Publisher: 11 bit studios
Genre: City Building, Management
Available On: PC
Official Site: Frostpunk
Release Date: April 24, 2018
Where to Buy it: Steam, Windows Store, GOG, Humble Store
Frostpunk‘s greatest achievement is bringing the sense of cold to everything it puts forward. Frost creeps across the view, growing more intense as your view moves away from your base. The screen is practically in whiteout when you start a new scenario, and watching your workers trudge through shoulder-deep snow to begin harvesting resources will make you glad you paid your gas bill. It makes other city building and management games feel almost trivial with their “disasters;” if you aren’t able to successfully manage your outpost’s needs, the citizens will revolt and banish you to the wastes.
So yeah, I dug Frostpunk.
The game’s conceit is that the world has plunged into a new ice age, killing most of humanity. You are in control of a small group of survivors, and they are looking to you to manage their safety and keep them alive so they can start to rebuild. The heart of your new settlement is a giant generator, which provides energy and heat as long as you can keep it fueled. You build your city in a circular pattern out from this generator, juggling the demands of your buildings and citizens while trying to reach the end goals of your chosen scenario. It’s a tense and punishing management sim, where neglecting one resource can start a chain of events that leads to the death of every citizen under your care.
For such a bleak game, Frostpunk sure is pretty. Safely looking through your computer screen at the frozen landscape, it can be easy to lose yourself in the little details. It also fully embraces the heavy industrial steampunk aesthetic: your generator is a gigantic monstrosity of belching flame, welded together at the center of your city. Your homes and buildings are ramshackle scrap metal and your scouting parties use hot air balloons to survey the landscape. It looks like a civilization doing whatever they can to press on, and that helps make your decisions even more impactful.
11 bit studios’ previous game was This War of Mine, which made personal connections a central focus of management. Too often, management games just become about the numbers, but This War of Mine, and especially its The Little Ones expansion, often made you second guess your choices because of personal connections to the characters. Frostpunk obviously drew some influence from those games, and tries to incorporate a similar system. However, it doesn’t work quite as well here.
Unlike This War of Mine, where you controlled a scant few people, Frostpunk puts you in charge of a much larger group. Therefore, you never really make those connections that can cause you to act emotionally rather than logically. Early on in the first scenario, a “big decision” pops up: you know they are big because the are denoted by a giant exclamation point on the map. “We are short on manual laborers. Would you like to pass a law to allow children to work less dangerous jobs?”
Will you sacrifice a bit of your humanity in order to gain a bonus to production? If I had a personal connection with the little people on the screen, maybe. If I knew that little Jimmy wanted nothing but to sit at home and practice the violin, and his brother Bimmy was an ace cross country skier hoping to qualify for the post-apocalyptic olympics, I might hesitate.
But that coal isn’t going to pull itself out of the ground, and fifteen workers are fifteen workers, despite the fact that the game denotes them as children. As other big decisions pile up, it never seems difficult to make someone’s life a little harder if it helps your bottom line. The numbers game is all that matters here, and forging those personal connections with your citizens never quite clicks the way Frostpunk wants it to.
That isn’t to say the game fails. It is still a masterful execution of resource management, and it keeps you on your toes. Frostpunk throws disasters big and small at you until you mess up, then gleefully punishes you to teach you how to do better next time. In addition to coal, the lifeblood of your generator, resources like wood and metal need to be collected to build better structures. Technology needs to be researched to keep your citizens happy and healthy. Buildings need to be heated, stretching your society out even more. And dual meters of hope and despair need to be carefully balanced to get the most out of your citizens.
There are a LOT of ways to lose a round of Frostpunk, and things go wrong all the time. Adapting to disasters is key, and careful planning only gets you so far. If you like tense management games, you’re going to enjoy this one.
There are a few other quibbles I have with it. Buildings are a bit too same-looking. It can be difficult to figure out just what is at your disposal in your settlement. And it does take a decent amount of trial and error to figure out exactly how the game wants you to succeed. These are all minor things, however, and quickly melt away as you progress. Frostpunk then eases you into that zen-like state that so many management games try to achieve: just one more round before bed.
Verdict: Frostpunk is well designed and beautiful to look at. It doesn’t quite achieve all its goals, but it is an excellent and punishing city management sim that will provide you with hours of entertainment.
- Aesthetics are great
- Difficult but fair
- Interesting concepts
- Tries to be emotional, but doesn't succeed
- Buildings are hard to tell apart