The sheer emotional weight behind each decision is what separates Frostpunk from other city builders. Where enacting child labour laws or turning away refugees on the basis that you simply don’t have enough food or shelter to go around, further emphasises the stark narrative ambition of its survival side. One that eschews the more free-form experimentation and endless structure found in most simulations, instead providing intensely focused pre-determined scenarios.
Where you’re in charge of saving humanity as a new ice age dawns and temperatures plummet. No stress.
Set in an alternate Victorian-era London, the game beings as this new ice age is on the brink of wiping out humanity. The only hope for those left cold and bitter in the streets of London is to travel north, where the promise of high-tech heat-generators and a warm bed awaits. Located inside man-made craters, where each coal-powered structure spills out plumes of steam and smoke into the sub-zero air above, the world of Frostpunk blends the grit and grime of the industrial-era with steampunk’s neo-future vision of automated machines and large intricate machinery.
Frostpunk is a survival game first and foremost. One that just so happens to be built around well-designed city builder and real-time strategy mechanics. Where you’ll not only need to gather resources and ensure that everyone doesn’t freeze to death, but also choose what laws to enact and technology to research. This can result in a small close-knit society, where prayer meetings take place in the evening around the deity-like spire that is the generator. Or a dystopian world where labour is enforced, and free-thought is treated as a crime. Where in either scenario children can work extended hours to prepare meals whilst adults toil in coal mines and steam-powered saw mills.
As the first of three story-driven scenarios begins, you lead a group of survivors aboard a steam-powered transport on their way to a generator. After breaking down, a smaller group is forced to travel on foot as temperatures plummet, in hope of finding rescue. Reality sinks in once the scouting party comes across the generator. Switched off and in the middle of an eerie ghost-town, there’s no-one around nor any infrastructure or housing in sight.
Outside of a tutorial-meets-basic-hint system, like the survivors described above, Frostpunk throws you into the deep-end. Tired, hungry, and exhausted, the despair of dropping temperatures mean that a plan needs to come together in an instant. Work must be carried out. Resources gathered, food sourced, and expeditions sent to bring back those too weak to make the trek to the generator.
Sure, spending such a long time explaining the premise of the first scenario doesn’t really offer any real constructive criticism. But in the case of Frostpunk, because the setting is so vital to its survival aspects whilst serving as the basis for just about every city builder design choice, it’s worth delving into it for one simple reason - it’s executed spectacularly. In the sense that each move you make carries with it emotional weight and baggage that can only be described in Marty McFly parlance; this is heavy Doc. Like, super heavy.
Thanks to the wonderful visuals, animation, and music, Frostpunk doesn’t have to leave much to the imagination. From the way snow deforms as citizens make the trek from their tents to a work-site, or the way that a Steam Hub creates a small circle of dirt as it melts the snow away, little details can be found almost anywhere you look. It’s a technical marvel, and one that fully conveys the interplay between heat and the cold. The bright white light of the sun offers no real solace in the world of Frostpunk, and the warm orange glow and steam of heat sources are both visually and thematically outmatched as cold winds blow and all manner of snow, frost, and cold dark steel obscure every small pocket of warmth.
It’s a losing battle, which in turn makes your first experience with Frostpunk one of sheer intensity. Outside of objectives tied to time or laws enacted, there’s no advisor telling you to where you should be focusing your efforts. Instead all you really have is a meter that measures your society’s hope and discontent. This means that running out of wood could delay efforts to build new homes which in turn could lead to more citizens getting sick and upset. And from there possibly even leading to deciding what to do once your first citizen faces the prospect of death due to an entire limb taken by frostbite. Or, someone simply too overworked that insists on taking a day to rest. Do you force them to go back into the mine?
Frostpunk places emphasis not only on the plight of a society, but also individuals within. This leads to several decisions that need to be made based on survival. A question that few games handle as well. And in the guise of a city builder you end up with one of the most fascinating and deeply unsettling, yet strangely entertaining, strategy experiences in years. Things go from bad to worse to dire in the matter of minutes, and before long you’re able to justify fascism or strict government rule and, well, oppression. For the simple reason of being able to survive for another day or week without losing hundreds of lives. Again, it’s heavy. And Frostpunk is certain to leave its indelible mark long after you step away from the keyboard.
But, it’s also an experience that loses some of its impact when you replay scenarios to try and get a better result. With accrued knowledge of how things play out, the linear nature of the scenarios instead become examples of learning the systems at play to maximise an outcome. Instead of rolling with the punches thrown during that first playthrough. Although the difficulty can be raised, which introduces harsher weather patterns, some additional variation or randomness to the progression would have been nice. Or perhaps a separate endless mode that unlocks after the three scenarios are completed, giving players the choice to keep playing continuously. But even something like this would require several new laws, choices, and events to keep from becoming somewhat stale.
Each of the three scenarios though, vary dramatically in their approach with the second giving you direct control over a group of scientists tasked with protecting the world’s plant life. This tech-oriented approach offers drastically different objectives in addition to throwing a spanner in the works once a nearby settlement is discovered. To say anymore would be to spoil the emotional impact of the varied outcome. The third which focuses on refugees, is as harsh and demanding as you’d expect. The fact that there’s no ideal or perfect way to play them is a brilliant design choice. The greater picture often gets lost as you’re left planning from moment to moment simply wondering if you’ll get enough coal before the next temperature plummet. And if your generator can take another overdrive push.
So deep and emotionally resonant are the choices within each scenario that to replay them outside of abject failure is hampered by the connection you feel to the time-based events, your choices, and the lives of your citizens. An aspect that developers 11 bit are fully aware of, as once a scenario is completed, or survived, you’re presented with one of the best visual summaries and conclusions ever seen in a strategy game. Again, to say anymore would be to spoil the impact. Going in with as little knowledge of the mechanics and choices and scenario structure is the best way to experience Frostpunk. One of the most intense, beautiful, and emotionally resonant games that features arranging housing and streets ever made.