One of my favourite genres of games, growing up, were the city-building and resource management experiences of the Will Wright sort. Your Sim Cities, Sim Earths, etc were thrilling in their ability to make you feel incredibly powerful as you took your virtual citizens lives into your hands. Then you could set your new creation on fire, let Godzilla stomp through it, and hit it with a few earthquakes and a typhoon for good measure.
11 bit studios’ Frostpunk, newly released on consoles, is about an alternate 1886 in which most cities have fallen to extreme, punishing cold due to volcanic activity and a dying sun. Snow and ice cover much of the habitable landmass, and the only refuge is the large “generators” buried in huge craters. These generators produce heat and energy, forming the centre of new communities. Once your team finds one, you have to allocate resources – manpower and eventually coal – to power them up and upgrade them as necessary to sustain your growing city. From there, you’ll have to build food stores, hospitals, mines for additional resource production (coal, wood, and steel are the big ones), develop technology, and set up scouting missions for more resources or to rescue stragglers from the frozen outskirts. There’s also an interesting political element where you’ll be able to promise things – more shelter, better food, etc – to your populace to keep them content and working.
In most games, the decisions you make boil down to ‘how do I kill this dude’ or ‘how can I efficiently kill one hundred dudes’ but Frostpunk does what so many fail to – it gives real gravity and stakes to those decisions. As you progress through the game you’ll face agonizing choices that seem cut-and-dry, like whether to enact child labour to increase production or to help out in the hospital or food centres, but imbue them with complications that imply that your population will suffer if you choose the moral option. What’s better; to be right, or to be dead?
Frostpunk forced me to confront my moral stances by forcing hard choices – do I care for the sick in my community, or send rescue squads to retrieve stranded settlers outside our walls? Should I make the coal miners work extra shifts to keep the heat and lights on in the city as temperatures drop to -40 degrees or shut down the hospital when it’s not being used to capacity? Every decision has a benefit and a cost, and it’s on you to balance those to keep your population thriving and, as much as possible, happy. The two main ‘success’ metrics in the game’s UI are a Discontent and a Hope meter, and your decisions will often cause one to rise and the other to fall. Keeping those in check is vital to your city’s survival.
The game’s UI is a little daunting at first, and it shoves quite a bit of information at you all at once. None of it feels superfluous but it can be a little overwhelming for a novice to jump into any mode besides the introductory one. In that mode, you’ll get this information pretty gradually and everything is fairly well-explained as the difficulty ramps up and there’s more variables to manage. As my city got bigger, the controls in the console version I played started to struggle a bit and it wasn’t always easy to navigate to what I wanted to do. Building roads, for example, began to be a chore as my city expanded. The game looks great, though, and the cold, often hopeless atmosphere pops right off the screen. There’s a genuine feeling of accomplishment as a beacon is raised, a generator fires up, or a hospital comes online.
There are a few scenarios to choose from that change the base game slightly, though they didn’t really feel that distinctive to me. The major differences between the main campaign (“A New Home”) and the additional ones – “The Arks”, “The Refugees”, and “The Fall Of Winterhome” – lies in where your pieces start on the board and what resources you start with, along with a new story to go with each. There’s also an Endless Mode that gives you a lot of leeway to customize your circumstances. You can pick your map and just try to survive, and I can see myself spending a lot of time in that mode, just tinkering around without the constraints of a story.
Frostpunk isn’t always fun, and that’s the fun of it. As much as you might be tempted to plough through and work your population to the bone to keep things running, you’ll eventually find yourself worn down by the consequences of your actions. Conversely, if you try to be the benevolent leader all the time, doling out food and healthcare like a steampunk Oprah, (“YOU get a life-saving amputation! YOU get a life-saving amputation!”) you probably won’t last through your first few winters. Frostpunk’s biggest success is that it provides real gravity to the usual strategy formula, with a compelling and exciting experience for both novices and experienced RTS players. Stay frosty out there!
Frostpunk is available for Steam, and was just released on PS4 and Xbox One from 11 bit studios. We reviewed the PS4 version.