Frostpunk is a city building, survival simulator where the player is given the duty of building the last city on earth after an immense frost has decimated the planet. It’s made by 11 bit studios who previously created the bleak war survival game, This War of Mine, and now with Frostpunk, the studio continue on their path of creating dismal and harrowing games with rich atmosphere and challenging gameplay. As the leader of this new society, you must rebuild the city and manage its citizens. Many decisions you make hang in the balance of what is good for resources and survival against what is good for its people. The choices you make have an influence on the story and how your city grows and how your society of governed.
Personally, I loved playing This War of Mine and I’ve been closely following the development of Frostpunk. Throughout this review I’ve sprinkled in some comparisons to This War of Mine being that they both examine thought-provoking stories of societies in desperate times, This War of Mine from a civilian perspective and Frostpunk from a leadership perspective. Frostpunk is available on Steam, Humble and GOG for £24.99 / $30.00
In Frostpunk humanity is close to it's end, an intense and infinite snowstorm has pushed the human race to the edge of extinction. Like all steam-punk themed games, its set in the early 1990s at the turn of the century and you are part of a group of London refugees. Deciding to leave London your group moves north across the frozen sea in search if a new beginning, and sure enough your group finds an old battered generator which starts as the foundation for your new home. There is a constant heavy atmosphere and coupled with the steam-punk 1900s industrial setting, there is a feeling that humanity has toughened up. The people that you are governing expect the worst having been through hell frozen over, everything that was before such as social class and wealth has all gone and now everyone is poor, cold and desperate.
In the main campaign of Frostpunk, the story focuses on the survival and management of your city, due to the immense cold the game revolves around developments in steam technology and keeping your city and it’s residents warm. As the story progresses, there are a number of events where you must make tough decisions and depending on what you chose these events can drive your society towards either hope of discontent. These story events on the first playthrough are intense and exciting, they plunge the story in different directions that I never expected. But after playing the campaign again, it seems like there is a single narrative that the story follows. It’s still a great story, but I wish there was a little more variety depending on your cities circumstances. After multiple playthroughs, I understood what event was coming up and I built my city in preparation which takes the excitement out of the harsh, unpredicted nature of the environment.
Where the story does pick up is when you start to find out what is going on outside your city. There is a mechanic that allows you to send scouts out to brave the icy tundra and find out what happened. Are there any other survivors? What happened to make the world like this? As you send your scouts further and further away from your city there is a higher chance of them not returning. This is one of many tough moral decisions of the game, you want to find out what else lies beyond your city even at the risk of losing your scouts in the process.
Accompanied by the main campaign are two other scenarios, they both have their own storylines and the player is set different goals to keep things interesting. What surprised me was that there was no option for a sandbox mode, which is almost a must-have in simulation games. However, 11 bit studios have always released extra stories, free DLC and more for This War of Mine so it shouldn’t be a surprise if they release more scenarios that further explore this mysterious frozen world and a sandbox mode.
The survival mechanics in Frostpunk rely on your city staying warm and city temperature lies at the core of the game. You start by gathering coal to get your looming, tower of a generator going and starting with small settlements you build your city around the need for coal, wood, steel, and food. The generator lies at the heart of your city and everything is built around in a circular shape, like a mechanical spider web. Keeping the generator running to distribute heat is the number one concern, without warmth your people will get sick and eventually die. I feel like this idea about the dangers of the cold was expanded from This War of Mine where the cold was always a constant threat and a major concern. If one of your group got sick, they could not scavenge for supplies and without food supplies, your group would starve. Frostpunk takes this idea and blows it up to a bigger scale where mass groups of civillians can get ill easily if not catered for and then the system collapses. No workers, no supplies, no coal, and if the generator dies then the city dies and civilisation falls with it.
As you develop your city you start to build better housing, food distribution centers, medical tents and there is an obvious focus on industry. Coal mines, saw mills, steel factories are all prominent structures you must develop to survive. Your city can also have researchers who will develop and evolve your current technologies. Similar to the Civilisation games, you can choose what they can work on from a technology tree menu and then different options become available when they have fully researched it.
Building your city’s infrastructure is fun but what I think is particularly engaging about Frostpunk is the social side of your cities development. Similar to the technology tree, the game also has an ‘Adaption’ tree which is a book of laws the player browse and put certain laws into effect. These laws can decide on how you approach healthcare, food rations, work routines. Not enough food? Use sawdust to bulk up rations. Need more resources? Extend the hours of work shifts.This is where the real tough choices lie within in the game, in this new world that needs all the help it can to survive, is the decision to have child labour (which was totally legal in the 1990s) that abhorrent?
There are many difficult laws and decisions that as a leader you must decide upon and depending on your management and leader skills you will either keep the devotion of your people or be overthrown. There are many decisions you can make, so even though the story might be repetitive the different paths you can take regarding the shape your society makes you want to replay. For fans of This War of Mine I have good news, there are multiple save slots! In This War of Mine there was only one save slot (fitting in with the game’s theme) but in Frostpunk there are multiple, a blessing indeed.
Regarding challenge, because it’s subjective, I do think Frostpunk is difficult. If you are used to strategy simulation games then I think you won’t have a problem but the game does crank up the difficulty a couple hours in. The harsh, cold weather can turn nasty and be the downfall of your city if you're not careful. There are customisable options you can toggle at the start of the campaign to make the game easier and more difficult but even after I messed around with the easy mode it was still challenging and the hard mode, don’t ask.
Graphics and Audio
The visuals and audio of Frostpunk are some of the most detailed and polished I’ve experienced in a while. Whilst the steam-punk tag is a good aesthetic to hook people, Frostpunk really does go beyond that aesthetic and drives home the bleak, industrial feel of the game. The game manages to balance being desolate and miserable whilst also being quite stunning and artful in its visual details. Every option screen, menu and event window is framed in a splash of a black inky mess that bleeds out slowly. Every time you make a decision, click on a building, or any other interaction its always accompanied with beautifully drawn illustrations that move. As the temperature drops in the game, the sides of the screen start to freeze up, as the frost slowly creeps in. There are so many little details that really bring the game to life.
This also carries on into the game’s sound. The sound of the city makes it feel so alive from the creaking of the looming generator, the booming drone of a klaxon indicating when work shifts start, options and menu’s have a clockwork-gear turning noise when selected. It’s weird to say but the game sounds cold: an icy breeze, glaciers cracking, the crunch of snow – the sound design is impeccable. It’s not steam-punk for aesthetics sake, the visuals and audio completely encompass the cold, industrial themes of the game.
I am loving Frostpunk, it has an intriguing story, great society managing mechanic and has given incredible attention to its visuals and sound design. Although the story has the same events, I keep replaying it to find out how to govern the city differently. 11 bit studios understand the importance of hope and despair and use it to create thoughtful and intimate stories. I do think the price is steep, but if you like winter apocalypses, steam-punk vibes, moral based decision-making and management sims then Frostpunk is not one to miss. This is one of my favourites of the year so far and another great game from 11 bit studios.
|+ Moral based decision making in deciding laws||– Story events repeat in the main campaign|
|+ Intriguing setting of a post-apocalyptic Winterland||– No sandbox mode|
|+ Crisp and detailed steam-punk aesthetics|