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City-builders are an interesting bunch. Based on the roots established in SimCity, it is both a creative outlet where you could design your very own vision of roads and building layouts, and an act of plate-spinning whereby you juggle between the many needs and wants associated with running a city.
Now try and run a city when you are the last few remaining pockets of civilization in a Victorian steampunk England where the world is hit by freezing tundra that only grows colder by the day. This is the setup for Frostpunk, a bleak, grim city-builder from 11 Bit Studios, the team behind This War Of Mine- a fantastic survival game of the civilians that are caught between a war they never chose to fight.
Frostpunk is complex and sometimes punishing, akin to the still-great Banished, the writing and world building makes it an entirely different experience- though it lacks the freedom from what you’d expect a traditional city-builder usually give.
Presentation (Graphics & Audio)
Being a steampunk setting with an eternal winter layer on top certainly gives Frostpunk a certain look. All the maps you are building on lies within what seems to be a crater, with the all-important heat generator sits in the center. The city sprawls spherically around the generator and seeing your little settlement growing bigger and further spread looks amazing.
There’s also some nice snow trail physics thrown in. Watch your workers traverse through the vast snow and you can see them slowly trudge a trail. Once the workers stopped using that route the trail will fade away. Snow builds up on top of roofs of buildings not adequately heated, which you need to address soon enough, but you can also opt to open the heat map for a detailed look.
The artwork has this water paint style to it which had me reminded of Dishonored a lot, another game with a steampunk aesthetic. The in-game models look pleasing as well which makes me wish there’s an even closer zoom to inspect the city in more detail.
However, the rugged scraps look of the buildings and the monotonous aesthetic- which are all intentional as part of its setting, can make it a bit hard to spot a particular building at a glance, especially once the city starts to sprawl significantly.
On that note, the UI can be both slick and also unwieldy. For example, to build roads, you need to click on a the building tab, then click on another tab that will appear next to the first button. Problem is, once you are outside of the tab, that button location is the button for the research tab. I spent too much time mistakenly open the road building tab instead of the research tab and even more to close them all to get back to the research tab.
A minor issue, but an issue nonetheless.
Frostpunk has excellent writing. Each time you passed a law or an important event happened, blurbs of dialogue from the citizens appears- a small touch to sell the impact of such triggers. The description of citizens can be sad- orphans without family are written as “alone in the world”. The tooltips upon loading are all sad, reminding you that if you fail to do various thing, people will die. Heck, even the menu screen can make you sad by just reading the descriptions of the background art.
As for the music, it’s certainly gut-wrenching sad. The soundtrack manages to evoke the grim situation of the people under your leadership and has a way of tugging the heart. It’s remorseful, it’s chaotic, it has a glimmer of hope and can make someone shed a tear or two from listening in. And it’ll get even more depressing in the later stages.
In other words: it’s bloody great.
11 Bit Studios calls Frostpunk a city survival game, but essentially it is a city builder. A really tough one.
First, you have to keep an eye on temperature. Your generator is the only source of heat at the start, and you will need to figure out how to keep everyone as cosy as they could in -20 degrees celcius. As time goes, the temperature will continue to drop. You can put the generator in overdrive, though it will blow up if turned on long enough. Leave the people in the cold long enough and people will get sick or worse, frostbitten.
And then there is the many resources to juggle. You have to gather coal to keep the generator running so you don’t get cold. Then there’s wood and steel, materials mainly used to build more buildings and later for use to research new technology. There’s also food- raw foods can come from crops grown in hothouses or gathered by hunters, which then later needed to be cooked and stored as rations. Lastly, there’s prostheses, should any of them got frostbitten or were forced to have their limbs cut off.
Then, you have two meters that governs the mood of the people: hope and discontent. Hope increases as you fulfill promises, buildings that will improve it (more on that later) but decreases as things get dire, like failing to keep a promise, a death and other negative events. Discontent lowers as you keep all the people’s need in check but rises as you put in unpopular decisions- deciding to cook only soup for rations gives more food rations per raw food cooked, but people don’t like soup. And so is child labour. And so is piling dead bodies in a pit so you can later use them for fertilisers.
Things get grim in Frostpunk really quick, and it is mostly thanks to the Book Of Laws. You can choose to enact several laws to govern the people’s lives through the troubling times. Most of them are bad in nature no matter the way you slice it. If you don’t want to make soup, you can pour in sawdust as additives to make meals fuller- which saves more raw food but risking the people’s health. Don’t put child labour in practice? The other choice is to keep them all idle, make them comfy care house, taking up space and just being more mouths to feed.
It’s cruel, and you will have to engage with the laws no matter you like it or not. There will be events that press you on to make a decision, and while there are negatives in almost all of the laws- some only become prevalent as you go further deep in the law trees- there are essential to your survival.
Aside from the laws, there’s also a tech tree to research and discover, which can add passive buffs (providing better insulation in buildings, hence less worry of sick and frostbitten citizens) to new buildings that improves resource gatherings and even special abilities to trigger for a bit of boost of hope or a drop of discontent. Later on you can also employ automatons- tall, long-legged autonomous machines capable of doing work.
All the resources and meters to juggle can be complex, and you will struggle in the first few runs. But as you grasp over all the mechanics at play, it provides the fun and engaging loop good city builders usually provide. Location of building matters, so spending a lot of time pre-planning in your mind where to expand from the center is encouraged and rewarded.
At its core this is a fun city builder. But the grimness of its writing ascends Frostpunk to something more touching.
Content & Longevity
Frostpunk comes in three different scenarios at launch. Each are scripted with the same events and similar layout with a definite end. There are objectives to reach that at first acts as a tutorial of sorts to get your bearings.
The writing around the game is on point. The developers really want you to feel something. Each scenario has a plot to follow, which you can discover the state of the world outside of your city. Scouting to further regions for resources and you will discover other side stories around the world. Random events also pop up to keep you in touch with the situation of the city. Do a good job and you’ll get random letters of kindness. Let an automaton do work and soon enough someone will get crushed by them and lose a limb.
Things get dire in the main scenario, for example. After hearing the news that another settlement similar to the one you are managing has failed, almost all hope is lost. Which then leads to a decision: how do you bring back hope? Restore order or by instilling faith? While both choices sound innocent enough, things get out of hand quick. The things humans do when the world comes to an end are surely dire. The game will question on how pragmatic enough are you to ensure the city’s survival.
The ending of each scenario is also a very nice touch.
While all that sounds good, Frostpunk is limited to that three scenarios. They are varied enough, but given that one scenario could be completed to its end in around five hours, there’s a lot left to be desired. Thankfully the developers are working on new updates, which will include more scenarios and an endless/sandbox mode to play and sprawl the city as far as you can go. For now, there’s various difficulty sliders for each scenario to make the next playthrough slightly different.
Frostpunk at its core nails the concept it was aiming for- a survival game with city-builder elements. Having a long-term plan and careful placement of buildings are rewarded, the research tree has tons of choices, and the juggling of resources is just about the right kind of difficulty. The writing and world-building around the game enhances the experience dramatically. The laws you can enact will make you second-guess how dire the situation is to have it enforced. The people’s reaction through flavour text are spot on and the music sells the bleakness of the world.
However, the game being tied to short, scripted scenarios with a given deadline does limit its appeal for more traditional city builder fans who would just like to continue on forever and the little margin for error means it’s hard to recover from a mistake- you better off start the scenario from scratch. Thankfully, you can look forward for more content updates in the future, both in paid forms and free updates.
All in all, for a game priced at only RM51 for Malaysia, Frostpunk delivers an exceptional experience to rival any of the best city builders out there. Who knew a game about forcing children to work and gave them food sprinkled in sawdust can be, in a way, fun?
(Yes, I did feel bad about doing that. A bit.)
Review is based on version 1.0 of the game, played on the PC. Review copy purchased by the reviewer.