Following from its critically acclaimed This War of Mine, Polish developer 11 Bit Studios returns. Frostpunk is another attempt at capturing emotional intensity through gameplay.
Frostpunk seamlessly weaves city building, sim-management, survival dependent resource organisation and, crucially, a deeply morose experiment in the psychology of human desperation. If it sounds like a lot, it’s because it is.
Frostpunk is a relentlessly demanding experience that requires much of the player. While the emotional toll of even a single session can be quite intense, there’s an unmistakable glimmer of beauty throughout.
It’s the 1800’s in an alternate timeline and London, along with the rest of the world, has fallen victim to another ice age. With little but dead crops and corpses behind them, a band of brave men, women and children forge a path across barren wastelands in an attempt to reach a new home in the North. It’s here that much-needed coal is apparently found in abundance beneath the ice.
In our current pop-culture climate, it would be easy to dismiss yet another post-apocalyptic tale but Frostpunk is immediately arresting and never once shies away from the darker elements of its story.
Upon reaching the promised land the settlers fire up Frostpunk’s literal and figurative core; the steam generator that sits at the centre of the crater they call home. This behemoth of a machine steadily churns out just enough heat to keep the spark of hope alive for humanity. As it thaws an ever-expanding circle outward you can begin to build up your city.
Watching the generator roar to life for the first time is a real moment. Steam billows into the sky as you begin to survey your surroundings. You remain blissfully unaware of the impending horrors of efficiently running a society constantly on the brink of annihilation.
Fortunately, setting up the colony is initially an easy process as Frostpunk wisely takes its time when introducing you to its layered systems. You can pillage a nearby derelict for steel, chop your way through a thinning tree line for wood, clamber to that pile of coal before the sun sets and so on.
Each resource has a variety uses within the camp. That initial wood stockpile will vanish as your people need tents, while the steam generator will rapidly chew through your coal reserves before you know it. As time rolls on, and your camp morphs into a city, the demand for resources and on settlers alike becomes more and more intense. This is the struggle that highlights Frostpunk’s crown jewel: ethical compromises born from desperation.
Rarely does a choice you make in Frostpunk feel good, let alone like the right one. The daily grind of maintaining living conditions within the city is brutal. In spite of your best efforts, Frostpunk will often get the better of you.
Your people are rightfully rather needy, whether it be the obvious desire for warmth, food and medicine or the much more elusive need to feel hopeful. Meeting those needs, in a timely manner, is where your ethics can start to bend. Moment to moment, the gameplay rises above its contemporaries to become so much more than the genre has achieved before.
Progression within the city is accomplished by feats of industry or the signing in of laws. Both of which present a razor-sharp double-edged sword for your troubles. Industry begins in small-scale ways, like erecting housing, medical pavilions and a basic scientific research facility.
Each new building requires a portion of your precious stockpiles to create and then maintain. As industry grows so too does the wonders it can provide. As early game pillaging parties give way to factories and sawmills and your humble lab will begin producing scientific marvels in heating, exploration and efficiency.
Play it smart and you may even find yourself in possession of an Automaton; a spider-like steampunk robot that can automate most resource gathering without growing tired (like your citizens so often do).
Separation of Church & State
Likewise, exploring the multitude of laws available to you will yield some fascinating, if morbid, results. The Book of Laws allows for several different approaches to maintaining control of your city. Initially, basic laws will impact medical treatments, work rules and the like.
Eventually, the game will ask you to choose between Order or Faith as a means of holding onto civility. Exploring the religious aspects of lawmaking is unsettling. An innocuous church in the corner of town can slowly become a home base for your own personal army of zealots.
At your command, these zealots will roam the streets, ensuring peace is maintained. If you opt for Order instead, you’ll find yourself in charge of a militaristic nightmare that would make Orwell blush.
In the very early days of my first playthrough, I found my colony completely out of coal; a critical situation if there ever was one. I was endlessly fretting about the approaching sunset. At approximately 3 pm, mere hours before the workers’ shift was to end, one of my citizens approached me with an idea.
An emergency law could be signed which would allow for men and women to work through the night; a twenty-four-hour shift. Our coal supply would be ensured but dissent among the already hungry and aggravated settlers would rise.
What was a man to do? I couldn’t risk the entire colony for the sake of some grumpy grunts working overtime. With the law signed we made it through the night but the seeds of mistrust had been planted and, eventually, dissatisfaction overcame my people and I was exiled for my efforts.
It’s lonely at the top
It doesn’t help, of course, that while you are in constant discord with your citizens and industry, there is a bevvy of uncontrollable events which can occur randomly. Cold snaps that drop temps to below freezing, mass waves of illness, or even a band of settlers attempting to rally support to abandon the city and make a break for London.
You would be forgiven for thinking that all of this doesn’t sound particularly fun to play, deeply frustrating even, but there is a harmonious thrill to the cacophony that is Frostpunk. The consequences of your choices are both immediate and staggered.
Each action, or inaction, interlocks to form a much larger series of events that you may not even see closing in around you until it’s too late. It’s guttural impacts from your failures mixed with small bursts of gratification from minor victories, and all of this from a sim/city management game.
Frostpunk also boasts some of the best overall presentation I’ve seen in a game for quite some time. The art direction is faultless. Crucial story beats are often told through beautifully rendered still image cutscenes while moment to moment gameplay features an immaculate level of detail. It’s this detail that’s able to draw you further in.
Watching your city roar to life over time also highlights the precision of the colour pallet used. Tall steaming towers of organ glow punctuate the gloomy dark of the snow-laden streets. The user interface is clean and introduced slowly enough as to never feel overwhelming and the entire experience is scored by a subtle, ever-present soundtrack.
If there was an issue with Frostpunk it would have to be the highly subjective replay value.
It offers up three meaty campaign modes, each featuring a different variant on the core mechanics to keep you on your toes. These campaigns are all engaging and fun but once you’ve played through them once and understand the beats of each it may be difficult to return to them and still feel the same thrill.
The game also lacks any kind of sandbox mode, which would be hugely beneficial to teach new players mechanics without any campaign consequences and also provide long-term players with a means of experimentation.
The impact Frostpunk can have on the player is truly remarkable.
If you give yourself over to it and allow its bitterly cold world to take hold of your imagination, you’ll be rewarded with one of the better games of the genre. Maintaining control of these desperate situations will test you, whether that be through the cold winds of an ice age or the ethical compromises your law enforcers will inflict on your people.
Your actions will always yield consequences, no move made by you will ever feel superfluous as you rage against the dying of humanity’s final light.
Frostpunk was reviewed on PC using a digital code provided by the developer.
Game title: Frostpunk
Your decisions matter - 9.6/10
Gorgeous, bleak presentation - 9.7/10
Limited Replayability - 7.7/10