"You feel an evil presence watching you." The warning message flashes on the bottom of the screen while you're busy chopping down trees in the forest. Night has fallen over the land of Terraria, a time for evil monsters to wake from their daylight slumber and assert their dominance. You need shelter if you're going to survive their deadly onslaught, but your time has run out. "The Eye of Cthulhu has awoken!" A roar from the darkness sends a chill down your spine. You equip your sword, ready your healing potions, and dig in for a fierce battle while a full moon gazes down. This colorful 2D adventure keeps you on guard by sending demons and monsters to kill you when you least expect it. You're never safe in Terraria. Surprises abound, both nefarious and empowering. In the dead of night, you may find your home invaded by a goblin army. But on the next night, you may find a treasure chest rich with helpful items. Terraria is a deeply rewarding adventure that continually urges you onward to see what lies ahead.
Your adventure begins in a colorful land populated by towering trees, glistening lakes, and flowering pastures as far as the eye can see. After creating a character and choosing which size randomly generated world you want to start in (small, medium, or large), you're thrust into the game with nary a hint to help you understand what you're supposed to do. A guide wanders nearby, and he doles out advice when you click on him, but it's a poor way of introducing you to the basics. His tips aren't descriptive enough to get you started, and persistent enemy slimes have a knack for distracting you while he's dishing out his vague advice. Terraria is a game about discovery and exploration, and the thrill of happening upon something completely unexpected is a huge part of the draw, but this is still a poor tutorial. You're better off glancing at online guides to get your bearings in the early going than blindly trying to figure out what you're supposed to do.
With a little research or experimentation, you figure out that your first order of business is to build a shelter. You begin the game with a copper pickaxe and axe, and you use these to chop down trees and gather resources. A clever crafting system gives you the power to construct almost anything you might need on your journey. All you need to do is enter your inventory screen, and every item you can currently create is listed in a sidebar. Once you cut down a few trees, you can build a workbench, and from there a world of possibilities opens up. A workbench lets you build more-complex items, such as a hammer and sword, and you use these items to venture out into the dangerous unknown. Eventually, you can craft guns, explosives, and even magical items, but you have to put in a lot of work to get to that level. In the early going, your focus is to find materials to construct basic weapons and armor. Your wooden sword works well enough against docile slimes, but if you want to take on ruthless skeletons, you should forge a weapon made of gold.
Terraria is an open-ended game that never sets clear goals. You decide how you want to play, and there's always a new territory for intrepid explorers to venture off to. The controls handle like a traditional platformer, allowing you to easily jump around the expansive environments. Melee weapons have a wide range, so you don't have to be precise with your swinging, and you aim your long-range attacks with your mouse for quick shots. But you're not going to make much progress if you just hang out on the surface. The worlds are gigantic (even the small maps), and most of that space is underground. That's where the most valuable minerals are located, and also the scariest monsters. You use your pickaxe to dig through underground mines, gather resources to forge better equipment, and then use your new tools to get deeper with each visit. It's a tantalizing reward system that continually pushes you along to see what else you can find. Small pleasures carry you through much of this adventure. You may find yourself chipping away at useless rock and dirt for minutes at a time, desperate to find something of value. And then, out of the corner of your eye, you see a sparkle amid the gloom and point your pickaxe in that direction. A small cache of silver awaits. It may not sound like much, but you need it to build the next set of tools, and the feeling of joy when you find such a treasure is hard to contain.
Rewards go beyond the simple raw materials you need to craft better items. There are hidden treasure chests located in out-of-the-way places that are bursting with rare goodies. You may gain the ability to double jump or slowly regenerate health from handy accessories, and the promise of these invaluable items urges you to explore as much of the vast underground as you possibly can. Of course, you don't have to stay below the surface all the time. There are plenty of places to visit aboveground, too. Floating islands tempt you to get off your duff and see what secrets the sky has to offer. There are items that can be found only in these gravity-defying locales, so it's well worth your effort to sniff out where the islands are hiding and build a ladder to the heavens. Terraforming is instrumental in your progress. With just your pickaxe and some ingenuity, you can shape the world to your liking, not only building pathways in the sky, but also intricate underground tunnels to help you smoothly progress. Terraria is a game that is built on rewards. No matter where you go and what you do, you get something for your effort. Whether it's a new sword or just the knowledge that a bubbling lava pool lays at the bottom of a long drop, you're always better prepared the next time you set off. Progression is slow and steady, and seeing your character grow from a hero in training to an all-powerful killing machine is an incredible feeling.
There are three bosses in Terraria, though they aren't handled like you would expect. Two of them are unleashed at seemingly random times. When you meet certain requirements (which the game never spells out), huge foes may set out to attack you. Nothing strikes fear quite like a warning message flashing onscreen, and these fights are difficult, especially if you're ill-prepared. The bosses fly around you, relentlessly striking no matter how many shurikens you toss, and you have to move constantly and quaff lots of health potions if you want any chance of staying alive. Death comes frequently if you play recklessly, but the punishment isn't severe. You lose half of your money and have to restart at your home base, but you keep all the items you earned. You may sink dozens of hours into the game before you're strong enough to take one of these beasts down. When you finally raise your hand in victory, you get not only the spoils of war, but the pride of knowing how much effort it took to get to such a lofty point. And when you do come out on top, there are new places to explore and new challenges to overcome.
Terraria is a lonely place, but it doesn't have to be. There are non-playable characters to recruit if you meet certain requirements. These range from a merchant to a nurse and even a demolitions expert, and they provide a handy way to nab powerful tools to make your adventuring more exciting. There's also an online cooperative mode that lets four players band together. The core structure is identical to that of the single-player game, but having a few friends to help you take down bosses and explore dungeons makes everything that much more fun. Unfortunately, setting up a co-op world is tricky business. You need to host your own server, and you can invite others only by sharing your IP address. It's a clumsy system that makes it a pain to get started. Thankfully, things run smoothly once the dirty work is out of the way, but it would be nice if the online mode were more accessible.
Inaccessibility is the one flaw that haunts this great game. The early hours are punishing because you have no idea what you're supposed to do, and the lack of direction makes Terraria initially off-putting. But after sinking dozens of hours into this impressive game, you'll wonder how you could ever have been frustrated. There are so many surprises to uncover and rewards to unlock that once you get the basics down, you'll be hard pressed to tear yourself away. Whether you're trying to break shadow orbs in the corrupted land or constructing a labyrinth passageway to combine water with lava, there's always something demanding your attention. Terraria is a unique and engrossing experience that is extremely difficult to tear yourself away from once you become invested in its enticing world.