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Frostpunk Review: Where has all the coal gone?

Think warm thoughts.

Table of Contents

Frostpunk was my proper initiation into the world of survival gaming. I had played a few other survival titles before, but always on low-key/easy settings or in a multiplayer environment where I didn’t have to do the hard work of surviving independently (read: I was carried). Strategy and city-building games have been my jam since my first introduction to the genre in the 90s- I've spent far too many hours in the original Pharaoh and Cleopatra, SimCity, and my all-time favorite series, Anno. I still occasionally play the oldies to this day. When I saw Frostpunk as part of a Humble Bundle in 2020, I decided to try it out - and little did I know what I was getting into! I’ve drifted in and out of the game over the past couple of years but recently decided to revisit it while I await the upcoming Frostpunk 2.

The game presents various scenarios broken up into multiple acts, each with unique challenges and narratives. I found them engaging and enjoyed working through them, but if you’d rather have a more sandbox experience, the game also features an endless mode. You have the option to select from various difficulty settings and customize them for each play-through, with the default setting being Medium. You get access to the endless mode and four scenarios with the base game and can unlock two more by purchasing DLC. There are three expansions- The Rifts, The Last Autumn, and On The Edge- with the latter two introducing new scenarios. (The Rifts adds more content for endless mode but is otherwise a relatively small pack compared to the other two.)

Initially, I went into the first scenario on the default settings thinking it would be a nice, relaxing experience like most builders I play. HA! It got stressful fast, and I'm embarrassed to say I failed as soon as the impending storm came, realizing I was not being cut-throat enough to weather the tundra. My second attempt fared much better since I knew what to expect, but the harshness of the game’s environment was no joke. There's likely a steep learning curve for those not well experienced in society builder games, and the game’s harder difficulty settings can challenge even the most seasoned players. For reference, the game’s most obtained survivor mode achievement on Steam (earned by completing scenarios on the hardest difficulty setting) is currently New Home Survivor, with 1.7% of players surviving it. I'm not one of them; however, I am excited to try the greater difficulties now that I've experienced the story.

Atmosphere

Frostpunk's story revolves around a global catastrophe that has plunged the world into a new ice age. As the leader of a small group of survivors, your goal is to establish and manage a city around a massive generator, the only source of heat and hope in the frozen wasteland. The core gameplay is about managing and expanding a city to ensure the survival of its inhabitants. Much as you would expect, you gather resources, build and upgrade structures, pass policies, and balance the population's needs against dwindling supplies and harsh weather conditions. The icy landscapes, detailed city structures, steampunk elements, and the constant sense of cold and desperation are beautifully rendered. The game’s gritty art style and its soundtrack, with haunting melodies and atmospheric sound effects, immerse the player in the icy, desolate world, enhancing the overall experience. I almost always turn the music off in my games because I usually find it more distracting than anything. Not so in Frostpunk. When I hit the main menu screen and the strings came on, I knew I would love the music in this game. It plays in the background, slowly adding to the tension and hopelessness before you realize it’s even there.

One graphics-related feature I really appreciate about Frostpunk is the camera's view distance. Some may not consider this important, but it's one of the first features I test in a new game since it greatly impacts the amount of detail or information I can receive at any given time. When panning out, I get a fantastic view of my city and can easily see the terrain and resource nodes. When zooming in to the max, I especially enjoy watching my citizens as they go about their daily lives, from traveling to work to participating in events. For instance, if there is not enough housing, you can see the homeless huddle up near the generator for warmth. However, this can be quite sobering, particularly when receiving a notice that someone has died from exposure due to said lack of housing. (Not that I ever allowed this to happen under my leadership.) I also witnessed a public execution that was surprisingly detailed, but I'll spare you that story. The buildings are animated and dynamic, responding to the time of day or activity, with variations to structures that make them look more realistic even when placing the same buildings next to each other. While these aspects are nice, the game is made a truly enjoyable experience due to the complexity of mechanics and the emphasis on making difficult moral choices.

Resources

The central mechanics begin with gathering resources that are funneled into the production line and ultimately fuel your society's development. Primary resources are coal, wood, steel, food, and steam cores, with additional resources that can be unlocked further along in gameplay and vary depending on your choices. Multiple ways to procure and process resources are welcome because the environment is unforgiving. There are relatively few resources compared to other builders I play, which I appreciated as I progressed through the story. I was never bothered by resource management and felt it was complex enough to add some challenges despite its initial impression of simplicity.

The population is also considered a resource, though not in the same way food might be. Or are they? Production buildings require you to assign workers to each location to manage production and resource acquisition. Your population comprises individuals with unique names, which is a feature not commonly found in traditional builders, where people are viewed as mere numbers. You can check the status of each person, including their work assignment, sickness, hunger, homelessness, or imprisonment, under the population-related panels. In addition to providing basic necessities such as heat, shelter, and food, keeping a close eye on two meters - Discontent and Hope - to maintain your population’s well-being is crucial. These meters can be influenced by passing laws, issuing orders, random events, or working conditions. If you run out of Hope or max out Discontent, it will lead to unfortunate consequences. I try to maintain a certain level of detachment from the people in the community, but there was one guy I followed for a bit who had an interesting journey. He transitioned from working in coal production to decent participation in a 24-hour emergency work order, which caused great Discontent. Unfortunately, he was eventually imprisoned for an extended period. It was a sad outcome. On a more positive note, I found the automatons to be a fascinating steampunk element. These crafted robotic workers can function almost continuously, regardless of weather, with only a brief recharge period. They can manage an entire job site, eliminating the need for human resources in that particular location and freeing up the population to focus on other, safer, and more important tasks. Also- they're just really cool and impressive.

Heat is absolutely necessary in order for your people to survive and to keep production going. While providing heat is its own mechanic entirely, I’m going to include it under resources for the sake of organization since it requires similar management. Starting at the generator, the heat zone is a radial area that expands outward from its source. There are options to increase the distance the zone reaches as well as how much heat to provide, though, like most upgrades, they need to be unlocked through further research. There are also options for heating and insulating buildings or providing smaller heat zones outside the reach of the generator through steam hubs. I liked designing cute little neighborhoods around these hubs even though part of me knows I’m sacrificing some efficiency for the aesthetics- worth it! There is a thermal map you can toggle that makes the game look like you’ve put on heat vision goggles. This lets you quickly see how your heat distribution works or any potential weak points. You can get extremely efficient at providing the necessary amount of heat, and while it’s kind of the bare minimum, it’s not as easy as it sounds. Pretty satisfying to accomplish, though!

Development

In order to build structures, objects are snapped onto a radial grid layout that extends outward from the central generator. For proper functionality, buildings must be connected to roads, which snap onto the radial grid for easy placement. One aspect that I found particularly helpful was that roads are built on the borders between the grid slots. This eliminates the need to plan around road space and allows buildings to be placed directly beside one another, with pathing adjusted relatively easily. A planning feature allows you to outline the desired placement of buildings and infrastructure without committing resources to construct them immediately. This will create a ghosted outline of the building, allowing you to move it around and preview its placement to experiment with and fine-tune your design. You can also use this mode to plan roads, resource depots, and other structures, so it’s generally pretty helpful for visualizing the layout of your city and optimizing the use of available space. Keep in mind that buildings can’t be moved or adjusted once they’re actually constructed.

The research system in the Technology Tree requires significant investments to advance and likely needs to be triaged if you're operating on limited supplies. Progressing to more advanced technology depends on the number of tiers unlocked and the previously researched technology. However, I have encountered some events that allow for the early unlocking of items in the tree without fulfilling their prerequisites. (These events have saved my ass more than once.) Of course, the ultimate results of those events depend on your choices and willingness to make sacrifices or take risks. Rest assured; not all events end positively! One of the strengths of the Technology Tree is the synergistic effects between different technologies. Some advancements unlock new buildings or upgrades, while others improve efficiency, increase resource production, or enhance the well-being of your citizens. This interconnection encourages planning ahead and optimization, as the benefits of certain technologies can complement and amplify the effects of others.

The Book of Laws offers a wide range of options for constructing a societal environment, but the decisions you make can often feel weighty and foreboding. For instance, what do you do with the bodies? How do you handle child labor? Do you opt for a surveillance police state or a more religious approach to controlling your populace? You'll face tough dilemmas that require you to make choices that might sacrifice the well-being of a few for the greater good of the many- hello, moral ambiguity. While I tried to make ethical choices for the sake of the people, I was frequently confronted with the reality that survival takes precedence over benevolence. I tried to rationalize this by telling myself morality is just a construct -so what's really good or bad anyway? The law book is well-organized, with a branch system similar to the Technology Tree. Once you activate a law, it will unlock access to additional laws that branch off and sometimes exclude other laws (and their branches) entirely. There are two types of law trees: Adaptation Laws, which are available from the start and cover management, production regulations, and social policy, and Purpose Laws, which unlock after you’ve progressed further into a scenario and focus specifically on populace control via Faith or Order laws. The Faith and Order branches are exclusive, so you must choose one and cannot engage with the other track moving forward. Each one unlocks its own unique buildings and options for influencing the Discontent and Hope meters. These choices will have concrete consequences and shape your society's direction and survival.

Events

The events are dynamic and narrative-driven occurrences that introduce specific challenges, dilemmas, or opportunities throughout the course of the game. They are triggered by various factors, such as reaching a specific point in the game's timeline, making certain choices, or encountering specific conditions within your city. Each presents a narrative context and a set of choices or actions to consider. They can affect the relationships with other factions or groups, unlock new storylines, or lead to alternative endings, which adds depth and immersion to the overall experience. Decisions may have short-term benefits but can also have long-term consequences, affecting your city's sustainability, efficiency, or morale.

The Frostland is a desolate and inhospitable place perpetually covered in snow and ice, with extremely low temperatures and treacherous conditions but home to resources, survivors, and other valuable discoveries. When unlocked, expeditions to the wilderness are crucial for expanding your city's reach and acquiring these essential supplies, but exploration comes with its own risks and obstacles. When your party successfully reaches its destination, it triggers an event that is prone to various outcomes and plays a significant role in the game's overall narrative. The UI for the mechanic is intuitive, allowing you to easily select and engage a search party to interact with scattered points of interest.

TLDR; Frostpunk is a survival game set in a frozen wasteland where players manage and expand a city around a massive generator to ensure the survival of its inhabitants. The game features unique challenges and narratives, an endless sandbox mode, and multiple difficulty settings. The visuals and soundtrack are stunning, and the attention to detail is impressive. The mechanics are well-implemented, and the progression feels rewarding as you unlock new technologies and expand your society. Not for the faint of heart, it's an amazing experience well suited for those seeking a challenge. I enjoyed my time in Frostpunk, and I'm looking forward to the release of Frostpunk 2.


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