Digging for Monsters!
HIGH Finally getting some power tools.
LOW How many times is that boss going to push me off the map?
WTF The first thing that happens in the game? Exploding bunny!
There's an expectation that Minecraft must come up in discussions about Terraria, and it's not entirely unfair. In the most literal sense, Terraria is a game that's centered around mining and crafting, so comparisons are inevitable. Terraria has so many of its own ideas and mechanics to bring to the table, however, that it deserves to be judged on its own terms. With the acknowledgement that Terraria belongs to the same genre as Minecraft, let's consider that issue addressed and move on.
Terraria begins by plopping a user-generated avatar into the middle of a randomly-generated world full of resources they're able to mine and harvest in order to to build a wide array of structures and devices. At the outset the only other person in this world is a guide who acts as a one-man tutorial, carefully walking the player through the broad strokes of crafting and survival. As long as the player is willing to build some housing for them to live in and do some adventuring to track them down, soon there will be a veritable village of helpmates offering various useful items for sale at horribly inflated prices.
One of Terraria's greatest strengths is how comparatively small its land mass is when placed next to other crafting-based titles. Even the largest of the game world's three default sizes can be crossed in a matter of minutes, giving players a chance to see the environment rapidly changing from one biome type to the next. Getting bored with the jungle? The desert is only a couple of screens away!
While it isn't a huge part of gameplay, scarcity is an issue in these small areas—while it may be a huge number of blocks, there's actually a finite amount of randomly spawned ore inside the world, and it's possible to reduce a world to a hollow crust suspended magically over a sea of lava.
The game offers a way around this problem by allowing the player's persistent character to jump from world to world. Annoyed that all the trees on this planet have been chopped down? There are two options—either carefully replant fields of acorns, or simply generate a new planet and clear-cut it, then return with an inexhaustible supply of logs. A morally indefensible act, to be sure, but a convenient game mechanic nonetheless.
The game's 2D design is an interesting choice in a genre packed with 3D sandboxes. Not only do the pixel-art characters and baddies have a lot of style, presenting the world as a giant cross-section makes the very act of mining feel more satisfying. By giving players a sense of their surroundings, Terraria encourages them to forever dig just a little bit deeper or delve just a little further. There's always another vein of ore just a few seconds away—and once the gold has been collected, suddenly a mysterious cave full of jellyfish comes into sight.
The only flaw in the 2D design is the inability to pull the camera back. While some of the appeal lies in unlocking a crafting tree and slaying monsters, there's a natural drive players have for building something huge just so that they can marvel at its scope and celebrate their accomplishment. Terraria discourages this by not allowing players to take a step back and marvel at the size of the world. Since the screen can only ever be a few stories high, there's no reason to build anything epic in size. It's impossible to appreciate scope.
The game can also suffers when its random world generation algorithms go a bit off the rails. There are certain vitally important items that can't be crafted or bought—they must be found in one of the many chests that litter the gameworld. Finding these items (including ones that allow for skills as basic as swimming or teleporting back home) can be something of an ordeal to track down.
Even worse, the game has a bad habit of taking key items and lumping them all into a single area. At the bottom of the map is 'hell', a place built of lava, ash, and sinister buildings that are home to demonic forges necessary for crafting strong metals. Or at least they're supposed to be located there. I mapped out the entirety of the underworld and didn't find a single forge—for a little while I thought my progress through the game had been stymied, until I discovered a dozen of the things littering the floor of a single random cavern a hundred feet above the place they were supposed to spawn.
Also troublesome are the game's bosses. While there's no plot to speak of, certain parts of the game are locked away, and those areas and items can only be accessed by killing the game's bosses. This is standard game design and wouldn't be a problem except for the fact that the bosses are very difficult to find and hideously overpowered.
All of the game's bosses have to be summoned rather than discovered, and figuring out just how to accomplish that can get annoying fast. When the bosses finally arrive, it's completely obvious that they were designed with co-op in mind—they would be a fair match for a party of four fully-equipped fighters. The problem is that their difficulty level hasn't been scaled down for those playing solo. Some bosses can be exploited by summoning them next to a player respawn point, turning every fight into a frustrating and extended war of attrition. It's a viable way to play, but I can't help but think that if I have to grind through multiple deaths to kill a boss, maybe it's a design issue.
Terraria offers a fresh view on mining and crafting, and its colourful aesthetic helps to make its world a pleasure to travel through. The crafting tree is also deep enough to keep even experienced players discovering things for weeks on end. It's only when the game branches away from rewarding free-form exploration that the cracks start to show. With lesser focus on gearing up for giant battles and a framework for appreciating large-scale construction, Terraria could be an incredible piece of work. Right now it's just a satisfying entry in the mining genre, but still worth playing for anyone with an inclination towards excavation.
Disclosures: This game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the Xbox 360. Approximately 30 hours of play were devoted to single-player modes, and this isn't the kind of game that's 'completed'. Two hours of play were spent in multiplayer modes.
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game contains violence, blood, suggestive themes, use of alcohol. There's a lot of fighting in this game—huge numbers of zombies and skeletons will besiege the player, and they all generally explode when killed. Beyond that, though, it's fairly harmless. I played it extensively and didn't see any of the suggestiveness or alcohol mentioned in the ESRB warnings. There are a lot of power potions, though, so maybe it's subtext?
Deaf & Hard of Hearing: You'll be fine—there's no plot to the game, and all information is given through text. There are no vital audio cues.