Review: Frostpunk23 Apr 2018 1
Released 23 Apr 2018
I’ve not felt this feeling about a game for a long time. That lightness of the heart, a shortness of breath. This is not my first, nor my third attempt on the game. It’s my sixth, maybe my seventh playthrough. I’ve got responsibilities damn it! Real life! Civilization is the one where “one more turn” becomes the mantra, where a session can last the entire night. Not Frostpunk!?
If Strategy Games were more traditional media, and Crusader Kings were Game of Thrones and Age of Empires were say Braveheart (seriously, remember its tutorial?) then Frostpunk is Apollo 13, or The Martian. You’re out of luck, in a very cold place, with extremely limited resources available, and you have to rely on ingenuity and hope for your people to survive the coming days. New problems, new solutions and more problems really sum up the heart of the challenges you’ll be presented with here.
Admittedly, the analogy doesn’t hold up to scrutiny, but I think that conveys the essence of the game. Frostpunk doesn’t give you one problem. No, that’s for lesser games and lesser gamers! You’re in a pretty good place if you only have a single problem (namely the fricking freezing ice world you now inhabit). And be assured every single one of those problems are interconnected. If something goes wrong, other things will surely go wrong too. One after other, cascading problems that can bring your city to its knees and your game to an end. Untreated illnesses piling up means more people are off work. More people off work affects your production, which affects your coal. Less coal could well mean a generator shut down. Cold homes and cold people means only one thing: more illnesses, potentially (read: certainly) frostbite, death, amputations, useless mouths convalescents and the cycle only continues. Everything has an effect upon everything else. Your city is a stuttering, dying organism in need of saving.
How to fix all these problems? Good games, especially good strategy games, offer good, and difficult, choices. Your choices might all be bad, but you gotta do something! And do it fast. 11 bit Studios have – somehow – created a micro intensive city builder.
Let’s be clear: city builder is used in its broader sense. At its heart, I’d suggest Frostpunk is about telling a story, rather than building the perfect city with pristine boulevards. When the story ends, your game ends too. This is no Cities: Skylines, there isn’t enough room for your city to sprawl and grow ad infinitum. As is fitting for a frozen apocalypse, city customization and similar extravagances are lost beneath the ice. Your city is built in a circle, growing outwards from the tower of the central generator. Constricting to be sure, but if you want your city to survive, you’ll have to grit your teeth and build like the game wants you to – it’s for the best.
Admittedly, it is slightly disappointing to be torn from the city you have shepherded for what feels like forever once you have completed the story. I want to know what comes after! Being a sucker for steampunk and frozen worlds like Metro 2033, I would love to see whether the great frozen world ever thaws. That said, the variety of scenarios, each with their own extremely distinct, carefully designed stories, challenges and extremely individual moral dilemmas, do make up for it. Where many games simply recycle scenarios with the barest minimum of variation (variation usually achievable simply by tweaking difficulty settings), such distinct stories are indeed a blessing. I’ve still yet to crack two of the three scenarios provided in the review build. A fourth is promised as well.
The game’s greatest strength, its choices, can be a double-edged sword. With half a dozen things going wrong, a thoughtless decision early on can ruin everything as the game develops. Frustration can easily set in, especially if you’re still learning the game’s intricacies. Laws are locked in. I had a labour crisis before, now I want to be a good boy and not have child labourers in the mines (I deny everything). Unfortunately, I can’t repeal laws, meaning that any potential benefits I may gain from doing good things with the future of humanity are gone forever. Mistakes in basic stuff like medical laws can also lead to hospitals full of patients who do nothing but taking up space. Triage is a thing that we need to relearn.
Matters aren’t helped by the game’s sometimes aggravating handling of missions, given to you by the story or by your own people. For example, having been set a task to keep a particular number of houses warm, I happened to begin upgrading them (as that increases the amount of warmth they provide). The process of constructing a new building was treated as cutting off heat, thus causing the mission to fail and my people get grumpier. An obvious mistake to be sure, but a similar one in a previous game made my people banish me, ending the game. Having your people turn on you is made all the more frustrating when the rest of your city is doing well.
I’ve avoided making reference to 11 bit studios’ previous masterpiece, This War of Mine, until now. The comparison is simply unfair. I am forced to now in discussing the people of Frostpunk. The great success of TWOM was in the way it handled the very, very limited manpower you had, and the personal stories that came as you fought its embattled world. Frostpunk’s people are largely faceless. The only time you will learn their names is when you click upon them by accident when you go to select a building. Numbers, not names, crop up when they die. New arrivals are not treated with joy (these are the last survivors of the human race damn it!) but with groans as you have to build more heated homes and all the facilities to support these new problems. When they speak, they speak in silent text that you can simply ignore.
All this is inevitable really. Frostpunk’s cities can grow to many hundreds of people. Personalising these people would do nothing for the experience. The legacy of TWOM lives on in the choices alluded to above. Your mileage may vary, but after a decent amount of time in Frostpunk, I do like the people of my towns. Moaning, groaning, firing me at the drop of the hat, but at least they recognise when I’ve done a good job. I’ll even admit to feeling a pang when, trials and tribulations done with, they emerged from their frozen holes to be glad they’d survived another few days. That is more than can be said for the ungrateful chattels of any number of other management games.
You, as all-seeing overlord of your city, do have some ways to keep your people in line of course. It is here where the game takes perhaps its most sinister turn. I won’t spoil things in this area. The discovery of all the various types of evil that you can do to keep people in line is part of what makes the experience special. The pragmatic requirements of survival and the greater good ram smack bang into everyday stuff like: “not being evil”. The game however, has its own opinion upon your acts, and won’t hesitate to tell you what it thinks when the time comes. The only fly in the ointment, in this writer’s opinion, is the binary choice of (for lack of a better term) your 'ideology'. It would’ve been nice to have at least one more path to experiment with. That said, the attention to detail, and the different benefits of each path do make up for this somewhat.
I’ll admit to being worried when I first launched Frostpunk. It was easy to feel like there wasn’t a lot there. You had, so it seemed, a second-rate city builder. Good, but there are plenty of other games that pure management better. How wrong I was. City building isn’t really the point of Frostpunk. What makes Frostpunk special are its choices. Every choice matters, every decision counts. Over the course of two hours (yes, just two!), you are in for a rollercoaster of emotions. 'Success' (the way the game handles this means success is relative to your personality) is deeply satisfying. It handles its morality with a fine touch. I’ve never cared about the people under my command in any game more than in Frostpunk. The window-dressing isn’t perfect. Aspects of the experience are frustrating; a couple of failed games can leave one a tiny weeny bit annoyed. I am not even sure if some of the scenarios are even possible! Yet if the perfect game is a series of choices where every choice has meaning, then Frostpunk is it.