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Review - Terraria (PC, 2011)

Exploration and freedom of play at its finest

Let’s get this out of the way right off the bat - Terraria is not “Minecraft in 2-D.” You can’t read much about this game without that phrase coming up, but it doesn’t quite fit.  This game definitely shares some significant similarities with its successful older brother (such as mining and crafting, for example), but the two are ultimately different animals.  This game took the handful of things from Minecraft I found appealing (open, randomly generated world and creative exploration), but made it into much more of a game, rather than a creation tool. Sure, you can spend months building apartment buildings and furnishing them with tasteful lighting and stylish decor, but you can also raid dungeons filled with hundreds of enemies and summon giant boss monsters from the pits of hell.

The eighty or so hours I put into Terraria is far and away the most time I’ve ever put into a game.  And I can’t remember the last time a game sucked me in as much as this.  There is an almost endless amount of things to do and find, and for a fan of exploration as a gameplay mechanic, it is a dream come true. 

Nearly everything I read before playing said that this is the type of game where it’s good to have an FAQ handy, because there are some very complex rules that the game doesn’t explain particularly well.  When you start, after choosing the size of your world and some rudimentary character customization, you’re dropped in the middle of a wooded area with no instructions.  There is a “Guide” NPC close by who will give you some hints, but they’re vague and not always helpful.  Without an FAQ, there’s no way to know that you have to chop down trees to get wood, which will allow you build a workbench which will allow you to build wood walls, which will allow you to build a small house, which will keep out the zombies and flying eye demons that populate the night.  Personally, I kept the FAQ for the whole game, because while I love discovery in terms of the world, I much prefer to know what I can and can’t make and what it will take.

Once you’ve got your initial shelter sorted out, you’re let off the leash completely. What you do is up to you.  If you choose to wander around on the surface of your world, you’ll discover a number of different “biomes” - jungle, desert, forest, ocean and “the corruption,” a vile place filled with death and monsters and poisonous foliage which can “infect” surrounding areas.  Each of these areas has their own enemies, their own plant life, and their own items that can be found there.  The variety that exists just on the surface, without digging even a single inch into the ground, is mind-blowing.  

The best stuff, though, lies underground.  You start with a pickaxe (and you can craft several more later) that allows you to dig into the ground and mine the various ores that can be found there.  As you dig, you’ll find veins of iron or silver ore (among others), which you can mine and later craft into new weapons, armor and other items.  To me, this underground exploration is the most engaging part of the game.  Because not only will you find pockets of minerals, you will also stumble upon vast caverns, underground lakes and even abandoned houses.  Keep going and you’ll find groves of luminescent mushrooms and finally bottomless pits of lava.  Each new discovery is absolutely thrilling, made even more so by the knowledge that there is more to find, and that this is all happening in a world of my own creation, that is mine alone.

Speaking of creation, there is no shortage of opportunities for that, if you’re a creative person.  A buddy of mine who plays this game loves the creation aspect and has painstakingly crafted a pair of apartment buildings for his NPCs, complete with curtains, bookshelves, windows, lighting (on switches no less), and several different colored building materials.  For creative people, this stuff adds a whole other layer to the game.  You can create almost anything you want, including simple machines, and if you want, you can ignore all of the more “gamey” portions of Terraria and focus purely on this, which would make for a more Minecraft-like experience.  I, however, am not a creative person.  I’m about as creative as an…um…see, I’m not even creative enough to finish this simile.  For people like me, the game has tons of content to satisfy the urge for more meaty, traditional gameplay.

First, there are the zombies and demons I mentioned before that come out at night.  In the beginning, you dispatch them with your copper sword, but as the game goes on, you can craft and find more weapons including throwing stars, laser guns, magic missiles, maces, and even lightsabers.  In additional to the nightly terrors, every once in a while, you will experience a “blood moon,” where enemies will show up in hordes and are now strong enough to break down the doors to your structures, killing your NPCs unless you can defend them.  There are other random events as well, such as invasions by goblin armies and the giant Eye of Cthulu boss.  Sometimes meteors even strike the surface world, destroying everything in their path but leaving behind valuable ores.  Later in the game when you’re stronger, you’ll get the ability to summon these events yourself.  Where they were once terrifying, you eventually summon them on purpose to farm items and money.

There are still more events that set this game apart from its more creation-minded brethren. There is a dungeon in each world, guarded by a huge and powerful boss.  Once you defeat it, you can access the dungeon which is filled with tons of great treasure, but also lots of powerful new enemies.  You can also find trapped NPCs in the dungeon that you can rescue and induce to live with you on the surface and sell you items.  There are additional bosses that only show up in certain times and places and several other one-shot events. The number of enemies, weapons and places is staggering, and I won’t be able to cover them all here.  The point is that this game is much more than just mining rocks so you can build stuff.  In many ways, Terraria has more in common with roguelikes and even metroidvanias than it does with creation tools like Minecraft.

The game is presented as a 2-D sidescroller with painted backgrounds and 16-bit sprites and tiles.  16-bit sprite art is one of my very favorite art styles for games, and it works great here.  The artist was able to get tons of expression and charm out of these little sprites, and there’s a lot of subtle humor throughout.  From the lush fluorescent green of the jungles to the murky greys of the caverns to the searing red of the underworld, there is tons of variety and always something interesting to look at. Considering the budget of the game, the small indie development team, and the sheer amount of content, this is an impressive feat.  The music is less impressive (and far less varied), but it doesn’t get in the way much.

Talking about a game with this much content, there’s no way I can get to it all (I didn’t even mention the boss you can defeat that enables “hard mode” - which adds all new biomes, enemies, ores and more, effectively restarting the game dozens of hours in.)  But this is an amazingly accomplished indie game that provides more challenge, exploration and freedom for $10 than most AAA games can manage for $60.  There are so many different play styles accommodated and different types of value each player can extract from the game, I’m tempted to say that Terraria is a game everybody will enjoy.  That may not be strictly true, but it’s a game I think anyone can appreciate, at the very least, whether it’s your cup of tea or not.  It’s been a long time since I’ve felt as much part of a gameworld as this, and Terraria easily takes its place alongside my favorite games of the year.