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Terraria [Review] – We still dig it

13 Mar 2012  by   Paul Younger
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It’s ok, we know Terraria has been out for ages. You might remember the ‘Evening With’ piece Tim and I constructed together last June, where we delved into the game’s multiplayer mode and shot a few basic videos. If you don’t, here it is to read; although try not to read it too closely, because it makes a number of points I’m going to repeat in this review.

So why write-up a review now, when the game has been out for several months? Well, Terraria is about to get a boxed, retail release, and the development team has recently announced that there won’t be any more updates to the title. In effect, the game is now ‘finished’ (in the sense of being complete, rather than dead), which provides a useful opportunity to offer a critique without having to worry that a succession of updates will make the review look silly in about a week. This way, I can make the review look silly all on my own.

Terraria is a game of mining (yes, like Minecraft), exploration (ok, yes, like Minecraft) and building (look, just shut up about Minecraft). It’s also in 2D and trends further towards the gamey end of the sandbox spectrum than that game beginning with M. There are bosses to fight, loads of items to craft (leave it) and, while there’s no structured ‘levelling up’ in the sense of spending points on attributes, your character can dramatically improve his equipment and pick up brand new abilities.

Life in Terraria begins on the surface of a randomly generated world (small, medium or large), where your little avatar can wander around, chat to the semi-useful ‘Guide’ who dispenses hints about the game and marvel at the cute white bunnies. You need to get to work pretty sharpish though, otherwise you’ll be at the mercy of the non-cute wildlife that populates the realm. This means building some sort of lodging to cower in, which in turn requires you to chop down some trees.
You see, at night zombies and other beasties (werewolves and demented floating eyes to name a couple) will come out and try to strip the flesh from your bones. As you can imagine, it’s a good idea to have somewhere to hide constructed by that point. Even if it’s just a hole in the ground with some wood over it.

As you progress in the game, you’ll be able to stock up your abode with all manner of useful furnishings (anvils, sawmills, looms and the like) for the further creation of armour and weaponry. You’ll also gain creative access to a number of vanity pieces with which to decorate your home (assuming you’ve expanded it beyond a tiny shack at that point). The materials for most of the above are obtained by delving into Terraria’s true depths; the … well … depths.

Using your trusty pickaxe, it’s possible to break the earth beneath you and go hunting for various ores and materials. As you venture deeper underground, more monsters and freakish horrors will assail you (which is where a decent weapon and some armour comes in handy). Chip away for long enough and you’ll pass through multiple geological strata and emerge in a hellish underworld.

The richness of Terraria’s world is twofold. First (and I would argue foremost) is the sense of exploration and adventure; the fun of encountering a new item, or dragging a fresh haul of ore from the jaws of the underworld. It’s the satisfaction of attracting new NPCs to your surface buildings and the sense of accomplishment at seeing off one of the Castlevania-esque boss monsters. In single player this will appeal to those who crave genuine self-sufficiency, but who can’t quite bring themselves to trade a virtual wooden hut for a real outpost in the mountains. Organise a multiplayer match (which, happily, is slightly easier than it was at release) and the game flips to the spirit of co-operation; working together to overcome your problems and sharing resources with your fellow adventurers.

Secondary to this, but still important, is the freedom to construct and build insane creations. Many Terraria players have used the world as their demented canvas, fashioning works of art from the 2D landscape over many, many moons. This goes way beyond the construction of a nifty looking lodging and into the area of dedicated (one might say obsessive) sculpture. Just have a look at some of the videos posted on this thread to see what I mean.

Beyond the liberty to explore at your own pace, Terraria permits players to opt-in to their own mortality and encourages world-hopping. Characters are persistent, so if you find a generated world lacking in some way, you can simply whip up a new one and dive in. Upon creation of your avatar, you decide whether to play in soft, medium or hardcore mode (with the latter option ushering in perma-death, and the others costing you either coins or items when you die).

Even in ‘softcore’ mode, however, combat plays a sizeable role in the game. This brings up a couple of issues; mainly that the combat … well … isn’t especially great. A single click swings (or fires, or whatever) your weapon of choice, while monsters generally just try to bump into you or float around on set attack patterns. It’s basic, and it’s functional, but it’s not terribly engaging. For any ‘purist’ builders though, I’d imagine it’s infuriating. Without substantial modding of the game (which is sort of possible via a program called tconfig), your architectural wonders are always going to be interrupted by monsters trying to beat you up. It’s certainly possible to build great things, but you also have to be prepared to fight.

Early on, the game can seem utterly baffling. It’s a title very much of the internet age, relying on you to look up the best way to approach the first hour or so. There’s no tutorial whatsoever and the Guide character is not a substantial substitute. Even after multiple patches, the interface (particularly when building) is pretty clunky too. Progress can seem awfully slow, until you upgrade your pickaxe to hew through materials with any kind of speed.

All of those issues chip away at Terraria’s charm, but they don’t sufficiently undermine the structure as a whole. If you make it beyond your first hour or so, I can almost guarantee that the game has clicked with you and is about to consume several more days of your life. There are hundreds of different objects, several different environments and an entire menagerie of monsters to slay. It’s a title that will appeal to the adventurer, the explorer and the builder; not to mention those who appreciate a substantial amount of player freedom. If you happen to be all of those things, Terraria is a lightly tarnished treasure.

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