Frostpunk is a narratively driven city simulator from 11 Bit Studios, previously best known for This War of Mine. It’s set in a steampunk universe where the world has suffered a snow and ice based apocalypse. It requires a player to manage resource gathering, advancing the story by exploring the frozen world and balancing the discontent or hope of their society through laws and policies as they try to survive in a frozen wasteland.
I think I made 14 attempts at building a society at the end of the world before my people survived to the end of the scenario. Each time we get a little closer to having everything just ticking over.
First, I messed up and accidentally left the generator overheating when I was dealing with my external scouts. So it exploded and everyone froze to death.
There’s been three or four occasions where I’ve very poorly planned out my coal income, so the generator ran dry. Then everyone froze to death.
On a couple of occasions, things were actually going really well with a good level of stability. Then everyone starved to death/got horribly sick and I couldn’t build enough specialist buildings to fix the deficit. So without enough healthy people, Society ground to a halt and everyone froze to death.
On one of those last rounds, I was sure I had it. Then the people discovered they were the last surviving city in the frozen wastes, they lost all hope, I attempted to impose a fascist police state to stop the dissenters attempting to flee back to London, and then they rebelled and exiled me. Then I can only assume everyone froze to death.
Frostpunk is Challenging.
From moment one, Frostpunk is challenging the player. Players must manage gathering wood, steel, coal and food with trying to crew support buildings for things like medicine.
It’s a city management game. In the initial scenario, You as the overseer begin the game with around 100 people, a coal generator and some tents. The first order of business is to get that generator running and never let it stop. It’s -20c after all and if your people can’t stay warm, they can’t stay alive.
Frostpunk is also a society survival game. Through some binary lawmaking decisions, the Society of the city develops to match the harsh new world.
Are children better contributing to the workforce, or is it better to keep them safe in shelters during the day? Can you justify holding burial services for the dead, or should you keep their bodies on ice in case of a need for organs later?
The choices generally have ramifications that are only apparent a little way down the line, but more importantly, they show off the overall struggle of Frostpunk, Hope vs Discontent.
Too much discontent, your people rebel. Too little hope, and your people will lose the will to go on.
Its an interesting spin on the traditional happiness mechanic, with the balancing of both adding an additional layer of strategy to the game. There’s a mid game twist to be made when your society can move towards controlling or religious authoritarianism. These can provide hope through beneficial means or give the player the opportunity to stamp out discontent where possible.
The final narrative aspect of the game is in the ability to establish Scout Teams to explore the world. These groups of five citizens are sent out into the wastes around the city to investigate events. With most of these events, there’ll be some kind of ongoing narrative to make a choice in. These are again, fairly binary choices, but each is a quandary of trying to balance risk and reward.
It’s all well and good trying to rescue a small group of survivors from bears, but if the scout team dies as well then there’s probably no one to replace them.
What this does is leave the player trying to work out what the morally kind thing is, and what will serve the greater good of the city as a whole.
Visually, the city of Frostpunk is sumptuous .
In a crater in the middle of the wilderness, citizens trudge through snow that reaches to their armpits. The path behind them is a void in the white. The path ahead of them is an ever dwindling pile of crates, the only easy source of wood around.
Later, snow voids mark the areas around heaters, revealing the rock base under the drifts. Peals of steam rise from medical tents and mines and as night falls, each of the town’s homes takes on an orange red glow as the citizens inside stay warm.
The landscape of the game feels cold to look at, while the artwork of the scouts and citizens takes generic steampunk conventions and makes them it’s own. The overarching themes and tropes of the steampunk art could be considered a tad cliched, but even the simple change to have everyone in winter gear adds a slight freshness.
This freshness comes to bear on the strategy elements too. Rather than a traditional blank slate to build from, Frostpunk is concentrated on three narrative campaigns. This has both positives and negatives.
Especially in the main campaign, this results in a nail biting finale as the city rushes to gather supplies and survive a huge ice storm. It’s well designed and written as the tension builds. The challenges faced in the storm require the player to make tough choices and try to keep their society alive, if not necessarily all their people.
However, this does mean the game has an ending. There’s no way to just build and manage your city in a free play style of game.
Instead, while more scenarios are promised, it’s just the three campaigns to enjoy.
In addition to the main campaign, there’s two further scenarios, one which focuses on keeping seed banks from freezing with a group of engineers and mechanical automations, and one where the people have overthrown the upper class and are trying to create a new society free of them. Both offer completely different narratives and challenges to work with, whether it’s rushing to build a stockpile to keep the seeds warm, or dealing with influxes of hundreds of new citizens.
On top of that, it’s not easy to see everything narrative wise in the game, which seems to suggest there’s supposed to be multiple playthroughs. The issue is that there aren’t really enough tangibly different gameplay options to justify this, in spite of the writing being solid enough.
For the most part though, Frostpunk is impressive. Though the game is challenging, something was learned in every instance. The slow creep of progress felt earned as more and more of the game unlocked. By the end, even as the difficulties of the campaigns ramped up, the game had equipped the player to at least survive the crises. When the solid design of the campaign is wrapped up in such an attractive aesthetic, and paired with clever writing, the whole game is something special to enjoy.
Frostpunk is available for Windows PCs right now for £24.99.