There is a simple, undeniable pleasure to be found in video game crafting. Add this purple glowy thing to that great big stone thing and you’ll get a great big purple stone glowy thing. Kill fifty men and you’ll unlock a new hat. It’s a time-honoured method that developers are fond of using to lengthen their game: we are curious beasts by nature, and if you promise a reward for jumping through hoops, we’ll do it in a shot.
Terraria is based almost entirely around this concept. Chop down trees to get wood, build a workbench, then a pick, then mine stone and copper and so on and so on. The sheer amount of materials to gather and buildings and items to craft is impressive, and there’s a constant incentive to find new materials – what could be made out of those amethysts found in the underground chamber? Surely there’s something valuable to craft with these gold nuggets? The game is constantly tickling the obsessive-compulsive urge to collect and upgrade. There are more practical concerns too. Terraria has a more significant focus on combat than similar sandbox games, so to survive some of the bigger threats better armour and weapons are a necessity.
Once you’ve established a reasonably competent shelter, you’ll begin to attract fellow survivors. You start with a Guide, whose sole purpose is to provide random and largely useless snippets of advice. As you start to build more accomplished structures, however, other survivors with more useful skills will begin to appear. Merchants, gunsmiths, blacksmiths, they’ll all provide vital skills and services to your fledgling settlement.
There’s an almost obsessive delight to be found in mining your way down into the depths of the earth, fully stocked with torches and weapons to defend yourself against whatever evils you might find down there. If you’re lucky you’ll delve deep enough to find some of the game’s rare resources. Large stretches of time are spent simply exploring seemingly barren caves, until you light up a torch and see that tantalising glint of precious metal. And then, inevitably, a giant underground worm flicks you off the edge of a crevasse into a giant underground lake and you drown. Dangers are everywhere. On lower difficulties punishments for dying tend to be fairly lenient – you’ll lose some of your items and currency. On the unlockable hard difficulty death can effectively mean game over, which adds an extra frisson of paranoia to exploration that I would have actually welcomed from the start.
While the resource gathering and building are the main draws, Terraria also offers a variety of different enemies to battle. Like its more famous relative Minecraft, the real dangers pop up at night. Hordes of zombies and flying demon eyes will make short work of you if you step outside past dark. It’s best to settle into a rhythm – daytime is for building your shelter, exploring the mountains and forests of your little world and planning your defences. Night is when you’ll go foraging underground for supplies. Of course, if you’re patient and cowardly enough you could avoid the dangerous outside world altogether, and instead build a sprawling underground village.
Smart planning is the best way to avoid getting stomped on by one of Terraria‘s more deadly threats. Even the best laid fortifications in the game will be difficult to defend against swarms of destructive goblins or one of several nasty boss enemies that periodically appear. It’s not just weapons and armour you’ll have to rely on to defend yourself; intelligent construction will lead your enemies into pits or choke-points where they can be more safely dispatched. It’s not easy to get to grips with, and Terraria can be quite frustrating when your prized base is infiltrated and your citizens killed. Often that’s the result of poor planning, though, and after a couple of disasters you should have some idea of how best to keep your enemies at bay.
There’s a huge amount to see, collect and fight. After exploring the forests and mountains of your world, you might find yourself fighting scorpions in the desert, hacking your way through a jungle or navigating the lava pits of the deep earth, and there’s always something new to occupy you. The toughest enemies will drop key items needed for high level weapons and armour sets, and there are other useful trinkets to be found or crafted out in the wilds. It’s very easy to lose yourself in this colourful 16-bit world.
As charming as Terraria is, and as gratifying as it is to see it finally pop up on Xbox Arcade, the inherent imprecision of console controllers does make building a little more of a hassle than I’d like. Don’t get me wrong, developers Re-Logic have done a solid job porting the game, and it’s perfectly functional, but your grander construction projects are a little trickier to put together without the accuracy of a mouse and keyboard. Likewise managing your inventory, which can get very full very quickly, becomes a chore. You have a toolbar of around ten equipped items, which can all be swapped out for other placeable materials, weapons or items, but you regularly find yourself sifting through your bag of goodies for the right item. It’s not a deal-breaker, but given the choice between versions the PC is the one to go for.
It may not be the best possible way to play Terraria, but taken on its own merits the Xbox version is still a triumph. If you haven’t yet tried the game, pick it up. For an excellent price and a 35mb download you’ll get a lovingly crafted experience that will keep you up obsessively creating, exploring and moulding your own little world until the small hours of the morning. Just remember to pack a few torches if you’re going potholing, and try to avoid the tunnelling death-worms.