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EGM Review:

Posted on April 12, 2013 AT 08:00am

16-bit Underground

I am not a PC gamer. I grew up with various models of Apple machines, so computer games weren’t something I typically gave much thought to outside of the rare exception here and there. And yet, even while I still do a majority of my gaming on the consoles and handhelds from Nintendo, Sony, and Microsoft, even I can get swept up in a Steam sale or two.

That’s what happened with Terraria. At some point—I’m no longer exactly sure when—I bought Terraria via one of Valve’s crazy digital fire sales. I didn’t even have any way to play it at that point, as the partition on my iMac that had once allowed me to boot into Windows XP every now and then had long been deleted to regain some much-needed space. No, I was buying Terraria because I wanted to play it someday—aka, the excuse for probably 90 percent of the purchases that happen every time such sales on Steam occur.

So, for me, having Re-Logic and 505 Games bring Terraria to consoles was both a blessing and a point of shame. It meant that I’d finally get around to playing the game—but also that I could’ve taken that money I spent, lit it on fire, and ended up in pretty much the exact same place.

I initially became interested in Terraria for the same reason I’m sure many others did: It looked like a 2D Minecraft. There’s always the danger of forcing games into the shadows of other titles, but the reality of the situation is that—for many of us—that’s exactly what Terraria was.

That didn’t change in my early goings with the game. Everything I did, or saw, I compared to the work of Notch and company. Oh, my items don’t break—that’s different. Hmm, the world doesn’t seem as vertically tall as it does in Minecraft. Ahh, so torches are made with sticks and gel, instead of with sticks and coal. Exploration, crafting, discovery, adventuring—my brain compared whatever I did here with that other game, and there were plenty of ways in which I just wasn’t feeling as satisfied with what Terraria had to offer. That’s how we humans work, however: We compare what we don’t know to the closest thing that we do. We then have to make the next step and start appreciating a game—or anything, really—for what it is, not how it compares to something else.

Once I got past that initial need to compare everything in the game to Minecraft, I started to appreciate Terraria much more. A line was used in describing the game at a preview event I attended a short while back, and I’m going to shamelessly reuse it here: Minecraft is a crafting game with action elements, and Terraria is an action game with crafting elements. That’s one of the first important lessons you’ll learn, and it’s a major step if you’re coming in with the baggage of expectations due to experience with other games. Yes, you can cut down trees, collect wood, make a crafting table, break apart rocks, form blocks, build a house, and continue down that long and winding path to crafting your own digital nirvana. All of those actions support the major crux of what you’ll be doing in Terraria, however—they’re not the sole focus.

That fact—that Terraria places a huge importance on action—is one of the things that would end up winning me over in the end. I love Minecraft, and I always will, but there’s also a fantastically interesting experience to be had when you’re playing a 2D side-scrolling adventure that just happens to also include those elements of terraforming. I can’t say that Terraria’s action stands up to what you’ll find in classics such as Super Metroid or Castlevania, but you’ll still have a great time chopping through everything from the slimes that welcome you to the game to the monstrosities you’ll unearth as you dig deeper into the ground.

That’s where that mixture of action and exploration really comes into play, and it’s what makes some of the game’s best moments. If Minecraft didn’t completely sell me on the fact that randomly generated worlds can offer up—in their own way—just as much wonderment and beauty of design as pre-created worlds, Terraria certainly helped convince me. Even when simply exploring the surface of my console-crafted world, there was this anxiousness at not knowing what would be awaiting me just a little farther ahead, or where that dark cave entrance might lead. That’s not to say that I’d want to just toss out the idea of level designers working hard to create fun-yet-challenging works with that perfect balance in mind, but I’m glad that games like Terraria exist as a compelling alternative to the norm.

There is a method to the madness, of course, and that becomes clear the further you get into the game. I’m hesitant to say much about what you’ll find in Terraria, because I want you to experience it the way I did; I want you to not know what you’re going to find until you find it. For those of you coming from the PC side, you’ll already have a pretty good sense for what to expect. Not completely, however, as this console version includes minor tweaks as well as entirely new content.

Even if I haven’t played the PC version of Terraria, now that I’m really comfortable with what it is and how it plays, I feel like a controller is definitely the tool I want for interacting with the game. And yet, control never feels totally right. The needs of construction and demolition require an onscreen cursor of some sort, and even though the game allows two movement options for that cursor via the right analog stick—either a closer-to-your-character aiming method or a “direct placement” positioning method—I was still reminded at times that I was playing a game that was originally meant for a mouse and keyboard. The problem is, I’m not exactly sure what Re-Logic could’ve done to make Terraria get over this hiccup without completely redesigning how the game plays, and to be fair, it’s more of an annoyance than something that seriously impacts enjoyment.

The bigger issue is one where I have to return to the unfortunate-yet-inevitable comparisons to Minecraft: accessibility. In my first moments with Minecraft, I really had no idea what to do; I was on an island, there were a smattering of trees, some hills, a few pigs running around, and that was it. I had but one action—punch—and punching things revealed materials. Everything that was offered up to me was exceptionally simple, and my knowledge of the game’s world could grow with my experience in it. It was like being given a starter set of LEGO blocks, and then once I grew bored of them, all of a sudden I’d open a package containing new pieces that I never could previously have imagined incorporating.

There’s a danger to just expecting that players will be able to figure things out, but there’s also a huge amount of excitement to not being spoonfed information on where to go or what to do next. Terraria follows a similar pattern, but it also expects you to not only understand too much about what it offers, but also too much about Minecraft. When I started up Terraria, I already had a huge assortment of items, menu after menu of grayed-out options, and obscure explanations for what I’d need to do in order to survive what would be waiting for me. Even as somebody who is hugely experienced with the concept of such games, I was somewhat lost—I can only imagine the utter confusion some players may feel if they don’t come in with a preestablished understanding of the concepts presented. Playing Terraria’s tutorial definitely helps, but I think Re-Logic could have done better at both creating natural methods for introducing gameplay elements to players and crafting a menu system that wouldn’t be so utterly intimidating from the start.

Terraria won’t be for everyone—and if you’re someone who doesn’t enjoy games that require their players to put in some real mental effort, then it definitely won’t be for you. For those of us who love that sense of adventure and excitement that the digital unknown can provide, however, Terraria certainly has a lot of excitement ready and waiting to be dug up. Or, you can find someone who does like such things—and experience the game while tagging along in one of the included multiplayer options.

Developer: Re-Logic • Publisher: 505 Games • ESRB: T – Teen • Release Date: 03.27.2013

As a game, I think Terraria shares a lot of personality traits with the worlds it randomly generates. Sometimes they aren’t pretty, sometimes they’re rough, and sometimes they aren’t the friendliest places to be, but once you dig in your heels and dig under the surface of what you’re given, there’s a whole world of wonderment just waiting for you to explore.

The Good Side-scrolling action excitement mixed in with vast sandbox construction options
The Bad Control isn’t perfect, and the game itself has a high learning curve at times
The Ugly The structures you’ll build during your first 10 or so hours
Terraria is available on PSN, XBLA, and PC. Primary version reviewed was for XBLA.
Eric L. Patterson, Executive Editor
Eric L. Patterson got started via self-publishing game-related fanzines in junior high, and now has one goal in life: making sure EGM has as much coverage of niche Japanese games as can realistically be crammed in. Eric’s also active in the gaming community on a personal level, being an outspoken voice on topics such as equality in gaming and consumer rights. Stalk Eric on Twitter: @Eric_EGM. Meet the rest of the crew.

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