Frostpunk is a survival sim with RTS and city-building elements. As the temperatures plummet amidst a sudden, snowy apocalypse, you are in charge of a caravan of survivors, and tasked with building and maintaining the last city on earth, huddled around a giant coal furnace that is all that stands between you and an icy death.
And did I mention it’s also steampunk-themed?
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Frostpunk embodies a type of balance that I absolutely adore in video games. The sort of gameplay seen in Kingdom Death, or This War Of Mine (the developers of which also made Frostpunk).
It’s the type of game where you get about three minutes of “Okay, everything is under control” at the start, and then never again. You are constantly triaging, back on your heels, just trying to hold everything together, fingers plugged in the levy but there are more leaks than you have digits. It’s the type of game where you have to make some very hard decisions, and there is no clear cut “right choice.” Everything has consequences, and you never feel safe.
It’s intense, its stressful, it’s a fountain of anxiety, and I love it. I love it because it makes victory all the sweeter. And failure all the more memorable.
Frostpunk’s arctic apocalypse adds an interesting spin to the city building genre, and the survival elements take it up a few more notches from there. Because the temperatures will drop to -20c, -40c, -60c or more, warmth is key. Without heat, your society will die. Without coal, the furnaces go out.
You don’t build in a grid, rather you build outwards from the heart of your city, a giant, twenty-story generator. Your city expands in concentric circles from this point, and the further away you get from the center, the more you need to work to manage heat and comfort.
Once the game gets you moving, it doesn’t stop. You’ll need to issue laws to decide how to handle your dead; do you bury them, or leave them to freeze for later use? Do you allow your sick and injured to languish, or do you amputate as necessary and keep on trucking? You’ll even be faced with the choice to put the city’s children to work, or build them a school. It sounds like an obvious decision… until the temperature has dropped and you don’t have enough hands to mine the coal you need, hunt and prepare food, harvest lumber and still treat the sick and frostbitten that need care at your hospital. And then you’ll start questioning if perhaps the children should be pulling their weight.
All of your decisions affect the city’s balance of hope and discontent, the measure of your city’s willingness to soldier on under your command. Your people will frequently voice their frustrations, be it shoddy housing, or not enough food, and you’ll be asked to issue a response, your plan to deal with the situation. You can act conservatively, or promise the moon, but they will hold you accountable if you fail to deliver.
Your people will constantly force you to make uncomfortable decisions and live with the consequences. Early on in one of my games, a man fell extremely ill, and we could save his life if we amputated his leg. But he refused. I had to decide whether to forcibly take is leg, or let him die to make an example out of him. There was no good option there.
Layer in a traditional RTS building hierarchy, city planning with roads and remote heat sources, a tech tree, and a surrounding area to explore with scout parties etc, and Frostpunk offers a beautiful and bleak combination of systems that does a great job of keeping you on the edge of your seat.
My one gripe, and currently its a minor one (though I could see it becoming more of an issue if I wanted to put dozens of hours into the game), is that after you’ve started and restarted a few games, some of the systems underneath start to become a little… predictable. In that once you’ve learned what happens when you make certain decisions, you can see things coming and then it becomes more about planning and clever maneuvering, like putting a puzzle together.
I don’t know if that’s a bad thing, but it does remove some of the “surprise” and perhaps even some replayability from the game, which changes its cadence a bit. Perhaps the developers will address it with updates.
Regardless, if you like city building, steampunk, survival or snow, Frostpunk is definitely worth checking out, and definitely justifies its $30 price tag.
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