Developer: Moral Anxiety Studio
Release Date: 12 September, 2022
Platform: Windows, MacOS
By Chris Picone, 25 January, 2023
Okay, I’m super late with this review. I bought Frostpunk years ago but it’s taken me until now to actually find the time to fire it up. Geez have I been missing out! Frostpunk is a work of art. It’s an amazing city builder but it’s so much more than that. The hybrid winter / dieselpunk theme isn’t a gimmick, it’s absolutely integral to gameplay, meaning Frostpunk plays out like no other game out there. It’s full of not just lore but rich stories and layered gameplay and the scenarios are well thought out games in their own right. And, unbelievably, all of the DLC is incredible too, each providing its own story and unique gameplay. Frostpunk is an amazing experience, which is why I’m bothering to review it four years after it released. I cover the base game and all of the DLC in this review and because the game’s so damn hard I’ve even included some hard-learned tips at the bottom - so bundle up! It’s getting colder.
At its heart, Frostpunk is a city-builder like any other, except that its focus is on survival rather than expansion. So you’ll build and upgrade houses, not with the goal of enabling a growing population, but to prevent your colonists freezing to death. You need to collect food each day, to keep your population alive. You also need to collect wood and steel for building and research. Finally, you need coal to feed the generator, a central heat source that keeps your community alive. If your citizens get too cold, they become sick and can die (and they stay dead). However, unlike most city-builders, you can’t just keep producing more workers, so you also need to manage your human resources. You can build automatons but they require a rare resource (steam cores) and consume coal. The only way you can get more workers is by accepting refugees as they’re discovered through the story, but in many ways refugees actually make your life harder – they carry diseases or are injured and can’t work, but they also force you to expand as you build new homes, and the further you are from the generator, the harder it is to keep warm. The generator itself can be expanded to provide more heat or to heat larger areas, but at a huge increase in coal consumption. Research is crucial for survival – but so is everything else. Frostpunk’s a bit of a pressure cooker – the difficulty constantly amps up as it gets colder and any mistake can quickly snowball (see what I did there?) into your destruction. You do have access to a weather meter which lets you gauge the rise and fall of the temperature. It’s a god-send which allows you to work out when you can take risks and try to expand and gather resources and when you need to buckle up and ride the weather out. Finally, Frostpunk also lets you build a beacon which lets you send explorers out on a huge overworld map. It’s a risky undertaking and binds up precious workers but when you get lucky and find some salvage the little resource boost can really save the day. The rest of the game is all about making tough decisions as you deal with all the curveballs the game.
I would ordinarily spend the majority of my review talking about the gameplay, particularly for a city-builder. But Frostpunk is extremely story-heavy compared to any other city-builder I’ve ever played and each scenario’s story and gameplay are very much intertwined so I’ll cover the rest as I discuss the story.
The background to the story is that the Earth has faced some sort of global cooling catastrophe which involved the whole world freezing over. Frostpunk is set in an alternate, diesel(frost)punk 1886 – 3 years after the real-world eruption of Krakatoa. The reasons for this aren’t immediately apparent but you can discover bits and pieces as you explore through the game. In any case, the British Empire and the United States (and probably other countries but we don’t get to learn about those) sent out expedition teams ahead of time to construct gigantic generators in order to build small towns that might survive the “endless” winter – not much, but possibly enough to preserve human existence on this planet. Fast-forward time to the beginning of the apocalypse and here you enter as the leader of one of these little colonies. The story that you actually play through? Each scenario comes with its own story. Please note that each scenario comes with a series of choice and consequence events and most also feature some kind of twist ending so as much detail as I go into here, just know that I’m very much holding back in each section because I don’t want to spoil the scenarios for you!
A New Home: This is the “main game” and the most classic city-building experience. While on an expedition from London heading to the north to look for a huge coal reserve, there is an accident. Your group becomes separated from the main party and find yourself face to face with one of the generators, shielded on all sides by the walls of a crater. You must build a city, New London, starting with nothing, by salvaging both the scant resources you can find in the immediate area and whatever resources you can salvage from the destroyed expedition vehicles. Your first task: Start the generator. After this, you need to look to your immediate needs; erecting shelters for your men, finding food, gathering resources, all the usual stuff. When you’ve done that, you’re tasked to send explorers out.
One of the places you’ll discover is Winterhome, another colony very similar to New London. The city has already fallen, and there are few survivors. Hope will immediately take a huge hit, which is a big enough challenge in its own right. However, the incident also sparks an uprising. “The Londoners,” a group of people who want to abandon your “doomed” colony and return to London, surge into action. They engage in protesting, vandalism, and rioting, steal precious food and supplies, and hold public rallies with the intention of rousing dissidence and recruiting more of your colonists to their cause. It’s a desperate battle to maintain control and you must choose whether you turn to religion or reduce liberties in order to preserve the greater good. In the midst of all this, you still need to survive, and it’s getting colder. The campaign begins at a comfortable -20C but steadily builds to a chilly -70C, constantly adding pressure as more and more resources are needed to feed the generator. And is if life wasn’t hard enough, waves of refugees from Winterhome start rolling in. They bring news: A “great storm” is coming. It’s going to get so cold (-150C!) that the coal mines will stop working, and even at its highest settings the generator won’t be able to cope. The race is on to stockpile huge quantities of coal and food before the storm hits. This is the end-game. Will your colony survive?
The Arks: A miniature scenario (although it still takes a couple of hours to play through) where your job is not to build a thriving colony but to manage a small scientific expedition. Your team consists of 45 engineers, and this times there aren’t any refugees to bulk or replenish your numbers. Your primary job is to keep seedling arks alive so that the Earth’s flora might be replenished if the winter ever ends. There’s no way you can actually do that on your own so your real task is to build automatons so your little city can keep itself alive with or without you. If your little party also survives, that’s a nice bonus. In the middle of all this, you also encounter New Manchester, another town nearby. They need resources if they are to survive – can you afford to help them? It’s an interesting twist on the city-building genre.
The Refugees: Another “short” experience and almost the opposite of the Arks. You are the leader of a refugee group who has taken over a generator that had been set aside for the elite. You start with a small group but are joined by wave after wave of refugees. It can be difficult to expand at the best of times – the more space you take up, the further away you are from the generator – but this time you’re doing it on hard mode. Your initial party? Settlers, which means lots of children. And the refugees? They’ve trudged through the storm to reach you, which means many of them are sick or amputees – unable to work, bringing discontent to your already small band of workers who now have to work twice as hard to make up for those who can’t. Worse: the refugees will quickly fill your sickbays beyond capacity, and when they die hope dies with them. But can you turn them away? That would be inhumane and would turn you into exactly the sort of leaders you wrested the generator from in the first place.
The Fall of Winterhome: Remember Winterhome from the main campaign? This scenario lets you play out their last moments. Essentially, their previous leader was a buffoon and, following a series of destructive riots, has been removed from power. When you take over, there’s only half a town left – literally; one whole side of the town burned to the ground during the riots. The town’s also completely depleted of resources except what you can scavenge from the wreckage. Somehow, you have to rebuild. But the worst is yet to come: There’s a problem with the generator. I find myself genuinely marvelling at how 11 Bit Studio have reinvented the city-building experience again and again with their scenarios.
Endless Mode / The Rifts (DLC): A free update added the Endless Mode to the base game, which is exactly what it sounds like. There are challenges but no actual story; you simply build a colony as large as you can (in serenity mode) or try to survive as long as you can (in endurance mode). However, you can also purchase the Rifts DLC which introduces a map with canyons and lets you build bridges so you can expand your city even further.
The Last Autumn (DLC): Totally worlds apart from the other scenarios (although, haven’t I said that every other time too?); this one allows you to play as one of the expedition parties sent out to actually build the generators prior to the winter setting in. It’s a bizarre experience. The temperature’s in the positives so you aren’t facing the constant threat of running out of coal and freezing to death like you are in all the other scenarios. There’s no huge glacial mound to mine carbon out of – but that’s totally fine because the Empire already left a heap of supplies for you, and if you need more they’ll ship it to you. As in, in actual ships, because the world isn’t frozen yet. So this time you aren’t fighting for survival (at least not at the start), you’re just trying to meet unreasonable corporate deadlines while trying to push unmotivated workers to their limits in dangerous working conditions. Push too hard, the workers strike. Don’t push hard enough, you miss the deadlines and are promptly fired. While most of the mechanics are the same, it has a brand new technology tree, new buildings, new laws, and enough subtle twists to the core gameplay that this scenario provides both an invigorating experience and an interesting glimpse into this fascinating alternate Earth setting pre-apocalypse.
On the Edge (DLC): On the Edge is a bit like The Last Autumn – to start with, at least. Again, there’s no generator and you aren’t trying to lead a survival colony. This time the worst of the winter storm has already passed. New London (the colony from the main campaign) has despatched you to build an outpost at a nearby army depot built into the side of the mountain. Because you’re only the leader of the outpost, not the actual city-state, you only have access to a limited research tree and have no control over your laws. Without a generator, automation is not an option. This forces you to change strategies entirely. As for the story, you’re again facing unreasonable deadlines to supply New London with steel – this time if you miss a deadline, they don’t send your food shipment. This is obviously an untenable arrangement so you declare autonomy and seek help elsewhere. Instead of survival or city building, this scenario focuses on exploration and trade as you struggle to become self-sufficient.
Many aspect of the game (loading screens, events, and the like) feature oil paintings by Przemysław Marszał and Łukasz Juszczyk, whom I’d never heard of, but the art style is very similar to Jakub Różalski’s 1920+ work (think Scythe or Iron Harvest), and just as evocative. I love it. There’s also an overworld map used for exploration, which is very minimalist – a bare white interface (the world’s covered in snow, after all), marked with little map symbols here and there to denote exploration points. Minor story points and decision-making are handled through simple but elegant dialogue boxes.
The rest of the game’s made in slick modern 3d graphics which look good zoomed in as it does from a distance. The palette’s full of blues and greys, creating a very cold and bleak atmosphere. The exception is your generator and a few of your buildings, whose reds and yellows really stand out as beacons of warmth. I happened to be on holidays when I played Frostpunk, which led to a series of really intense gaming sessions where I would fire the game up around 10pm and play through to sunrise. As the pressure amped up through the game my chances of surviving seemed bleaker and bleaker, mirroring my own fatigue. As the weather becomes more inclement in-game, so too did it get colder in the real world as the night grew longer, and as the weather meter started dropping to -70C and below, there I was huddled under a blanket. Finally, whether I survived or not, the game would come to end as the storm would break; and in the real world the sun would begin its climb over the horizon. It was a really surreal, intense experience.
Fun Factor / Replayability
Frostpunk is exceptionally difficult, and although it’s easy to pick up the basics, the basics aren’t enough to keep you alive. It has a steep learning curve and you will need to experiment and die a few times before you get the hang of it. If that doesn’t scare you off, you’re in for a real treat. The story’s interesting, the pressure’s intense, the gameplay engaging, and there are a number of different scenarios to delve into, providing plenty of variety. And it’s more-ish. Many times you will play a different scenario and think “oh, that little trick might help me beat that other scenario!” and you will come so very close to beating it, only to be destroyed in the vinegar moment. Just one more game! I’m sure I’ll beat it this time! And on it goes. At least, that’s how it was for me.
I enjoy city builders but Frostpunk really was something else. It’s the setting, the story, the gameplay, the tough decisions, the artwork, just everything. A really unique, unforgettable experience – a work of art. It’s a very difficult game and won’t be for everyone but I’ll be thinking about my adventures in Frostpunk for years to come and suspect this will be one of those games I return to year after year.
It’s also worth noting here that, since I did take so long in getting around to playing this, the expansion’s almost out! Well, kind of – looks like it won’t release until early 2024. Still, it’s exciting.
My Top Ten Tips
• Gathering Stations: You normally start each scenario by scavenging for resources and it seems sensible to send everyone in to just start grabbing stuff, but don’t! Gathering stations are actually far more efficient, and warmer. They’re worth the build every time.
• Don’t get attached: Once the resource piles have been depleted, the gathering stations are no longer any use to you. Disassemble them and get some of your precious resources back! Then rebuild elsewhere or build something else. Apply this to everything in Frostpunk. Woodsaw run out of trees? Dismantle it. Are things looking hopeless and your workers close to rioting? Build a bunch of churches or guard stations. Have things settled down? Pull the workers back out and dismantle them.
• Buildings aren’t equal: It pays to work out how much you actually need to make something run. You don’t need a new cooking house for every hunter’s hut, for example. And although they can fit five workers, you probably only need two. This also applies to coal thumpers, docks, and a whole bunch of other buildings.
• Double Duty: You need to maximise everything you do. So once someone’s job is done – for example, the cook has transformed all raw food into meal – pull them out of the cookhouse and send them somewhere else until there’s another pile of food ready for processing. Again, apply this to everything. Coal thumper exhausted? Have them drill for wood while you wait for the coal to pile up again. No one sick? Pull your engineers out of the empty medical posts and put them to work. Can’t afford to research? Might as well send your researchers out to dig up the resource you’re short of.
• Humans are more efficient: Automatons are awesome because they can work 24 hour days, don’t complain, don’t get sick. But they also consume precious coal and, at least until the end-game, aren’t nearly as efficient as their human counterparts. So a good move is to use humans on your most important resources during the day and then switch over to automatons at night to maximise production.
• Prevention is better than cure: When your workers get sick, they take time off work. If they get really sick they may die or, worse, become amputees (amputees can’t work but still consume food and require shelter). To prevent them getting sick in the first place, you need to work hard to keep the temperature up. This can be challenging and costly but the alternative is far worse.
• Turn the lights off!: During the day, turn your heat beacons in your living areas off (your workers are working, not at home). Likewise, during the night, turn your heat beacons on and your heaters off (since they’re at home, not at work). This can save a tremendous amount of coal. Likewise, keep a close eye on your thermometer. Did it just get colder? Turn the heat up so your workers don’t get sick. Brief warm spell? Turn your generator down to stockpile some coal.
• Don’t make promises you can’t keep: Your people will complain to you from time to time, and make demands. If you can fill their demand, go for it, because you’ll get a hefty triple bonus from the new law, the new building, and from fulfilling your promises. But if you can’t, don’t agree to anything. The rise in discontent from ignoring the people is much less than the rise in discontent if you fail to follow through. Also, the follow through can be tricky because it doesn’t take into account changes in circumstance. “Warm all houses,” for example: If you do manage to warm all houses but you then build a new house because some new survivors arrived, you’ll suddenly be breaching as now the new house isn’t warm and bam! You’ve failed. To avoid this, you need to leave the survivors out in the cold for the night and worry about them after the promise period has passed.
• Laws: Avoid the emergency laws, such as serving soup or adding sawdust to meals, they’re never worth it. The other laws, though, get stuck into them good and early. They’re very helpful in creating flexibility – if your morale is high, it doesn’t matter if it takes a little hit. But if it’s already low, the game snowballs into catastrophe pretty fast. Also, the laws are a kind of technology tree in their own right and the furthest branches are pretty useful – prosthetics, for example. Having said that, some laws need to be saved for the right moment as they come with some instant bonus (triage, for example, is best used when you’re facing a medical crisis).
• Explore: While not without risk, there are some real treasures that can be found in the wilderness – vast stockpiles, other colonies, precious steam cores, salvage, survivors. It might just be enough to keep you going in a critical moment.
Store Link: https://store.steampowered.com/app/323190/Frostpunk/