Available on: PC (Steam)
Developer: 11 bit studios
Publisher: 11 bit studios
Release Date: April 24th, 2018
Reviewed On: PC
Price: $29.99 USD
Frostpunk is a city builder that is all about survival. From the creators of This War of Mine, Frostpunk is set in an alternate history where the Earth’s temperature has plunged and a new ice age has begun, this game tasks you with keeping your survivors alive, while trying to build a self-sustaining city using steampunk technology. That’s much easier said than done with tons of resources to balance, hospitals and homes to build, scouting parties to assemble and whole “Earth is rapidly getting colder and colder” issue. Fortunately, as the Captain of this community, you can change the rules, write down new orders in the Book of Laws. No big deal, right?
It is a big deal, and it’s the driving force behind Frostpunk’s story (or stories, more accurately). These stories contain different scenarios, such as protecting the last seeds on Earth or dealing with waves of refugees. Regardless of the specifics, it’s all about survival and the sacrifices you choose to make are what ensure that survival. Just as an early example, if you’re lacking in manpower, are you willing to let children work “safe” jobs in kitchens? If you do, from there it’s a slippery slope to letting them work in factories and other places. Once something is written in the Book of Laws, there’s no changing it. Everything you do determines how society will continue to function (IF it continues to function).
These decisions can save your community or rapidly spiral out of control. It’s an interesting form of creating your own story; while the scenario might remain the same, how you handle different factors can take the game in wildly different directions. A need for hope might eventually cause a faith-based society, with absolute power placed in the hands of a spiritual leader. A desire for order could result in a totalitarian regime.
While you check on the status of each individual citizen, given the style of game and number of people you’ll be managing, you can feel a little detached at times. That said, the emotional weight of keeping the community healthy is still present and strong, especially when curveballs are thrown your way in the form of weather or supply issues.
Frostpunk looks extremely good. With snow blanketing the vast majority of the map, watching the progression of your community is nothing short of incredible to behold. As you task workers with gathering resources from piles, they’ll carve paths through the thick snow. It’s an absolutely incredible visual effect, with different path each time, that spread organically to wherever they need to be. The tracks hunters leave when they gather food are filled in by the morning snowfalls. Steam hubs melt the snow within their heat range. The homeless crowd around any form of warmth. Eventually, factories churn out smoke and automatons tower over everything else, recharging on generators and managing workloads on their own. The attention to detail here is simply fantastic. While there is only one opening cinematic, stylized artwork and prompts provide context for different story events, which works well given the style of mood of the game.
The graphics options are fairly standard, with texture options, custom resolution support and more. Performance is fairly solid, though speeding the game up can cause performance issues. I also encountered a stutter, where the game would freeze for ten seconds or so. In about 15 hours of playing, it only happened twice, so it’s not a huge deal.
Gameplay revolves around gathering resources and investing them in your community. Buildings, research, scout teams, and of course that big generator in the center of town keeping everyone alive, they all need something from you to keep on going. Everything needs resources but you’ll have to make hard choices about where to invest. Charcoal kilns can provide coal, but you’ll need lumber to make the charcoal. Is it better to have five additional pairs of hands to work, or create a scouting team to check the wilderness for supplies and other survivors? Balancing all of these needs is extremely difficult. Fortunately, players can customize scenarios, making things tougher or easier depending on their preferred level of challenge. I do feel however that more, vastly different scenarios are needed, as right now there’s only a couple.
There’s two bars at the center of your screen, Discontent and Hope. Both are incredibly important to manage. If Discontent reaches a critical point, you might get exiled from your own community. Without Hope, no one will want to bother with day-to-day tasks and survival. Positive events and accomplishments for the city to rally around, such as finding survivors or heating cold homes, will raise hope. Addressing community concerns or providing them with stress relief outlets, such as pubs and brothels, will lower discontent. Oftentimes, what will decrease Discontent or raise Hope might be at odds with what’s best for the city’s survival, providing additional layers of difficult decision-making. At times, progression in certain areas can feel linear, but there’s still a healthy amount of variables to play around with.
The sound design is fairly well done, with a somber tune providing the backdrop for the soundtrack. There’s also a wide range of different audio cues for the status and evolution of your community, such as crying and sobbing if there’s not enough shelters, or the usual call to work changing to orders over a loudspeaker if you’re going down an authoritarian path. Additionally, at certain points in the story, the soundtrack will pick up, emphasizing just how harrowing the chances of survival are becoming. Generally though, it’s not really present, taking a backseat to the sounds of howling winds, roaring factories or whirring generators.
I’d had my eye on Frostpunk months before it released and I have to say I’m truly impressed with what’s on offer here. 11 bit studios has taken what they’ve learned and applied it on a much grander scale. While some nuance is lost, overall what they’ve provided is incredibly well done. I’m hoping for more scenarios and other additions to come later down the line, as this game simply has so much potential. If you’re a fan of city building games or survival titles, I’d recommend giving Frostpunk a look.