Review: Frostpunk

Cold, apathetic, utterly brilliant

I didn’t want to make a dystopic Theocracy, it just happened out of necessity. My citizens were quickly losing hope that anybody else survived the sudden ice age, and from that despair came rising anger over housing, food and health care. They didn’t care that we’d built up what we had from nothing, they just needed assurance, and so I built my first two churches.

Praying seemed to help people forget the bitter cold, people losing limbs to frostbite and children being forced to work for the greater good, and so I took it a bit further. We ran sermons, we appointed people to the role of Faith Keepers, we encouraged public punishment, we kept things safe and holy and… actually kind of horrible. In Frostpunk, a horrible theocratic nightmare is better than dead, though.

Frostpunk follows in a long line of games like Banished and Surviving Mars that tasks you with keeping a city alive in an uncaring and deadly environment. While Banished was historical and Surviving Mars was sci-fi, Frostpunk combines the two and sets the game in a Steampunk world beset by blistering cold that has forced the British to walk across frozen seas and find a new home. Buried deep beneath the ice and torment, there is an utterly stellar colony simulator and narrative experience that you’d be a fool to skip.

Un utterly stellar colony simulator and narrative experience.

With coal-powered heaters and generators assembled, and later on hulking automatons to do the work of a dozen people, it sounds like surviving would be pretty easy. Cities quickly sprawl out in rings around the central generator, with smaller steam heaters providing warmth to pockets of homes and industry. If it was just about the infrastructure, this neo-Ice-Age thing would be a doddle, but there is an intricate web of needs and requirements for each moving part of the city, and any of them can be knocked out of kilter at any time in the tundra.

Building a coal mine? Easy peasy. Coughing up the extra wood to build the roads that connect those mines to the generator, ensuring your workers can get there? Bit harder. Heating that mine with precious, scarce resources, ensuring the workers have adequate healthcare for when they inevitably get ill and pull down that mine’s productivity, create housing for the engineers who work in the infirmary, and build up a stockpile of resources for an oncoming frozen storm? That’s where the logistical beauty of Frostpunk comes into play.

Frostpunk is a brutal, unyielding experience that stretches beyond simple resource management.

Even if the city-planning goes exactly to plan, the decisions you have to make as the people’s leader can push them to their absolute limit. The people in your city that are a bigger threat than the cold or food shortages. Fail to cater to their needs, and the unrest or the loss of hope will result in you being banished into the wastes. The problem is every decision has positive and negative impacts – harvesting the dead for their organs can cure the living much quicker, but it’s also unpalatable for the masses and will cause a furore, for example. It was in this constant compromising that pushed me into the life of a (mostly) benevolent dictator pope, but it could’ve equally forced me into a tyrannical rule of law, with hordes of guards goosestepping their way down the street.

While no choice feels good, the genius of Frostpunk is every decision feels justified. It’s all for “the greater good”, and if you’re not careful you’ll quickly be weighing up grinding the dead into powder for fertiliser, or publically flogging mothers who’ve done no wrong. Frostpunk is a brutal, unyielding experience that stretches beyond simple resource management – think the likes of The Shrouded Isle or Sunless Sea as well as Banished.

With all of this fantastic worldbuilding, brutal decision-making and challenging resource management, it’s a shame the game doesn’t appear to have a sandbox (snowbox?) mode. There are three scenarios that all provide unique challenges, such as keeping vital seeds alive for future use, but once they’re done there isn’t a whole lot left to do. The journey of your city is fantastic, but colony sims don’t normally have an end beyond the untimely demise of your people. Even with developer 11bit’s promise of post-launch support, of which a sandbox mode is incredibly likely, it feels like a big stumble for such an otherwise perfect experience.

The game doesn’t appear to have a sandbox mode.

Frostpunk is a bitterly cold game. Every wife crying over the corpse of their frozen husband, every father dying in the cold looking for their runaway child, every amputation, and every sacrifice made for the greater good makes it one of the most miserable experiences you can find at the moment. And yet, 11bit manages to make such unrelenting suffering an utterly stellar colony simulator and narrative experience that you’d be a fool to skip.

Code was provided for the purposes of this review.

Platform: PC

Developer/Publisher: 11 bit Studios

Price: £24.99

Release date: April 24th 2018

%

Cold, apathetic, utterly brilliant

Joe is LPVG’s resident hardware nerd. If it’s overpriced and has gaudy RGB lighting, he’s probably drooling over it. He loves platformers, MMOs, RPGs, hack ‘n slashers and FPS, with his favourite games being Mirror’s Edge, Left 4 Dead, Sonic the Hedgehog 2, Oblivion and Dead Space. Don’t ask him about his unhealthily large Monsters Inc memorabilia collection. Seriously, just don’t ask…