A few hours in
Oh hey, look at that. I did make it through the winter.
I’ve been having a pretty great time with Frostpunk so far. It’s taken me about 10 hours to play through the first two scenarios, with a third one unlocked and at least a fourth one promised in the near future, if not more. I also don’t think you’ll generally play each Frostpunk scenario more than once or twice — depending on whether or not you beat it, and on how much you care about internal variety. And since there’s no free play option, for good reasons, Frostpunk is definitely a game with a shelf life. But now I’m getting ahead of myself.
There are plenty of reasons why Frostpunk works, but before I address the mechanical stuff, let me reiterate one final time: This game is really pretty. Obviously the graphical quality is machine-dependent, and this stuff shouldn’t factor too much, but: I have actually just sat and watched in-game nights go by. The looks (and the sounds, for that matter) really bring the world of Frostpunk to life, getting you that much deeper in what it is you’re actually doing. I said this stuff shouldn’t factor, but it factors a little bit, if we’re honest.
Gameplay-wise, Frostpunk is characterized more than anything else by the ever-present looming reality that you can fail. Other city-builder games have ‘fail’ states, sure, but those never feel quite as oppressive: You might fail a scenario condition, or run out of the resources needed to take an action or perform an upgrade, or lag behind your competitors in score at the end. But if you run out of coal in Frostpunk, the Generator stops working. And since all other buildings draw power from the Generator, in almost every circumstance a Generator failure means your city is going to freeze to death.
(This is, as a final graphical note, superbly visualized by the Generator itself. The imposing brown-orange and omnipresent hum set against the white backdrop and howling winds of the outside immediately highlight that tower of heat as the beating heart of the city — or humming heart, if you will. It takes only a few seconds to realize that keeping the Generator alive and active is always your #1 mission, under any circumstance.)
Especially in the early-game, this ever-present risk of total failure drives everything. The resources you can initially extract (without the Generator running and without advanced research) are highly limited, and if you don’t get your studies done and your infrastructure in place before your wooden crates and ore piles run out, everything collapses. But workers get sick from the cold and from hunger, and might contract frostbite and die, and hope falls and discontent rises as you keep pushing them to the limit. You have to weigh your options carefully to make sure you get to where you need to be before the freebies run out and the temperatures start dropping.
The stress induced by Frostpunk‘s early game is stellar, though it does drop off a little when you get to the mid-game and start unlocking the fancier technologies — the wall drills, steel mills, and coal mines that functionally provide infinite resources. Where early-game Frostpunk is a game of scrounging for materials and ratcheting your town together before nightfall, later-game Frostpunk involves a lot of decision making on its economy overview screens — which, despite the tutorials not really introducing them, are a really helpful and intuitive way of visualizing resource flows.
Resource stress drops off even further in the late game, where manpower (generally) ceases to be an issue and you get access to — minor spoiler here — giant Wild Wild West-style robots that can work 24 hours a day without needing heat or having any possibility of failure. You might start to see that the resource management in this game is actually fairly light, in that there are no real advancement trees or higher-order goods to work towards and no real logistical issues to solve. If this is all Frostpunk was, it would be fun and interesting up until the point where you got your second robot.
But there’s more, of course there’s more. Frostpunk organizes its play in scenarios because it’s secretly a narrative-driven game at heart. You’re not just building a city, you’re rebuilding the British way of life, or preserving vital plant seeds, or saving refugees. The storeline always keeps building during play, hitting you with new objectives and deadlines when you least need them; sometimes soft deadlines, in that you’ll want to get them done as soon as possible, sometimes hard deadlines, of the ‘get this done before the clock runs out or else‘ variety.
This ties into the scouting system, where you send parties of scouts to areas of interest in the ‘Frostland’. It takes your scouts precious in-game time to move there and back again, and every ‘node’ you visit is initially a total surprise. Some of them hold resources, like coal, people, food, or the elusive Steam Cores — a resource you can never construct yourself that gates access to the higher-level techs, adding in another layer of resource management and keeping Frostpunk from getting too trivial. Others reveal more areas of exploration, or provide choices, or drive the story forward.
The combination of this scouting gameplay system and the somewhat simple resource chains explains why Frostpunk currently doesn’t have a free-play mode, and in all likelihood won’t get one. It wouldn’t work. The game is too ‘simple’ to have real long-term challenge, and the most interesting decisions and most limited resources come from scouting, which wouldn’t feel as interesting as it does if it was obviously procedurally generated. Plus, it’s not really built for long-term survival: Temperatures go up and down as you play, but more often down. The very nature of Frostpunk means you can’t hope for long-term stable survival: You’re here to achieve some objective, or freeze trying.
But more than that, mid- and late-game challenge comes from your own people.
More than even the difficulty and the ever-present gloom, this is what sets Frostpunk apart from its contemporaries: It’s a game about people, living their day-too-day lives. I poked fun at the family relations stuff on the first page, and it’s true it doesn’t add much in a mechanical sense, but elements like this do colour the Frostpunk reality. And every so often very human things will call for your attention. This woman lost her family during the evacuation. This man would like warmer houses. This person refuses an amputation that could save their life. People want nice housing, and good food, and stability, and meaning. What do you do in the face of that?
This is also the level of perspective that makes the law system as interesting as it is. On a strictly mechanical level, ascribing laws goes like this: You can add new laws on a 24-hour delay, following a simple branching tree structure. Some laws are single-choice, meaning they’re not in effect until they are, while others are binary choices. Do we take radical action to heal the sick at the cost of debilitating them, or do we provide palliative care? Do we extend our food supplies by making soup, which extends our rations by a reasonable amount, or by mixing regular food with sawdust, providing significantly more ‘food’ at the risk of making people angry and sick? Many laws provide access to new buildings, or ‘building abilities’, and almost all of them play with Hope and Discontent in some way. You’ll want to keep the former up and the latter down, and that’s not always as easy as you’d want it to be.
Here’s a thing: From my point of view, it seemed pretty obvious that there were ‘good laws’ and ‘bad laws’ — some laws were really focused on ‘ensuring survival at any and all cost’, while others were clearly about ‘making sure we live happy and well, even though that might cost us in the short term’. Again on a mechanical level, it felt like the former laws were supposed to be alluring for their immediate benefits, while the latter laws should be alluring for what they represent in the long run: Do we institute formal burials, which will take time and resources, and just freeze corpses at no immediate effort and also conserve the organs for later transplantation? It was an interesting idea, but in practice I never really felt I needed the ‘bad’ laws. Even early on, I had the sensation I could deal with anything Frostpunk threw at me without taking things that far. And later on… let’s just say your starting problems don’t remain your most significant problems forever. And under normal circumstances you cannot undo laws. Which is going to lead to some disappointing scenarios where, say, you sign child labor into law, and then two days later a giant group of refugees shows up at your doorstep, ready to work and rendering your previous labor issues moot.
Oh, and to add insult to injury, many ‘good’ laws have follow-ups that still provide real benefits. So instead of child labor, maybe you signed into existence child shelters, which cost space and resources but increase Hope. A follow-up law to that lets you assign those kids as ‘interns’ to either the science or medical domains, improving for free the efficiency of those areas you’d most want improved anyway, in a way that regular child labor would never be able do! And without the stigma, to boot. People even like this idea.
So, from a mechanical point of view, there seems to be a clear ‘optimal’ way to play things.
That’s not the point, though. Through all its laws and scouting choices and city events and everything that happens, Frostpunk isn’t just asking you to be optimal: It’s asking you want kind of society you’re trying to be. Here’s where that very human focus comes into view again. Do you really want to run a society where everyone has to work 14-hour days all the ti me? Sure, it makes sense to you: You know the secret hidden goals you’re trying to achieve, to win this ‘simulation’. All that your people know is that they’re being run ragged. ‘Emergency measures’, you said. It’s been that way for weeks now. Is this how it’s always going to be under your rule?
Say you find a group of refugees in the Frostland. What do you do? You can tell your scouts to bring them all in, tying them up for a while as they return home and bringing in dozens of people — hale and sick, young and old. You can tell them to give the refugees directions, so they can make the trip themselves — probably leading to the deaths of the sick and the infirm, but letting the strong arrive at your camp relatively sound. Or you can just move on, knowing that without your help, every one of those people will die — and not tax your limited food supplies even further.
Made a choice? Okay, now instead imagine that those refugees suddenly showed up on your doorstep. Same choices: Let them all in, only let the strong in, or reject everyone. Does that feel like a different choice to you, all of a sudden? Interesting how that works, huh?
Frostpunk is so much a game about telling these human stories that, should you get to the end of a scenario, it won’t tell you how ‘well’ you did, or give you a numerical score. It’ll tell you about your choices, and the impact those choices will have on the future. I won’t spoil too much here, but there was a choice I made at the end of the second scenario — a choice that maybe wasn’t communicated to me as such super clearly — that essentially doomed my camp and my conservation efforts in favour of the survival of total strangers. Frostpunk called me out on this directly, and it was right in doing so: I made that choice knowing why I did it, and what it would likely cost me. Had I made the other choices, it would have called me out all the same, and I would have deserved that, too.
Did you know that Frostpunk was made by the same people who made This War Of Mine? I didn’t know this while playing, but finding it out while writing this review wasn’t exactly a surprise.
All these words, and I didn’t even get to talk about my favourite Frostpunk moment, which happens near the end of the original scenario. Again, I won’t actually say too much, because of spoilers, but — let’s just say that the game builds to a particular thing, and you prepare for the thing, and then the deadline hits and you expect that to be the end of it. And then it isn’t. And the thing plays out, and it’s — just as rad as you were worried it might be. It brings everything cool about Frostpunk together: Mechanics, preparation, human stories, audiovisual spectacle. It rules.
Frostpunk is a stellar game. It’s not your average city builder, and you shouldn’t approach it as such, but it’s… It’s itself, is really all I can say. It’s Frostpunk. It’s an incredible example of what any genre can be if designers look at it with fresh eyes, and a willingness to get all gloomy about things. Between this, This War Of Mine, and an old tower defense favorite of mine called Anomaly: Warzone Earth, 11 Bit Studios have done some real interesting genre-redefining work, and I’ll be paying attention to whatever they choose to do next.
As for Frostpunk, it runs about 30 dollars on Steam. If you’re even remotely intrigued by what I laid out here, it’s worth it.
Jarenth is better at dealing with cold than with heat, so he’s not particularly looking forward to Heatpunk. Give him better names for this dumb joke idea on Twitter or hang out with him on Steam. And if you dig Indie Wonderland and Ninja Blues in general, why not consider supporting our Patreon campaign?