Platform: Multi | Developer: 11 bit studios S.A | Released: 2018
As our citizens drag us down to the chambers beneath the generator, we don’t mourn those we’ve lost, and we don’t regret the extreme laws we passed. All we think is: “I just needed one more day.” It’s a situation we’ve gotten used to during our time playing Frostpunk, a survival city-builder that seems to pride itself on being unerringly harsh.
Set in an alternate 1886 in which a volcanic winter has cast the ill-prepared world into an ice age, Frostpunk has the last remnants of the British Empire fleeing north. Finding a monolithic coal generator, the community settles around its heat-giving perimeter and sets to building the world’s last city. As their leader, it’s your job to guide this endeavour, keeping them warm, fed, and sheltered along the way. Humanity’s survival depends on it. No pressure, then.
It’s your job to oversee every facet of the fledgling city. The ideal situation sees you build up a healthy stockpile of fuel, food, and building materials. Alongside this, you will have been using your engineers to research new heating and structural technologies, develop resource mines, assemble automatons, and have mapped the surrounding barren landscape and gathered survivors with your scouting parties. But how close you can get to this ideal is another matter entirely.
“The game punishes impatience, complacency, and ignorance in equal measure.”
Like many city-builders, the simulated infrastructure of Frostpunk is intricate. The interrelation of resources, production, and community health – both physical and psychological – all affect each other in myriad ways. What makes Frostpunk so tough and unique, however, is the survival element. The weather is against you, causing illness and frostbite. Your resources are finite. The people under your rule have needs, expectations, and ultimatums – some more reasonable than others – and they are scared and angry, demanding much from you regardless of the unrelenting circumstances.
It’s amid these pressures that the game shows its real spirit. Frostpunk wants you to be hard, intelligent, and informed. The game punishes impatience, complacency, and ignorance in equal measure. Like our freezing survivors, it wants you to feel uncomfortable.
Take the main campaign, ‘A New Home’. While things may start well, the situation can easily spiral. Stockpiles are diminished with increasing ferocity as the city modestly expands. The game pushes you to the limits of your skill, quickly forcing you into a state of micromanagement. Using the economy visualiser, you’ll balance workforces and resource requirements, adding here, taking there, until it all just about lines up. But, if one or two workers get ill, or the temperature drops and the call for coal rises, things can be instantly thrown into disarray. Your success is fed back in real-time, with the Hope and Discontent bars rising and falling moment by moment. If the people’s discontent gets too high – through harsh conditions, trying laws, and too many broken promises – you will be ousted. There’s no room for second chances here.
“Like our freezing survivors, it wants you to feel uncomfortable.”
Eventually, you learn to stay ahead, how to read your people’s needs, the weather forecasts, and the economy visualisers. You learn when auxiliary steam hubs can be switched off, when structures should be dismantled, when you can sacrifice some of the limited workforce to scouting expeditions, and when to push through hardship and spend vital resources on tide-changing research. But you only get to this stage through some seriously unforgiving trial and error.
Away from the campaign, there are other game modes available. Scenario mode sees you tackle a more focused goal, like in ‘The Ark’, where you and a band of engineers must protect the last seedlings from an impending ice storm. Then there is Endless, an open-ended mode with customisable parameters. Both game styles are invaluable tools, allowing you to train in the game mechanics under alternative circumstances.
Compounded by the one-dimensionality of the city-builder genre, Frostpunk’s relentlessness and intricacies mean that it’s rarely ‘fun’. Despite varying parameters, the methodology and goal are consistent: keep warm, keep fed, survive. If you’re so minded, this consistency provides ample opportunity for becoming intimate with the inner-workings and calculations, and hours will pass like minutes. For those otherwise inclined, a few long sessions and the odd skirmish will be enough to satisfy your survival instincts.