'Terraria' Lets Players Spelunk Their Way to Riches

It's been a harrowing week. I almost had to review a Call of Juarez game.

I've stayed away from Ubisoft's Wild West wannabe series as a matter of principle (the newest is apparently the worst, having moved into the present day without having the balls to pull a Beastmaster 2), but it was really down to the wire there. The mid-August gaming doldrums are in full effect; nothing whatsoever is happening for the next few weeks, and I'm in no mood to make hating on Xbox Live's Summer of Arcade into a yearly thing.

But then I saw it: Re-Logic's indie darling Terraria on sale through Valve's Steam download service for five bucks. Thank. God.

Terraria is one of those games that has been a fairly consistent blip on my radar, making it a priority over so-called AAA titles. The months since its May release have been kind, with consistently high praise coming in from those corners that keep an eye on the indie gaming scene, but if anything, its accolades are almost off-putting. The last time people in the know on the Internet told me something was going to be this awesome, I ended up watching Snakes on a Plane.

But this time I lucked out. Being a less painful game to review than Call of Juarez's wince-inducing Kane & Lynch turn is one thing, but Terraria actually goes the extra mile and lives up to its considerable underground hype.

Imagine the offspring of an NES-era Final Fantasy and Dig Dug and you've got a very basic idea of what's going on with Terraria. Put another way, it's a sidescrolling, action-centric version of first-person retro indie world-builder Minecraft.

And similarly to Minecraft, world-building is very much the name of the game here. Terraria is built on a very simple engine (the initial download was something like 16 megabytes) that apparently comprises two major functions: building huge, cavernous levels, and remembering how all the building blocks involved interact.

Terraria is like Scribblenauts before the Scribblenauts guy realized that he was in the Matrix and started creating robotic tyrannosauruses with his mind. Given enough time, energy, and resources, you can build just about anything—but you're going to have to take the long way to do it.

Terraria believes in good old-fashioned elbow grease gaming, an ethos which fits well with an 8-bit graphical style that hearkens back to the days when games put hair on your chest. New players are given a couple of tools, the vaguest of hints how to use them, and a vast expanse of unspoiled wilderness in which to do... something.

What that something is isn't really defined. Terraria nominally has an event structure—something about NPC-collecting and house-building—but no real plot to speak of, unless you count the timeless tale of a boy and his pickaxe.

By contrast, the how behind that nonexistent what is well-defined indeed. Terraria is the kind of sandbox game that sandbox games named themselves after without actually understanding what they were calling themselves. Bereft of plot, Terraria instead creates vast, procedurally generated environments rich with resources that can be exploited in a variety of ways.

Take your axe and go outside. Cut down a tree for wood. Get enough wood, and you can build a workbench. Take some more wood to your workbench along with some freshly-quarried stone and build a furnace. Use the furnace to smelt the ore you found while mining, and you've got the raw materials for a rudimentary arsenal (once you build an anvil, of course), with enough left over to build a small village.

See where I'm going with this? Use your tools to get the materials to build better tools so that you can survive long enough to get to the really rare materials and build the best tools. Terraria is what would happen if someone plopped a Tolkien dwarf in 1987 and told him to make Super Mario Bros.

Oh, and don't forget the zombies. Among Terraria's nods to Minecraft is its day/night cycle and the undead hordes that come with it. It gives Terraria just a hair's breadth of suspense, since zombies can neither mine their way to the core of the Earth nor use the proceeds of said mining to build elaborate zombie-proof fortresses, but it serves as a way to break up a combat system that consists of finding ways to lure cave bats into lava flows once one-click swordplay becomes boring.

It occasionally skirts the shores of tedium (after all, much of the gameplay centers on the kind of work that killed John Henry), but all in all, Terraria is easily a steal at twice the price I found. If you can run it (and you can), get it.