Terraria would be easy to either embrace or dismiss as a Minecraft clone, but either way would be unfair. Where Minecraft is first and foremost a sandbox toy and medium for building elaborate structures, its more game-y elements, like fighting monsters and acquiring loot, feel almost like an afterthought. In that sense, Terraria is the inverse.
While it's rewarding to build structures and even mega-projects – one guy recently recreated World 1-1 from Mario Bros. – Terraria’s greatest strength is its satisfying combat, variety of enemies and items, and the all important sense of progression and empowerment. Minecraft and Terraria are two exceptional games that branch off from the same common trunk.
At first, the inspiration of Minecraft is almost painfully obvious. A typical first day begins with chopping trees for wood, making a crafting table, and hastily building a house in which to hide from a night of zombie attacks, all of which should be very familiar to you. From there you'll start delving into caves and caverns to find ore, which can be used to craft iron, silver, and gold, armour and weapons. At this point in Minecraft you've learned everything you need to know to play, acquired most of the tools you'll need, and will probably embark on making your own fun.
With Terraria, however, this is barely the beginning. Beyond those earliest caverns and craft items lies a long chain of unique environments to explore, strange items and materials to acquire or create, bosses to fight, and an entire village of helpful NPCs who will move in once you've provided them with accommodations.
Each completed task leads inevitably to a new challenge in a way that provides a constant sense of accomplishment. Discovering how to summon and defeat the surprisingly tough first boss grants access to new crafting materials necessary to make the tools needed to break through a previously impenetrable kind of stone. You'll next want to smash some evil orbs, which are not coincidentally guarded by the game's next boss. Breaking these orbs also has a chance of bringing down a gigantic meteor, which in turn can be mined for yet another tier of material to be used for the next set of equipment.
And so on. Some of these goals can be accomplished out of order or through alternate means, leaving the precise order of progression at least partly in the hands of the player. Whenever any single task becomes tedious or seems too hard it's easy to find another to move on to for a while.
Cave exploration provides a chance of finding hidden chests containing rare items, ranging from useless gadgets like whoopie cushions to essentials like life expanding hearts or the double jump ability. Environments like underground jungles and the deepest subterranean hell levels hold unique monsters and more valuable rewards, which are difficult to obtain earlier in the game.
All of this would make for a pretty nifty exploratory adventure game, but it’s Terraria's sandbox structure that really makes it stand out. An inaccessible underwater area could be explored with a breathing reed and a set of flippers if you have them, but a player with an eye for engineering could instead dig a set of tunnels to drain the whole lake – preferably into lava, where it'll create some handy obsidian.
A particularly troublesome boss could be more easily defeated if the player constructs a more convenient and traversable battlefield beforehand. The complex of rooms and houses that shelter your NPC allies could be simple wooden walled shacks, but they'd look so much classier with chandeliers, walls of gold brick, and maybe even a lava moat to help deal with periodic zombie attacks or a raiding goblin army. And exploration is always easier when you've set up safe-rooms and storage areas in convenient locations around the world.
Then again, maybe you would rather build gigantic pixel art murals all over the landscape. A castle shaped like a giant space invader will probably impress your friends should you decide to invite guests. Terraria is great for dozens of hours of single player exploration, but taking it online with friends or strangers adds exponentially more enjoyment. It's always useful to have a buddy or ten to watch your back while mining, or to lend a hand with a particularly tough boss, or to help in building a stronghold or piece of elaborate sculpture. Or maybe it'd be more fun to toggle that PvP flag and see who the biggest baddass is. Skill actually counts for a lot here.
Alas, multiplayer is the only place where Terraria stumbles a bit. All the items you're carrying or have stored carry over between games, and single player worlds can be shared in multiplayer. Once you're playing with friends in a shared world there's a lot of fun to be had building together, fighting monsters, or splitting off into teams and warring among yourselves.
Getting to that point in the first place, however, is a bit more trouble than it should be these days. A separate instance of the game needs to be run as a server and there's no easy in-game option for hooking up with friends. Connections are made by IP address and an in-game server list has yet to be implemented. This will probably be replaced with Steam's "join a friend's game" feature, but for now it's at least a minor pain in the ass.
Still, Terraria is a great adventure, one of the best sandbox games around, and an absolute steal at six quid. Despite having one fewer dimension than Minecraft, Terraria hides greater depth.