Heavy emotional decisions put a human face on the citizens of your frozen colony.
Frostpunk combines the best elements of survival, city-building, and 4X games into one of the more captivating strategy games I’ve played in a while. Thanks to stellar presentation and storytelling, it seamlessly combines these different components into one interesting experience that never feels like a burden to play, even when the difficulty of maintaining a colony during an oppressive ice age ratchets up.
Frostpunk sets the stage with a compelling and timely backstory in which climate change devastates humanity in the late 1800s. Those left alive must seek out the few remaining resources as they attempt to carve out the last city on Earth. It’s not a hopeful tale, but one that effectively communicates the challenges that lie ahead and sets the stage for some difficult and desperate decisions.
This story is told through outstanding animations that help set a stark tone. Throughout, Frostpunk’s art style is effectively minimalistic and washed out, making each bit of color seem like a touch of warmth in the snow. The overall aesthetic reminded me of a Victorian Game of Thrones, complete with lots of gears and swirling snow. Likewise, the sound design and voice acting pushes the harshness of the landscape. In fact, the sound of a cold wind is the first thing that greets you when launching a new game.
Though the graphics challenged my GeForce GTX 880M-powered AlienWare PC, they are bleakly beautiful. Workers carve paths in the snow as they walk, the sunrise splashes across the city, and fires illuminate the buildings around them. Menus are typically clear, though certain functions and iconography are a bit unintuitive. For instance, it took me a while to find the button to build streets. But these issues disappear after playing for an hour or so.
Frostpunk is something like an inverse Tropico.
It’s in the gameplay, though, where Frostpunk shines, mixing up bits from various familiar strategy games into something like an inverse Tropico. Rather than selfishly building power over a tropical paradise, here you make decisions for all of what remains of humanity in the midst of a frozen wasteland. Hope and discontent serve as metrics to indicate how you are doing.
As the leader of this last city, the most basic task you have is to direct the workforce to gather supplies to keep the community going. This aspect plays out like most real-time city builder or survival games, and your workers will trudge through the snow to bringing coal, steel, and wood back to the city center. I appreciate that Frostpunk limits the number of resources to around five, as there is room for supply chain complexity while still avoiding burdening us with an overabundance of different types of goods.
Determining how many workers to send to each stash is a decision you’ll make quite often. In fact, managing the finite number of workers is key to keeping the city going; there will never be as many of them as you’ll want or need. Also making this task difficult is a novel day/night cycle; citizens will only work during the relatively warm daylight shift.
Of course, these workers are humans with needs, so the resources they gather will be used to keep them alive. This is where the city-building aspect of Frostpunk comes into play: buildings process goods and provide heat or housing. Like resource collection, this part of gameplay is tightly focused, thanks to a careful selection of buildings and the radiant nature of the city. Most buildings and streets are placed within rings around a central heat-providing generator, and this thematic touch provides a structure that keeps the city-building gameplay from stealing all of your attention.
Frostpunk demands political action, too.
This restraint is important, as in addition to managing a workforce, rationing a dwindling supply, and constructing buildings, Frostpunk demands political action, too. As the leader of the city, you’ll be forced to make some hard decisions. Many of these come through the crafting of the “Book of Laws,” a tree of edicts that shape the face of your society. They’re often fascinating moral scenarios that have long-lasting consequences. Will you stretch food supplies by intentionally making awful-tasting soup? Will children be forced to work? What will you do with the gravely ill and the corpses of the dead?
Making laws is one thing; responding to personal requests is another. Throughout each game, these emotion-heavy events made me face the consequences of earlier decisions. For instance, employing a child workforce resulted in an accident and a despondent mother. Like 11-bit studios’ previous game, This War of Mine, Frostpunk puts a human face on these decisions and forces you to evaluate survival on both a personal and humanitarian level.
These thought-provoking choices, layered on top of a solid management sim and city builder, is what makes Frostpunk stand apart from other recent city games. However, what makes it work so well is its narrow scope. Everything, including the borders of the city, has a limit, meaning that no aspect of the gameplay overtakes the others. I spent as much time managing workers as I did worrying about where to place a hospital tent. With all of these gameplay plates spinning at once, it’s Frostpunk’s restraint that keeps them manageable.
Resources are tight, hope is fleeting, and losses happen.
Despite all of these varied elements and mechanics, I never really felt overwhelmed. Sure, resources are tight, hope is fleeting, and losses happen. Once, a lethal combination of straggling refugees, a sudden cold snap, and lack of food caused my citizens’ discontent to spiral out of control. The execution center built to help keep order was instead used on me. But generally, a campaign moves along very organically, and everything hangs on a precipitous balance as I try my best to mitigate the damage of the brutally frigid weather.
While managing to keep a city thriving is tough, I found the pace in which Frostpunk reveals each new aspect to be ideal. There’s always a new carrot dangled in front of you to keep you hooked, whether it’s a search party exploring a cave or the development of a new technology.
Some of those come from side activities, including that exploration component, a moderately-sized technology tree, and other short-term goals. Of these, the exploration gameplay was my favorite because even these remote locations serve up unique decisions that have lasting impacts. For instance, using a scout team to escort rescued children back to the city is the safest, but ties up that team from gathering much-needed resources – resources that may be needed to build those kids a place to live. Another instance forced me to consider dismantling an abandoned location for immediate assets or keeping it intact for future use.
While the connection between different mechanics isn’t always direct, each element plays into others in interesting ways. For instance, my scout team found an automaton, which then made gathering resources a little easier. Laws can unlock new buildings, which in turn can affect events. Like a complex Choose Your Own Adventure story, I was often fascinated by this cycle of decisions and consequences.
This cycle repeats throughout one playthrough of Frostpunk’s main campaign, which wraps up shortly after an end-game event that occurs around game day 38. (A single playthrough should take around 12 to 15 hours.) This amount of time is enough to complete the entire storyline and see most of what Frostpunk has to offer. Though this mode isn’t completely open-ended, there are enough decision points that playing the campaign multiple times is appealing. Beyond the main campaign are two customizable scenarios that change the focus of your city-building.