Management sims have turned me into a villain. If playing a simulation game is like playing god, then I’m definitely a wrathful one. In factory, I remind myself that “the factory must grow” as I battle hordes of bugs that, understandably, attack my base as pollution saturates their settlements. In FrostpunkI force workers to endure 18-hour shifts and sawdust-porridge meals while living in a makeshift slum.
Terra Zero is a balm for this kind of aggressive gameplay. In this “reverse city builder,” as developer Free Lives described it on the game’s Steam page, you’ll rewild parched and arid land across four major biomes in a series of four scenarios. It’s a game for this era of climate anxiety, where we are have passed the climate “point of no return”. Healing landscapes in Earth’s biomes is the ultimate comfort fantasy – especially amidst a sea of games based on destruction and domination – where reversing the toll of habitat destruction comes at the click of a mouse. But the game also has an identity crisis, with these meditative tile-placement mechanics rubbing against the complexity of the late-game systems.
Terra ZeroThe themes of rebirth and rebuilding are beautifully translated by the beautiful visuals and an ASMR-esque soundscape full of clicks, sounds of rain and wind gently rippling through the grass. It’s viscerally satisfying, almost dreamlike work, slowly reviving dead, fresh-looking land with lush pine, bamboo or mangrove forests. You’ll revitalize oceans with coral reefs and kelp thickets where sea turtles can thrive. You rebuild ice caps and make a home for virtual penguins, as they are threatened in real life.
Early gameplay is purely atmospheric, along the lines of tile-placement games Dorfromantik. You start by placing windmills – and later more advanced forms of electricity generators – followed by a building that turns parched soil into dirt, then a building that lays a lawn over that arable land. This phase of recovery is like a game Tetris, in which you try to restore as much gridded surface as possible. The isometric style scenario maps are procedurally generated and fairly modest in size. Placing the card back into the wild will earn you points, depicted as leaves in the UI, which you can spend on additional structures. The only real strategy is to make sure you don’t spend these points before you can put down a building that will earn you more points.
In the next recovery phase, you begin to diversify these ecosystems by placing structures that can spawn forests or pastures into the surrounding land – provided it meets the ecosystem requirements on that particular tile. For example, did you place grassland on a tile, is it adjacent to an ocean or river, or did you do controlled burning to seed a forest? In later scenarios, this may include global requirements such as humidity level or altitude.
This is where it gets complicated: after the first scenario, the game doesn’t clearly explain the order of operations, or how these particular tools stack together, and only lets you undo the most recent building you’ve placed. You could wait to place a pasture in the tundra after doing a controlled burn, for example, not realizing that you should have done it in the opposite order. At this point, the scenario is lost and you must reboot. This is partly how simulators are: you mess things up and you start over. But other sims are more likely to throw red flags when things go haywire, pointing out options to dig yourself out. In Terra Zero, you discover you messed up, and that’s pretty much it. Plus, there’s also a pretty steep complexity jump between scenarios two and three, so these confusing mechanics add another layer of shock to the sudden failures.
The final phase of recovery – the cleanup phase – is also complicated, although I respect the political implications of this step. It suggests that the work of human intervention in the environment should conclude with the removal of evidence of industrial presence. The animation and sound design in this section are also great: when a building is deconstructed, it explodes into the ether, giving a nice crunchy sound. But the actual mechanic behind it is a huge pain, forcing you to create buildings accessible by river or aerial tram stops – which can only be built on rocks.
Suddenly, the increasingly deindustrialized landscape becomes filled with rails and man-made rivers, as you perform scummy reverse engineering to try and remove the buildings you’ve placed, clogging up the landscape once again. You can’t beat a scenario until all buildings are gone. I’d like to get into the idea that rewilding – and removing your footprint – requires apparently complex machinery, but the jump from atmospheric to complicated is once again grating.
It’s hard to draw that line between satisfying complexity and complex complexity. Typically heavy simulators tend to feel a bit more open – even if they have scenario objectives – because the buildings you place interact with each other in real time or form automation. In Terra Zero, it feels stiffer, more set in stone, waiting for you to follow through with your plan. The emphasis is less on interlocking structures and more on the placement of buildings and the order of works. There are many ways you can redecorate the scenery you get, but you always build on what you’ve already created. Where you would expect a city builder to open up and broaden the amount of creative expression you get as the game progresses, Terra Zero offers an ever-shrinking palette of possibilities. What you can put in the late game depends entirely on what you’ve already done with the map. You may run out of space to create certain biomes or build the trams you need. You can pull yourself back into turns without realizing it.
This isn’t 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 variation. Within these replays you can be incredibly intentional, or you can set the game to “gardening” for a truly atmospheric experience. I personally enjoyed playing it in this chiller mode and just cramming my biomes with as many animals as possible.
I’m also open to the idea that the preconceived notions I have about the genre – and the way restorative or visually lush games are labeled “cozy” – negatively influence my perception. To be clear, I like “fun” games. But I also think that some people view these games pejoratively, assuming that joy and comfort can’t be taken as seriously as heavier subjects – or that the gameplay in these games is straightforward. I try to resist the assumptions surrounding this label by looking for games that have something interesting to say about healing, while taking risks with the game mechanics used to enact that vision. I just think so Terra Zero sits somewhere between atmospheric and complex, without a strong ramp due to its difficulty.
As I played I kept thinking: Let me Love You, because I built so many pylons and tramposts to complete a scenario. I played the demo over and over when it was first released last year, excited for what was to come. Even though some of the gameplay feels unnecessarily rigid, I still have a lot of respect for the way this game emphasizes environmental stewardship, especially within a genre that tends to focus on the exact opposite. Despite the roadblocks, that sense of wonder is enough to bring me back to the world of the game.
Terra Zero will be released on March 28 on Android, iOS and Windows PC. The game was reviewed on PC using a pre-release download code from Devolver Digital. Vox Media has partnerships. 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 here.