Some games just don’t work in a portable format. Others, like Terraria, absolutely shine. The critically revered title released several years ago on PC, and I was a little concerned that it wouldn’t make a top-quality transition to the PlayStation Vita. However, after many hours sitting on my sofa, entranced by the new portable iteration of Re-Logic’s immensely imaginative, highly addicting adventure, my fears have been laid to rest. I love it when that happens. It’s vastly preferable to having lofty expectations and ending up with a disappointing product; that just drains the life out of you.
The graphics are funny. They just are. As you probably surmised by surveying the screenshots, Terraria isn’t about photorealistic visuals, authentically crafted environments, or intricate character creation and animation. The developers took a Minecraft approach to the game: The graphics are almost irrelevant. They might pluck the nostalgia strings but otherwise, this 8-bit-like presentation is simply a canvas on which you project your imagination and creativity. There’s something oddly alluring about such an old-fashioned palette; possibly, due to the lack of anything even remotely realistic, we rely upon our imagination to fill in the blanks.
The audio is in much the same boat, as we’re not treated to a series of popular licensed music or a string of Hollywood-level voice performers. Nope, we’re back in the good ol’ days when the effects were comical; when the sound emanating from your bedroom late at night could best be characterized as a series of electronic blips and bleeps. Still, there’s an extra layer of polish here. There’s a refinement we never had a quarter-century ago, and the soundtrack is really quite accomplished. It’s like a really cool old-school mold fitted with some modern spices. It’s purposely outdated but we sense a great deal of technical effort lurking just beneath the surface. That much is clear.
The game challenges you from start to finish, but it challenges you in a way that compels you to move forward. It’s not a forbidding, annoying challenge that makes you lose interest; it’s a form of difficulty that’s surprisingly complex. It fills you with the desire to check things out; you say to yourself, “gee, I wonder what’s over there,” all the while knowing that “what’s over there” could be imminent death. It’s the classic risk vs. reward scenario. It keeps you enthralled with only one word: Possibilities. The more you explore, the more you find and the more you learn. Secrets abound and from the instant your adventure starts, you want to discover all of ‘em.
Although it looks exactly the opposite of something like The Elder Scrolls, Terraria actually utilizes similar principles, in that you can go anywhere right from the get-go. Of course, this means you might accidentally encounter a much, much stronger foe, so you have to be careful. That’s part of the thrill of true exploration, though, right? Besides, along with deadly dangers, there’s also the prospect of great riches via well-hidden treasure. If you’re determined yet cautious, if you can walk the fine line between courage and rashness, you will be rewarded. In short, it’s the type of game where you look at the clock and realize with a shock that you’ve been playing for nearly three hours (or longer).
First and foremost when it comes to control, it’s a give-and-take situation. On the one hand, it’s a little more difficult to dig with exact precision; instead of the standard mouse, you’re using the analog stick. You can opt for Manual or Smart control but neither option gives you full, 100% accurate control. Furthermore, as the cursor is controlled both by the right analog and the rear touchpad (with no way to change it), you often have to be very careful when holding the Vita. There were too many times when I dug incorrectly just because my finger brushed the back of the system. As you might expect, there are some instances where an original PC game wouldn’t be perfect on a handheld device.
However, looking at it from a positive perspective, it’s a lot easier (for me, anyway) to jump around with the analog stick as opposed to keyboard keys. Jumping, grappling, maneuvering quickly and efficiently; it’s all better with the Vita’s accessible, responsive sticks. This means that exploration is, overall, a little easier with the portable version, despite the aforementioned awkwardness when digging. Once you’ve figured out a good way to hold the unit, you’ll immerse yourself in a wonderfully inventive, always engaging world that is the epitome of interactive contrast: It looks like a throwback to simpler times but you have to approach this game with an RPG mentality.
You need shelter and equipment. You need to build your own house, and then you need doors, chairs and other standard life necessities. Only then can you branch out and utilize the myriad of tools to create more entertaining equipment, such as effective weapons. You must harvest the correct materials and then craft them into something useful; i.e., melt silver nuggets into bars and then pound those into a suit of armor. The more exotic the item you wish to create, the harder you’ll have to work. Yes, it’s shades of Minecraft everywhere you turn but in truth, Terraria moves at a faster pace and in my estimation, is even more dynamic and diverse.
Digging is a big part of the experience, as you might expect. There’s also a distinct puzzle-solving component that makes the game even more challenging and appealing. How do you get past this rocky obstruction to dig deeper? How far can I go before my oxygen gives out? There are multiple natural elements with which to contend, including lava and water; such elements can either help or hinder…or kill. Each new discovery is invigorating and intriguing, as you must always juggle survival, treasure hunting, and general exploration. The best part? This is hardly where the adventure ends. There are unbelievably imaginative bosses to find and fight, many of which can only be encountered with the help of NPCs.
The combat is a really impressive highlight, because it’s not merely about timing and the strength of your weapon. Position plays a crucial role as well, and you will find that some foes are more of a roadblock than anything else. Bosses take the cake, but it’s even more fun to get stronger; there’s magic to earn and use to your advantage, and some of the more powerful items are really cool. The more powerful you become, the more you can test your mettle against some of the game’s toughest enemies. It’s downright amazing how much gameplay variety the developers jammed into this game, which on the surface appears to be something painfully simple. Oh, but it’s not. It’s deliciously loaded.
Terraria is a micromanager’s dream come true. It’s the perfect representation of addictive, in-depth gaming with a simplified visage. There’s a boatload of content and from the first moment you stumble upon a glorious treasure trove, you’re determined to do it all. You want to face down the biggest baddest foes, you want to craft the best stuff imaginable, you want to explore to the very center of the earth. While there’s a minor control issue and a decidedly stiff challenge (this really isn’t for the faint of heart), this game is finely created, jam-packed with everything an ardent explorer desires, and all in all, a joy to play. Lastly, don’t forget the Vita iteration includes all the updates to the PC version!
The Good: Fantastic amount of content and depth. Wicked challenging, dynamic boss encounters. A massive, addictive world. Hunting for resources and crafting new items never gets old. Excellent pacing. Platforming aspects are better on Vita.
The Bad: One irritating control issue involving the digging mechanic. Can feel prohibitively difficult at times.
The Ugly: “Yeah, I knew shouldn’t have gone that way.”
1/14/2014 Ben Dutka