Terra Nil Review: Apocalypse Leads to a Conflict Management Sim

Management Sims turned me into a villain. If playing a simulator is like playing with god, then I’m definitely an outraged person. IN factor, I remind myself “the factory must grow” when fighting the swarms of bugs that attack my premises as pollution overwhelms their settlements. IN iceI forced workers to endure 18-hour shifts and sawdust-filled meals, all while living in an impromptu slum.

Land of Nil is a trade-off for this type of aggressive play. In this “reverse city builder” game, as the developer Free Lives described on the game’s Steam page, you rebuild barren and arid land across four major biomes in a series four scenarios. This is a game for the age of climate anxiety, where we have has passed the climate “point of no return”. Healing landscapes across Earth’s biomes is the most comfortable fantasy — especially in the midst of a sea of ​​games premise of destruction and domination — where habitat damage is reversed with a single click. But the game also has an identity crisis, where these meditative tile mechanics counter the complexity of its late-game systems.

Land of NilIts themes of regeneration and reconstruction are beautifully conveyed through exciting visuals and an ASMR-like audio scene filled with clatter, rain, and wind blowing gently through the blades of grass. It’s viscerally satisfying, almost dreamlike work, slowly reviving a parched dead land with lush pine, bamboo or mangrove forests. You revive the oceans with coral reefs and kelp bushes in which sea turtles can thrive. You rebuild ice caps, home to virtual penguins, even while they are threatened in real life.

The original game is completely atmospheric, following the trend of board games like Dorfromantik. You start by placing windmills — and later more advanced forms of generators — followed by a building that turns dry land into land, and then a building that places a grassland on the land. that arable land. This recovery phase is like a game of jigsaw puzzle, where you try to recover as much of the meshed surface area as possible. The isometric-style scenario maps are procedurally generated and fairly modest in size. Rebuilding the map earns you points, depicted as cards in the user interface, which you can use to purchase additional buildings. The only real strategy is to make sure you don’t spend all of these points before you can build a building that earns you more points.

Screenshot from Terra Nil, a simulation of ecological restoration, from an isometric point of view.  A large net covers a tropical rainforest.  There are windmills and other buildings around.

Image: Free Lives/Devolver Digital

In the next phase of restoration, you begin to diversify these ecosystems, placing structures that can spawn forests or grasslands in the surrounding land — as long as it meets the ecosystem requirements on that particular cell. For example, have you placed grassland on a brick, is it adjacent to an ocean or river, or have you controlled burning to seed the forest? In later situations, this may include global requirements such as humidity or altitude.

Here’s where it gets complicated: After the first scenario, the game doesn’t clearly explain the order in which it works or how these particular tools stack up, and only allows you to undo the near building. This is the most you have booked. For example, you may be waiting to plant a grassland in the tundra after performing a controlled burn, not realizing that you should have done it in reverse order. At this point, the script is lost and you have to restart. In part, this is how the simulator works – you mess things up and you start over. But other sims tend to give early red flags when things are going badly and hint at options for digging in themselves. IN Land of Nil, you find out you made a mistake, and that’s it. Furthermore, there is also a rather complicated jump between scenarios two and three, so these confusing mechanics add another layer of shock to unexpected failures.

The final stage of recovery – the cleanup phase – is also complicated, although I respect the political significance this step represents. It suggests that human intervention in the environment should end by removing evidence of industrial presence. The animation and sound design in this part is also excellent: When a building is destroyed, it explodes into ether, making a pleasant crunching sound. But the actual mechanics behind it are a huge pain, requiring you to make buildings accessible by river or via aerial tram stops — which can only be built on stone.

Suddenly, the increasingly de-industrialized landscape becomes flooded with man-made tracks and rivers, as you reverse engineer the scum to try to get rid of the buildings you’ve placed, clogging again landscape congestion. You cannot beat a scenario until all buildings are gone. I’m happy to absorb the idea that rebuilding — and removing your footprints — on the surface requires complicated machinery, but going from atmospheric to complex again is difficult.

Screenshot from Terra Nil, a simulation of ecological restoration, from an isometric point of view.  It's early in the script, so the soil is mostly dark brown.  A few pieces of land and a bit of the river have been restored.

Image: Free Lives/Devolver Digital

It’s hard to draw a line between satisfying complexity and complex complexity. Typically, heavyweight simulators tend to feel a bit more open-ended — even if they have scripted objectives — because the buildings you place interact with each other in real time or sequence. to form automation. IN Land of Nil, it is stiffer, more certain, waiting for you to proceed with your plan. The emphasis is less on interlocking structures and more on building location and order of operation. There are many ways you can redraw the landscape you’re given, but you always build on what you’ve already created. Where you can expect a city builder to unfold and expand the amount of creative expression you give as the game progresses, Land of Nil provides a table of shrinking possibilities. What you can put at the end of the game depends entirely on what you’ve done on the map. You may run out of space to create certain biomes or place the tramway you need. You can back yourself into corners without even realizing it.

This is not the end of the world. After beating a scenario, you’re given the option to replay the biome as many times as you like — and thanks to procedural generation, these maps will always have some differences. During these replays, you can be extremely intentional, or you can set the game to the “gardener” setting for a truly atmospheric experience. Personally, I’d love to play it in this chill mode and just stuff my biomes with as many animals as possible.

I’m also open to the idea that the stereotypes I have about the genre — and the way in which games that are restive or visually lush are labeled “cozy” — negatively affect to my perception. Just to be clear, I like “cozy” games. But I also think that some people view these games disparagingly, assuming that fun and comfort can’t be taken for granted as heavier themes — or that the gameplay in these games is simple. simpler. I try to combat the assumptions surrounding this label by looking for games that have something in it interesting to talk about healing, while taking risks with the game mechanics used to realize that vision. i just think Land of Nil stuck somewhere between atmospheric and complex, with no strong ramp for its tough curve.

When I play, I keep thinking, Let me love you, because I built a lot of poles and poles just to complete a scenario. I played the demo over and over again when it was first released last year, very excited about what was to come. Even if some gameplay feels unnecessarily rigid, I have great respect for the way this game emphasizes environmental management, especially in a genre that tends to focus on the exact opposite. again. Despite the hurdles, that sense of surprise was enough to take me back to the game’s world.

Land of Nil will be released on March 28 on Android, iOS and Windows PC. The game has been evaluated on PC using a pre-release download code provided by Devolver Digital. Vox Media has an affiliate partnership. These do not affect editorial content, although Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased through affiliate links. You can find Additional information on Polygon’s ethics policy can be found here.

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