To begin with, there's no getting around using the easy shorthand description of ‘it's like a 2D Minecraft'. In truth, this is accurate only to a point.
Where the basics of gameplay are concerned it's undeniably similar; after creating a simple 16-bit style character, you're transported into a randomly generated world. The only items in your inventory are an axe, a pickaxe and a sword, so naturally you begin chopping, mining and fighting off the rather benign enemy slimes as you go. The world follows a day/night cycle, and since night-time attracts more dangerous foes, you soon realise that you'll need some kind of rudimentary shelter to stay alive. Once that's built, the darkness has passed and the zombie hordes have retreated, you'll set out at dawn in search of adventure.
So far, so Minecraft. The very fact that Terraria only has two dimensions as opposed to Minecraft's three might lead you to believe that there's less out there to explore and discover, but therein lies Terraria's biggest deception. Stick with it, and this game will definitely surprise you.
Your first few hours in Terraria will be tough. A lack of direction or purpose can be bewildering or even unpleasant for players who thrive on goals and objectives. However once you find your feet, craft a few decent tools and build a basic base of operations, the world will begin to open up in the most unexpected ways.
You'll leave your ever-expanding homestead in search of a rich mineral vein to tap for resources, and minutes later you might find yourself deep underground, stumbling across sunken jungles or glowing mushroom grottoes and fighting off skeleton hordes to claim a treasure chest heaving with goodies. There are dragons, there are giant eyeballs, there are grappling hooks, there are guns made from sharks and rocket boots and magic spells and wizards and meteorites and unicorns. Play Terraria for an hour or even two, and you'd still never guess the depths and the crazy excesses it can and will go to. As initial progression is so slow, and there are no directions or hints as to what possibilities lie just below the surface, many players may give up before they've even started.
Terraria was first released on PC in 2011 and became an instant success story - selling more than 200,000 copies in its first week. A port to PSN and XBLA was somewhat inevitable, but rather than give the console crowds a straight up copy, this re-release also packs in some extra exclusive content - including four player split screen, new armour, weapons and enemies, eight player online play, and even a brand new final boss.
Though generally very well received, a common complaint made of the PC version was that it lacked a tutorial that guided players through the basics - instead it forced them to figure out how the game worked all by themselves. This has been supposedly been rectified in the console release, but in truth the tutorial it offers is badly executed and may just leave you more confused than when you started.
Its failure to identify or differentiate between the materials necessary for building side walls and back walls to our domicile meant we had to check online videos and wikis before we could progress, and length of time between one rather broad tool tip and the next had us doubting if we were doing things right on more than one occasion. Additionally, the controls are more or less well-adapted from the PC version, but the tutorial gives you a poor idea of how to handle them. Instead, practise and patience - and a little experimentation - made us Terraria experts in our own time.
Thankfully though, one of the things the console port does make much easier is your ability to get a co-op game going - in delightful 2-4 player split-screen action or hosting up to eight players online. Terraria's simple design means split-screen doesn't feel like a crushed-in compromise and truthfully, though it's fun to solo, this game really comes alive when played with a few friends. A muddy hovel becomes a towering castle in half the time, and with an extra pair of hands you'll more boldly go where the best treasure lies and the bigger enemies dwell.
What begins as a simple building game soon reveals itself to be more on par with a 2D platforming adventure, reminiscent of the old Castlevania or Metroid games.
Where Terraria really sets itself apart from Minecraft for good is with its emphasis on combat and exploration. You can create accessories that let you explore further or fight for longer. You can build more houses and helpful NPCs will turn up, offering to heal you or sell you useful items. It's all to make adventuring smoother, as the deeper and darker you go, the more dangerous it gets. There are even formidable bosses that appear when certain requirements are met or milestones are accomplished, and these are challenging, lengthy battles, and players will need to be well-equipped to survive. Luckily, there are literally hundreds of unusual gadgets and weapons to craft, from ivy whips that make traversal a cinch to magic mirrors that can transport you home if you dug too greedily and too deep.
Defeating bosses open up new and harder gameplay modes that also unlock new enemies and world biomes, encouraging you to set out on a quest for adventures new once again. As well as scripted events that the player chooses to activate, there are also random events and occurrences like blood moons, that make zombies bolder and able to break down doors, falling stars and goblin raids that mean you really never know what to expect or what you might uncover if you break through the next layer of bedrock.
There are minor irks where controls are concerned; switching between a pickaxe, a weapon and a light source is needlessly clunky when you're interrupted by an enemy mid-excavation, and when you find yourself set upon by several foes in a confined space, it feels like a combination of luck and flailing as to whether you win or lose.
Happily though, the punishment for death on lower difficulties is mild, so straying far from home is never discouraged, and each journey will uncover just a little bit more of the world, even if it ends in a gruesome death. Pushing Select will bring up a handy world map, where you can zoom in on the tunnels you've forged and the ground you've uncovered so far. Before long it'll resemble a rather colourful ant farm.
There may not be a plot pushing you on, or even any indication of most of the things you can do, but considering the vast amount of content it has to offer - if you can find it - Terraria is exceptionally good value for money. Even after pouring dozens of hours into the game, you can bet you still won't have seen some of its most spectacular sights.
Though it may feel initially inaccessible, this world is well worth sticking with. After a little bit of digging, you'll find that, despite having only two dimensions, Terraria goes a lot deeper than most other games out there.
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