end up close to a river, as this is the only place from which it can be collected. In the end, a successfully completed map on Terra Nil really lives up to the game’s name - there is nothing left of your presence on the ground. Unlike the player’s presence on the map, however, this demo should leave a mark on your Steam wishlist so that you can grab Terra Nil once it enters a fully playable state.

Score: N/A




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