A fun fact about me: I moved into Boston early this year, in the aftermath of (and somewhat delayed by) the weather phenomenon known as the ‘bomb cyclone’. My first two weeks were characterized by feet-high piles of snow bordering all walkways, public life slowly starting back up as the white-grey snow banks refused to melt, and perpetual cold winds.
So what I’m saying is, 11 Bit Studios‘ Frostpunk? A game about fleeing the crumbling remnants of a once-temperate climate to establish a whole new life in an unknown perpetual arctic wasteland? I might actually have the credentials needed to review this.
(Spoiler levels: Narrative, medium. Mechanical, high-ish.)
(Game source: Patreon funds.)
Frostpunk does not mess around when it comes to theme: I can’t make it five seconds into the menu before being assailed by bitter winds, gloomy heavy music, and the dregs of humanity pressing together for warmth and attention. Here, look: It’s trying to introduce and elicit sympathy for characters I haven’t even met yet!
The breadth of settings is pretty cool, pun probably not intended. City builders occupy this weird mental space for me where I never expect them to have heavy graphical range, so when they almost eventually do, I’m impressed. I have to admit I’m also impressed by the ability to set the in-game temperature scale to either Fahrenheit or Celsius — in this case I’m mostly impressed by the inclusion of Fahrenheit, since 11 Bit Studios is based in Warsaw. But more accessibility is always better, even when it comes to systems of temperature I think are strange and obsolete.
I’d check out the audio and controls settings as well, but am guilted into starting Frostpunk proper by a sad-looking half-frozen kid staring at me.
I can see that under different circumstances, I’d be able to select different scenarios to play. But apparently these aren’t normal circumstances, so all I can do is select ‘A New Home’ — which launches me into an intro cutscene, of the semi-animated still-art variety.
A story is told, but Frostpunk oddly has no subtitles during this intro, so the me that’s writing this review a week after the fact can’t replicate exactly what’s being told. The gist of it is clear, though: The world was good once. Then it froze. For unclear reasons, a bunch of people packed up a giant chimney on a cart and schlepped it across a frozen wasteland, which may or may not have been England once.
The chimney-train is drawn across snow and ice, over frozen lakes with dramatically-frozen boats underneath, before eventually being lost in a blizzard. Yeah, it’s just as anticlimactic as it sounds. A handful of people flee from the blizzard, only to find another, already-prepared giant chimney in a hole in the ground. Why it’s there, in this particular spot of white wasteland instead of any of the other spot, will probably forevermore elude me. All I know for sure is that this spot, by virtue of the giant chimney, is now…
It doesn’t look too shabby in practice, I have to admit.
For real though, the whole of Frostpunk looks pretty good, pretty soon. As the camera zooms in from a distant blurry view of a giant hole in the ice, I can’t help but feel that Frostpunk‘s visual engine is pulling its weight and then some. The dark brown of the Generator contrasts neatly with the undulating white of the snowbanks, which look impressively lifelike — as more and more tiny, seemingly individually rendered snowflakes rain down on the landscape.
But we’re not here to admire the white. We’re here to not freeze to death.
‘Stockpile some coal and start the Generator’, Frostpunk tells me. Then it sits back and folds its arms.
Man, this has been a good month for me when it comes to ‘games that don’t explicitly tell you how to get started’. There’s probably a metaphor for my life in there somewhere.
I push my mouse to the screen edge and hit the WASD keys to try and navigate. When this starts working as expected, Frostpunk hits me with a Camera Movement tutorial, which, on the one hand, timing. But on the other hand, I do immediately appreciate that this tutorial window uses a series of GIF-like movies to visualize the concepts it explains in text.
Alright, coal, coal… There are several indistinct blobs of brown and grey scattered around the snow pit that serves as my map, so I click on some of them. This one says ‘wooden crates’. That one is ‘steel debris’. And… ah, there we go, ‘coal pile’. There are 500 units of coal in this pile. Its efficiency is 0%, and its temperature, ‘Chilly’.
In the ‘workforce’ section of that popup, I can assign up to fifteen ‘workers’ or ‘engineers’ to this coal pile. Since I have 50 workers and 15 engineers, I opt to keep the latter in reserve. 15 workers on a coal pile grants me 18 coal per hour, which… I don’t know, that sounds nice. I assign another 15 workers to a second coal pile, and then 10 more to some wooden crates, to boot.
Then I sit and watch in silent surprise as the workers I assigned actually trudge paths through the feet-high snow. Small barrel fires at the workplaces show which areas are and aren’t active, as paths from the Generator to the resources are naturally formed. I can tell from the income UI on the top of the screen that practically, the influx of resources has already started. But it’s oddly mesmerizing to sit and watch the visuals all the same.
I mess around with Frostpunk while my coal slowly stockpiles. Zooming in and out is a treat, with the camera going from ‘full overview of this snow pit’ to ‘still fairly far above the tents and resource stockpiles’. Oddly, though I can’t zoom in to the level of individual people, I can select individual people, and learn all about them. For instance, Owen Penwick is the child of Charlotte and Gilbert Penwick. They don’t really have a home, and sleeping around the Generator is a chilly affair, so the lack of shelter is their biggest concern.
I can also activate my magical thermal vision to confirm that, yes, this place is really very cold.
Oh, and I can turn the game speed up or down. Frostpunk waits with telling me this until after I hit the 200-coal threshold, but fine, whatever, good to know.
And then it’s time to turn on the Generator! I click the ‘Steam level 1’ button, and with a shudder and a groan the Generator springs into warm orange life. The snow in a small area around it immediately melts and evaporates, and I get the sensation that — this is probably a good thing.
Alright, next step: Food. I’ll need to build a Hunter’s Hut to get Raw Food, and a Cookhouse to make it edible. This introduces me to Frostpunk‘s interesting radial approach to building, which looks a little like this:
Now, here’s an interesting thing: Only people that aren’t currently working other jobs build inactive buildings. Between the start of this review and now, I secretly assigned all my workers and engineers to gather resources, because why wouldn’t I? I need those resources. In theory, that’d mean I’d have to manually un-assign some people to make sure these food buildings get constructed. But in practice…
The in-game clock hits 18:00. A steam whistle blows, and a male voice yells ‘work day is over, people, get to your homes’. Yeah, that’s right: Even in the frozen apocalyptic setting of Frostpunk, where resources and heat are limited and we are literally fighting the first law of thermodynamics for survival, people still clock out at 6 PM. I… can’t say I super blame them, to be honest. Hope we have enough coal to pull through the night.
But here’s the actually interesting part: People that are off work will still help with building buildings. The game rationalizes it by saying that construction isn’t an assigned job, but a communal effort — I guess everyone would like for there to be enough tents to sleep in. Which means that in practice, people can and will stay up way past midnight doing heavy physical labor. Then it’s six, seven hours of frozen sleep, and BWAAAAP, the work day starts again.
Which is to say that, before long, the area around my Generator looks like this:
God, it’s pretty though. Frostpunk‘s day-night cycle makes an already good-looking game even more impressive: The orange glow from the generators and the lamps from workspaces is a joy to look at.
My people have a slightly different view on things, which is that there are eighty people and ten tents and that won’t do. They approach me with a request: Please build more tents, or at least some more tents. If I commit to either choice, my society as a whole will gain Hope — I don’t quite know what that does yet, but there are blue and red bars for Hope and Discontent respectively and I don’t think I should ignore those. But if I fail… I can also choose to ignore the request altogether, giving me small hits to Hope and Discontent right off the bat, but (I assume) not as much as what I’ll get if I fail.
As night falls, I complete my food buildings, and a procession of recently-assigned hunters treks out to hunt… whatever it is that lives in these parts. They don’t tell and we don’t ask. Meanwhile, Frostpunk presents me with my next objective: There are supposed to be other survivors out here, the other lost souls from our intro convoy. I need to build a Workshop to do research, then research a Beacon, then build a Beacon, in order to find them.
Oh, and I should probably also build a medical post to take care of the people who are starting to get sick from the perpetual cold. And build more houses, as per that promise, to keep people out of the perpetual cold. And make sure my resource stockpiles stay up. Man, running an ice society is hard.
On cue, Frostpunk suggests that as the leader of this place, I can sign certain laws into effect. There’s a whole book of ’em, organized along a multi-directional tree structure. It’s nudging to one in particular a little harder: The Emergency Shift law, which allows me to keep certain work places open for 24 hours.
I sign the law into effect, which is announced by bells and Male Town Voice yelling ‘attention, everyone: new law!’. Then I practice the law by condemning one Wood Crate to a full work day, since I’m perpetually out of wood.
I do use the wood to make it up to people, though.
And then, one day later, burn all that goodwill again with the enactment of a second law.
And just like that, two days pass, then three, then four. I build my Workshop and kick research into high gear — I’m initially worried about building it outside of the Generator’s zone of heat, but it turns out Workshops are actually way better insulated than tiny ramshackle tents. I also learn how Gathering Posts work, and expand my basic resource gathering operation ever more wall-ward as the easy accessible resources start to run out. Yeah, turns out 500 coal isn’t actually that much. There are larger resource deposits here and there, frozen woods and enormous veins of metal and copper, but I can’t tap those yet — something else for the research eggheads to tackle after the Beacon is do– oh, it’s done already, that was fast. Time to learn how sawmills work, I guess.
And then, without warning — except for the great big warning in the moving day counter that I only partially paid attention to — Frostpunk decides that things have been going way too smoothly. And the temperature drops. You think -20° was bad? Try -40.
Increased cold means increased risk of getting ill, including my first-ever person to fall ‘gravely ill’. I don’t have the facilities to deal with frostbite of that nature, so what do I do? Sign into law radical new treatments, which might save people but runs the risk of leaving some of them amputees? Or sign into law a palliative care approach, where gravely ill people are better-cared for until we do find better medicine — or they die? Wow, it turns out running an apocalypse survival camp isn’t always super fun.
But even as temperatures drop and illness reports stream in, the wheels of progress churn ever-forward. The Beacon is finally built, and with it, we can start finding others of our expedition! I watch as a small hot-air balloon on a rope flies up, and up…
…and the camera follows it up, and up, and up…
Hmm. Well. On the one hand, I was just shown an enormous, mind-boggling wasteland of empty snow and nothing, somewhere in which the others of my expedition are sheltering. This seems like looking for a needle in a haystack made up of smaller haystacks, all of which are also frozen. But on the other hand… we’re doing relatively alright? Sure, it’s cold, and we’re alone and adrift in an ocean of snow. But we do have food, and heat, and shelter. We have a plan to research better resource collection tools, and with the Beacon in place I can start sending out scout parties to tackle the wasteland, one part at a time. I think we… might have a decent chance of getting through this all.
Of course, I have no idea what it means to ‘get through this’, or what our eventual long-term goals are. ‘Survival’? Let’s aim for survival at first. I’m going to go build some more houses; check back in with all of you after we’re prosperous and safe forever.