Anything can happen on a snow day. Join me as I review this immensely captivating city-builder that features survival, RPG, and exploration elements. Prepare to compromise your morals.
What is Frostpunk?
Have you ever wondered what it would be like to build and facilitate the last civilization on post-apocalyptic earth set in the 1800s during a global ice-age? Then Frostpunk is the game for you. It is a game that combines the mechanics of city-building and survival games with strategy and story elements that really drive the player to play at a pace that always seems urgent. It forces one to make decisions that may have outcomes that benefit the society as a whole but may require one to question if it is the correct ethical or moral choice to make in light of the situation. Will you use radical medicine to save lives that might leave some people as amputees? If so, will you provide shelter for the infirm? Should the children work? If so will they work alongside the general population or will they be provided with safe jobs? These are all questions that you should be expected to make when playing Frostpunk.
Frostpunk is a game that was developed by 11 Bit Studios. The game has been released on PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and was just recently updated with the FrostPunk: On The Edge expansion, which we will be covering very soon. The game is included in the Xbox GamePass on PC and Xbox, but we should thank the developers for sharing code with MHG for this review as well as the upcoming expansion reviews.
O Captain My Captain
In the game’s main story, the player finds themselves as a Captain of a band of people that have fled London during an extinction-level event that has blanketed the world in snow and sub-zero freezing temperatures. These people have little but clothes and a massive coal-powered engine that is used to provide heat for survival for these people. Otherwise, the people are trekking through snow on foot when the convoy is hit by a massive blizzard and scattered. As captain, you are leading the last known remnant of the original group. It is unknown if there were other survivors, but the worst is feared. The civilization that you will craft is sheltered by a huge cratered piece of land that provides some shelter against these chilling winds.
The game’s story and narration are expertly told through high-quality narrations and voice acting in cut scenes as well as text options that are presented during events as you build and manage the workforce. The aesthetics for the game lend one’s imagination to the Industrial Revolution but during the games later moments also take a turn to the automata and how this tech may save your people. This Victorian cultural setting also means that as the Captain, you are ruling a quite fickle people. They are quite indifferent to the comforts you may have provided to them during the establishment of this new civilization and their loyalties can only be secured by what you are doing in the present situation to make their lives more comfortable. In short, the people that you oversee could very well be considered the game’s antagonist. The people may very well turn on you and exile you to the snow if you cannot meet their needs effectively.
From my perspective
The game is played from a top-down camera angle that is quite gorgeous. I played the game on PC and it really shines in the very high settings. I was running it on the now outdated Geforce RTX 2080 Super. The snow seems realistic and I really enjoyed the ability to zoom down onto the location. Later in the game, you can send out scouting parties to explore the surrounding land and you can then zoom out to see the surrounding areas very seamlessly.
Economy and Resources
There are some resources to be found in this area that your people have chosen to rebuild in such as coal, wood, and steel. As you research new technologies you will be able to gather resources faster and more efficiently from other sources. For example, rather than sending your workers to use pickaxes to harvest coal from a deposit you can build a coal mine or a thumper to extract it which provides a little more shelter from the cold and allows for better health of your workers which leads to a better workforce.
This is true for steel and wood as well. Researching a sawmill will allow you to harvest wood timbers from froze trees rather than just using old wood crates and the shelter from the mill helps prevent frostbite from affecting your workers.
Food is also a necessity for the population. Ultimately, you will need to keep the people fed, warm, and healthy while you are building a sustainable place to live. If you cannot keep the people healthy then they will need medical treatment. In which case they are unable to work to provided heat or food to others in the community which impacts morale. The morale factor is illustrated by Discontent and Hope. Obviously, we want the people to be hopeful, but as negative events occur discontent is impacted by certain debuffs on Hope. While buffs on Hope will negate Discontent.
There is an economy tab built into the game that will quickly show how much of each resource is being accrued per day. If the numbers are negative and shaded red then you had better correct the issue quickly because your consumption is more than the income. If the numbers are green and positive then either not change is needed or you might consider moving some workers from this are to one that is struggling or more necessary.
The various buildings featured in the game work on a city building system that is very intuitive. Buildings need to be placed close to streets that can be built-in rings to be functional. The rings expand with each circuit leading away from the generator that provides the main source of heat. It is simple enough that it allows for planning of building based on the prioritization of which buildings need to heat the most. For example, you will want to keep your residential building close to the generator so that your people do not freeze at night. You can then plan to have your buildings that provided resources further away, as it is warmer during the day. This leads to a network of buildings based on the needs of heat early in the game and improved tech later in the game to deal with heat.
The Book of Laws
Not only will you be building a city but you will also be crafting a book of laws that will govern how this new civilization will be run. This tree of edicts will require certain moral choices on your part that will impact the level of Hope and Discontent among your people. For example, requiring a 24-hour work shift will lead to a temporary increase in resources but it will also increase the level of discontent. It could also result in an injury or sickness causing you to permanently lose a worker. While an extended shift will cause slightly less Discontent and may help get the resources you need. Another example is that food is running short and you choose to make a decree that food rations will be provided by soup and supplemented with sawdust. Obviously the people will not be happy about this but they are less likely to starve. Or perhaps your people are becoming ill at a higher rate, so you sign a law that allows for the sick to be allowed more rations than the populace so that they can recover faster. This is a good gesture, but remember your people are fickle and generally unhappy. Do not count on their support.
Other decisions such as making child labor mandatory will result in injuries of children and the heckling of their mothers and fathers resulting in a drop in morale. In a time of desperation, you may even sign a law into effect that you would never have done so under normal circumstances. Your people are starving and freezing. So you sign a law to allow moonshine to be served. This does not quite boost morale to your liking and you already installed a fighting pit and watchtowers for security purposes in hope of boosting Hope. Well, you could potentially sign a decree allowing for prostitutes, but should you? People are beginning to protest your facilitation. Should you allow this to happen or should you have your guard disperse them to curb the unrest?
Each scenario, you encounter you will have to evaluate the decisions based on standpoints of survival and human decency. Each law that is signed will require a cooldown time, very similar to researching new tech. Therefore, one will want to keep as many laws as possible signed that provide the people with more hope.
There are three types of workers that can be utilized; engineers, workers, and possibly children. I have always used children in safe jobs but there are always unexpected hazards. The children can be used in workshops, soup kitchens, and places that are generally more sheltered from the elements. That is unless you also sign a law that makes them work alongside the workers as well. I have not utilized this one. Engineers can be used in most of the places that a worker can be used except for the hunter’s lodge or soup kitchen. The workers can be used to gather any resources but only an engineer can work in a sick ward or a workshop. Because of the limitations of workers, the player is always in search of the right blend of work. How many workers should be gathering “x” amount of wood, coal, food, etc. How many engineers should I have researching new tech in the workshop, attending sick people, or supplementing the labor force? Should I have children working and if so where? How many scouting parties can I afford to send out?
The normalcy in the chaos
Trying to manage limited resources, build a city, uplift morale and explore the area can be daunting. There is never really a time where resources or workers are in abundance. So the game really pushes you. An influx of refugees and a cold snap can be damning. I have been exiled a handful of times already after what I thought was an amazing economic rush. I found that the narrative of the game is what really hooked me. While I might be focused on getting the heat level up; suddenly I might have a band of saboteurs painting graffiti of a fictitious settlement to create division. Or I may be asked to build two watchtowers to provide a sense of security.
It takes about 12-15 hours to play through the main campaign. This can be regulated somewhat by speeding up the game with the fast mode options. Each event will reset the gameplay back to normal so you do not really have to worry about the game leaving you behind. I only used this tool when I was in a corner with nothing to build or manage. I would not describe the game as open-ended. There are some scripted events that are going to occur but the tech treen and the book of laws provide enough variability that multiple playthroughs are encouraged.
In my Opinion
Although the game’s tone and setting are dire, the gameplay is captivating and entertaining. The game’s difficulty is challenging even in normal mode. It can seem a bit much at times to be playing a city builder game that encompasses exploration and survival elements mixed in with moral decisions. This is all happening while story elements impact your build. Still, the game is very rewarding to play and the morality of the game is quite unique to the genre and creates an experience like no other. The overwhelming aspect can be quite entertaining in its own way. Not to mention the decisions that you may or may not make based on the urgency of the situation. Frostpunk excels in the minutiae of the genre and is truly a must-play.