Frostpunk is an exercise in misery. The latest city builder amongst many (SimCity, Cities: Skylines (C:S), the Anno series, Aven Colony, Surviving Mars and more), Frostpunk attempts something more than just the same old optimized living/working space, building-placement puzzle. Frostpunk demands you ask yourself, again and again, how far you’ll go to ensure your people’s survival.
In that way, Frostpunk is far different than any other game of this type. It is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. A dangerous morality test dressed in the trappings of yet another exercise in civil engineering.
Developed and published by 11 bit studios, the makers of This War of Mine, Frostpunk starts out with a unique setting and premise. You are the leader of a small band of post-apocalyptic survivors in a dystopian steampunk world. It’s unclear what has happened, exactly, but the world has frozen over and very few human beings are left. Abandoning everything they own, including their very hopes and dreams, this small band is looking to you, the gamer, to create a better life for them around a small, coal-fired smoke stack.
Immediately, then, this is no SimCity experience. You’re not making some bourgeois utopia here. The setting for Frostpunk, on its own, is a massive downer, and that’s before we start talking about the actual gameplay. The world you live in is cold and getting colder. Your resources are thin and there will be far less of them soon. Life is cheap and death is certain. The winds howl. The music mourns.
And yet, there’s a comfort in this early simplicity. Unlike, say, Cities: Skylines, you’re too busy just trying to mine enough coal to keep the heat on to worry about more aesthetic things like where to place your traffic circle. There is no traffic here, just long lines of hungry, broken souls trudging out to their daily existence.
The game tracks the misery and hope of these people using two meters that are present at all times: hope and despair. Every time you do something that people like, their hope meter will rise. But if things go bad, despair goes up. If despair gets too high and hope drops too low, they’ll revolt and kick you out of town to go freeze to death. Not a happy ending.
Building your city
The primary concern is to keep the giant, central smokestack running. If that thing goes, so does the heat, and people will quickly turn to popsicles (blue and dead as one of my coworkers likes to say). But that’s not enough, of course. People need homes, which take wood. They need food, which requires hunters and cooks. Regardless of how well you treat your people, they’ll still get sick or injured, so you’ll need someplace to take care of them, as well.
One thing that helps you deal with all these miseries is the ability to create laws. Every 24 hours the game allows you to enact a new law for your people. Many of these open up new options (the ability to put children to work) or new buildings (such as better healthcare options). However, many of the laws are also binary. That is, if you decide to make children work in the coal mines, you won’t be able to train them later to do more technical jobs.
Laws are great, and they really do force you into some tough choices. Many games (I’m thinking of the Bioware stuff in particular) give you the “good” or “evil” option with little incentive to choose either beyond that they are “good” or “evil.” Frostpunk pushes you into hard choices. If wood is scarce that means your people won’t have enough houses and they could freeze to death. However the number of workers available to you is never enough – you need wood now, not in three days. Ten or twenty extra little hands could help a lot. But now you’re putting children to work, and putting them at risk of injury or worse. You can’t help but feel like a bit of a monster and, guess what, your people will see you that way, too (as reflected in those helpful hope/despair meters).
The other way you can improve your people’s lot in life is through research. Yes, Frostpunk has a full research tree. Research trees, actually, there are four of them, each with multiple levels of technology that you can eventually earn. The techs are almost all really useful and important, and it can be tough to decide which to start working on, when. Research takes resources, of course, and also requires specially trained members of your workforce called Engineers. Going from picking up piles of coal to full on hydraulic coal mines and factories is very rewarding and gives the game an added sense of progression. Look how far we’ve come! Whoops, someone just died.
Telling the story
All of this is good (great, really) but it isn’t what makes Frostpunk so different from others of its ilk. What really breaks the game out of the mold is its focus on narrative elements. All your residents have names – most of them also have spouses or children – and you can track them the whole way through. When someone dies, their widow will go and mourn them at their grave.
The people aspect is also one of the weaker points of Frostpunk to this point. There’s a whole lot of information here that just doesn’t seem to apply as often as it should. Knowing that John Smith is married with children is neat, but it doesn’t affect gameplay and this feels like a miss, somehow. You never get quests or events tied to these specific people or their specific circumstance in ways that truly alter gameplay, which is something I expected given the thematic elements of this game. Why, then, provide so much detail when it’s essentially useless?
Other narrative aspects of the game are far better implemented. You will face in-game crises, times when you’re given a specific request or tragedy and forced to deal with it. Much like the laws discussed above, these are binary choices that often have no right answer but plenty of consequences. Promising to build houses is fine enough, but should you give a whole kitchen the day off work to mourn a dead child? Sure it seems kind to let them have the time, but won’t it be kinder for everyone to eat? These choices help add more to the story, to let your city feel like a living place with a real history.
There’s more to the storytelling, as well, but I’ll stop here because I don’t want to put out any spoilers. Yes, spoilers, in a city-building game. Suffice to say, stuff happens. You will have to respond to that stuff. Some of it will change the very underpinnings of the game, itself. It’s very, very well done.
Appreciating the world
Frostpunk is a beautiful game. The visuals are exceptionally well-done, creating a believable world. Buildings look right but they’re also functional – telling a cookhouse from a hunter’s lodge is easy and intuitive. There are moments when the game even crosses the line to gorgeous, where I actually wished I could zoom in even closer than normal, just to marvel at the little details.
In fact, the graphics may be a little too good – my poor little laptop was unable to run the game. I’m not using the latest super rig, but the machine plays Stellaris just fine, and it failed to even start Frostpunk without crashing to desktop. Too bad – this is the kind of game that would be perfect for a commute or a plane ride.
Music is totally throwaway – it’s just one woeful tune over, and over and I quickly got bored of it. Sound design, though, is award-worthy. The developers did a fantastic job of letting the sounds of their world help draw you into the environment. The wind howling, the jangling of bells, even the way a new law is announced – it’s worth playing the game just for how immersive it can be. I often find myself playing, sitting in a house with no A/C in 80 degree weather, shivering along with my people.
Quality of Life
I didn’t run into any major bugs in my time with Frostpunk. There is some weirdness here and there – people who are already sick often have a note saying “unlikely to get sick.” That’s, ummm, too little too late there, buddy. For the most part though this is a clean, polished experience.
The big problem is going to be playtime, a common complaint about games of this genre. Once you’ve been through the Frostpunk experience, once you’ve figured it out, you’re basically done with the game. There will be false starts – your first few cities will be disasters. But once you learn the little tricks – uncovered the narrative conceits – you’ve basically beaten the game and that may be too little for some players.
I think there’s probably between 10 to 20 hours of game here. For some, that’s a dealbreaker, but it wasn’t an issue for me. Frostpunk is so unique, so well-crafted, I’m more than happy to recommend it, and I think it’s more than worth the cost. If every game you purchase has to have 50+ hours in it, then Frostpunk is not for you, but I think you’re cheating yourself of a lot of great gaming experiences by holding everything to that standard.
Even better, the game has been a bona fide hit, and the developers have said they are already working on multiple expansions. With more content coming, what is currently a short, memorable experience should have a lot of life going forward.
Right now, Frostpunk is on my short list for best games I’ve played this year. The unique setting, the imaginative and challenging gameplay, the way that it takes the traditional city builder and makes it something more – I think it’s genre defining. This is a special experience and it’s worth your time and money. I’m very hopeful that city builders in the future will begin incorporating more and more narrative elements going forward.
Frostpunk is an exercise in misery, yes. And that’s what makes it so amazing.
TL;DR: Frostpunk is a game about morality hiding in a city-builder’s clothing. Players will take a huddled mass of freezing post-apocalyptic, steampunk people and try to build them a city they can live in while making choices that they hope they can live with. There are plenty of interesting choices throughout the game, but once you’ve ‘solved’ it, there’s very little additional content to keep you playing for now.
You might like this game if:
- You play games for their narrative and setting
- You like games that give you hard choices
- You enjoy a good city builder, but you’re looking for a new take on the genre
- You like the steampunk setting, or post-apocalyptic settings, or Antarctica
You might NOT like this game if:
- You must have 50+ hours of content in order to purchase a game
- You can’t stand a game where failure is a real possibility, or even the point
- You want a light, airy, escapist setting
- You’re running an old, underpowered computer/laptop
Joshua was provided this game by the developers for the purposes of this review which he played for 20+ hours on a Powerspec g313 with an Intel i5 6600k processor, 16GB DDR4 RAM and a NVIDIA GeForce GTX 1070.