[Disclosure: A review key was provided for the contents of this article]
Just over a dozen hours after I was captured by the spell of Frostpunk’s alternative reality, Victorian dystopia, it was finished. A chilling revelation that left me almost as crestfallen as the weary band of refugees that I had seen into a new world was when I first met them. Frostpunk, you see, us fantastic, even though it is a relatively fleeting experience.
The main campaign makes up the bulk of your time with it and I honestly never realized that I had left the trappings of tutorial and began the game proper. The additional campaigns that I was so excited about following up with proved to be short and quite limited in scope, although they are much more challenging than the opening campaign and much more focused.
The game brilliantly merges city building with survival in a way that I haven’t seen often. The world that gives Frostpunk it’s name is England in the late 19th century, following an event that has caused the sun to dim and the world to freeze down minus twenty degrees celsius, on a good day. Food is scarce and the survivors build their shanty town around a huge boiler that is located within a relatively secluded crater. That’s where we come in.
Initially, tasks are what you might expect – set up shelter, establish sources of coal, food, steel and wood. Then the really interesting challenges begin to occur. Will the children be put to work, or will you keep them safe and warm? Will the dead be harvested for food, or will you take the time and expense to bury them. A so-called Book of Laws allows these black and white choices to be made, ultimately forcing the player to choose between the totalitarian path of Order or the softer but equally extreme path of Faith.
Managing the settlement is always front a centre when playing Frostpunk, but perhaps one of the most intriguing features it offers is that of exploring. Developer 11 Bit Studios have created a compelling world, which begs to be explored. The refugees can do so by setting up a beacon and then creating teams of scouts.
In practice scouting feels a lot like exploring does in games like Sheltered and it uses a simple, world map type interface that shows both unexplored locations and those already visited. Unfortunately these locations don’t seem to be randomised on future plays, which is probably because they do tell a kind of story, although I’m not convinced that it wouldn’t be possible to handle that somehow.
Exploring often yields resources and can also lead to locating more survivors, valuable steam cores (that enable more complex structures) and even invaluable Automatons. These mechanical behemoths work tirelessly and replace huge swathes of traditional workers, so they are highly prized. The developers also chose wisely to remove the need to supply and micromanage scout teams, which makes them feel a little overpowered and yet very enjoyable to mess around with.
Back home, as the settlement grows and the number of laws increases along with access to better technology, so too do the problems. Among these, many are scripted – such as the desire to return back to London or the outbreak of disorder. There are also plenty of bad situations built into the game engine – sudden drops in cold are a constant nuisance, as is the possibility of an outbreak of illness. Resources are more scarce early in the game than they are later, though large changes in population can affect the balance at any time.
I mentioned earlier than following the main story arc, the game does feature two more campaigns. In one of these, the game deals with balancing the needs of the many with the needs of the few, who in particular happen to be from the elitist upper class. The other centres around protecting the last hope for rebuilding crops in the frozen world. Both are shorter, but very interesting in their own right.
Ultimately, there’s a good mix of organic and scripted storytelling in Frostpunk and although it is a little short, that is perhaps just as (if not more) valid than creating a game that simply unloads its tech tree over the course of several aesthetically different maps. The exploration is fun and the level of threat from the oppressive environment adds a completely different dimension to the usual city building offering. All said, Frostpunk is a great game and you should:
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