Frostpunk is one of those hard to classify games similar in a way to Papers, Please (And yes, that is a tall accolade). The best way to describe it is as a story driven city building crisis management game and even this description does little to do it justice. Suffice to say it is quite an interesting game which flew under the radar for me.
The game itself comes from 11 bit studios, whose other notable title is This War of Mine and the two games share a similar theme of survival in inhuman conditions and choice. While This War of Mine mainly dealt with the survival of a few individuals holed up in a bombed out building in a war torn city, Frostpunk story is a tad bigger and more apocalyptic.
You play as the captain of an expedition in an alternate, steampunkish 19th century, sent north to locate an experimental generator as the entire world descends into a hellish ice age. The temperatures keep plummeting and most of the world has succumbed to the cold, becoming a bleak, snowy wasteland. Upon discovering the generator, you must marshal your band of survivors to build a shelter from the growing cold and save whatever is left of humanity in the face of mounting challenges.
Stated in the opening paragraph, the game is a city building\crisis management game. You start with a set population and must feed it, keep it warm, housed and healthy. The cold is a constant enemy to battle out as it can take its toll, thus heat management is a major aspect of the game. There are various resources you can harvest and mine, from coal (needed to stoke the generator and keep the city warm), wood and metal (common construction materials), steam cores (needed for advanced machinery) raw food and rations. Of course materials are scarce and research is needed to unlock advanced buildings which allow you to access deposits.
Scavenging and scouting are also a vital part of the game and important to the story. Early on you can research and build a beacon which allows you to send out search parties. These expeditions can travel outside the city and find survivors to bolster your city, materials for buildings and advance the overall plot. The game itself allows you to pick and choose where to send the expeditions and unlocks more locations as the story progresses. Each location will often have a journal entry besides materials and survivors, further fleshing the world of the game and adding to the backstory.
Story driven should be emphasized. The game has a story line, with the story advancing by certain triggers\time stamps. This means that certain events will always occur, giving less replay value but allowing players to learn from failures and better plan in their next playthrough. The story itself is unique to each scenario, and each varies in length, goals and emphasized mechanics. Of course, each is full of challenges and hardships.
Challenge is the operative word. Besides managing resources, the player must keep an eye on two gouges; Discontent and Hope. Should hope fall too low, the people would lose faith in their survival. High discontent will cause bloodshed, insubordination and an uprising. Managing these two gouges is hard considering various events and laws the player has to navigate on a daily basis. Keeping discontent low and hope high seems obvious, but when the survival of the city depends on people working 16 hour shifts and sometimes double ones just to keep the coal mines running to feed the generator, and you too would be facing an exhausted and disgruntled workforce.
Morality is the main theme of the game. Each choice you make either in the overarching story or in the daily events is important. Would you enact more draconian laws to keep people working and content or would you turn to faith to soothe the fears of the population and be tempted to slide into a theocratic state? Would the shortage of workers make you enact laws forcing children to work, risking their lives in mines and factories, or would you keep them safe in shelters as the coal piles dwindle? And always, there is the growing cold… The game often forces you to ask just how much of humanity are you willing to sacrifice just to keep the city going for another day.
The game’s aesthetics reinforce this theme. The landscape is almost an unbroken snowy terrain. What isn’t white is either frozen blue, brown or industrial grey. The only bright colors are those of the generator’s flames. The art direction itself is reminiscent of This War of Mine and tends to look closer to a graphic novel than realistic. The graphics themselves are quite beautiful, the city looks alive and the buildings and people are very detailed. A major theme of most buildings is just how roughshod and cobbled together they look.
The sound design is great. The sounds of the wind howling and water freezing and thawing are a constant companion. The soundtrack itself is filled with haunting orchestral pieces, many employing the violin to great effect. It is one of the few games in which I didn’t feel the need to play my own music or have a podcast\tv show\movie playing in the background. A true compliment you can be certain of that.
That said, there are some drawbacks. While the game eliminates the most tedious aspect of city management for me – the plateauing (when the player has enough income to build whatever he or she likes and is left with the task of just improving\maintaining the city), it may hamper the enjoyment of others who do like it. The city building itself is quite constricted due to the setting, which can also turn off players of the genre. The story beats themselves are set in stone and don’t vary, meaning there is little replay value once you beat a scenario. As for choices, while the game aims for the players to make “Moral Choices” it more often fails in my opinion. The only times I really felt like making a moral choice was when I was forced to by a lack of resources rather than anything else the game presented me with. Once you gain sufficient experience with the game its also easy to plan accordingly and negate this entire aspect which seems like a failure of game design.
All told the game is an intriguing take on the city building genre. Has interesting lore and good world building. Presents the player with difficulty and challenge while telling a compelling story of survival in the harshest of environments. Scenarios have their unique takes and never overstay their welcome. That said, has little replay value and is very constricted in its nature. Not to mention falters when it comes to its “Morality” aspect.
8/10 would recommend.