Review | Frostpunk
The Frostland is a cold and unforgiving place, but how has it kept survival so fresh?
Frostpunk is one of those games that has spent almost a year collecting dust on my vast steam Wishlist, until one day one of my flatmates sent it over as a belated birthday celebration. A surprise that has absorbed too many hours when I should be sleeping.
It advertises itself as the “First society survival game” and honestly that’s how it feels. Playing the main story, you are quickly thrown into a desperate rush to bring the massive generator online and feed it a steady stream of coal, all while building homes and protecting your people. From here it’s a constant battle against time, the elements and even your own people to keep society afloat.
It’s a punishing, brutal and unforgiving game about survival no matter the sacrifice, but I can’t stop playing it. Its hooks are deep, and I’m loving every damn second.
The games main campaign throws you in as the leader of the last city on Earth, situated far in the North across a hellscape of snow and ice. The world, for unknown reasons that are only hinted at during the plot, has suffered catastrophic global cooling that has turned a prosperous London into a frozen nightmare. As the cities leader it falls to you to set out buildings and enforce laws, though often it’s a lesser of 2 evils kind of situation.
Laws are enforced at the players will in a branch type system, where after a set cooldown, which is longer for certain laws, you can select a new law to bring in. There are very few obvious ‘Good’ and ‘Bad’ options, most of the time it’s not so easy. The decision to use children as labourers rather than build a kid’s shelter is gonna be unpopular, but without an extra few people in the coal mine the generator goes off and everybody dies. Hard decisions are never ending with Frostpunk, morality and survival do not always go hand in hand, and this is one of the first games I’ve seen engage it on such a believable scale.
Another aspect that kept me engrossed throughout this difficult experience was the constant communication with your people. While you won’t know them name by name like other city builders like Stonehearth, people will regularly come to you with concerns or share their thoughts on decisions. It feels like a living population you’re protecting, as opposed to a fleet of nameless drones. Engaging with people in this way, not personally but still accessible to them, really enforces the idea that you are commanding the last few hundred people on Earth. They look to you for support, and if things are not going so well… they look to you as someone to blame.
The game narrative writer within me has a lot to engage with as well. Nearly every single moment something is going on, either within the city or out in the world. In order to survive and understand the world its essential to explore the Frostland, the affectionately named apocalypse of ice surrounding the city. Sending out scouting parties to points of interest can reward a lot, from new survivors to essentially resources and most of the time narrative tidbits into what happened on the long quest to survive.
Finally, the games dramatic tensions hit a peak as the ultimate test of survival is forced upon you. At the end of each game comes a very dramatic time-lapse, showing your city as it built up. Here your character also reflects a little on the events, the decisions you made and whether it was all worth it. Society may have survived, but at what cost? A game feels complete, yet you still have plenty to think on.
It’s a dark game where few decisions are good, and survival is a tenuous proposition. Yet despite being set in a frozen wasteland, it’s the freshest take on the survival city builder I’ve seen in a long time. Whether you like city builders or not, Frostpunk will give you a lot to sink your teeth into, not sticking with the traditional values they are built on. Its performance could be improved however, slight freezes and the rare but infuriating crash can ruin quite a bit of work.
And it's coming to console soon, so surviving the icy death will be available to even more people. Good stuff.
Review Round Up:
Beautiful use of Steampunk architecture
Nice difficulty curve, gives time to learn while also keeping pressure
Tense, immersive gameplay
Requires a decent PC to run (8GB ram at a bare minimum)
Time limitations can be overwhelming