Even for individuals who have never experienced them in person, whirling snow and frost-rimed glass are convenient shorthand for blisteringly cold temperatures. The developers of Frostpunk are keenly aware of the effectiveness of tapping into the social subconscious through imagery, using familiar aesthetics in unfamiliar ways to create an apocalypse unlike any other. Similar sentiments can be applied to the remainder of the production as 11 bit studios blends survival game sensibilities with city-builder mechanics to create a refreshing experience. Furthermore, the team has leveraged its history developing This War of Mine to make Frostpunk into an exploration of individual morality deeper than many games could ever hope to achieve.
As with most titles that share its genre, Frostpunk’s story feels like little more than context. Beset by a bitter, seemingly endless winter in the late 19th century, a group of Londoners strike north and set up a new city—The Last City—around a massive heat generator in a sinkhole. The premise is intriguing, but, beyond questions about similar expeditions, offers little to invest players. Answers about other settlements come slowly, yet never truly become a driving force to inspire further play. Instead, the most engaging stories within Frostpunk emerge organically. The game is less about what happened to the world and other communities than exploring the effects that a leader can have on a group of people, for better or worse. To that end, a plethora of moral quandaries are presented as time passes, often forcing the player to choose the lesser evil, rather than the best option. A callous, iron-fisted leader will quickly learn the human costs of forcing children to work or failing to provide adequate shelter, which, in turn, makes future decisions tougher, more harrowing, and more vital. The story of the city’s survival and development—particularly as it grows and dissenters become more common—therefore supersedes that of the other settlements, as illustrative as they may be. By marrying systems and stories in this way, Frostpunk puts a premium on gameplay.
The mechanics of the title will be customary to fans of SimCity, Aven Colony, and similar games, but the moment-to-moment experience is far different. City builders tend to have whimsical and hopeful atmospheres, the challenges within them present merely to be overcome. Frostpunk takes a different tack. Far from casting the player as a success story waiting to happen, the game hinges upon struggle and failure. Not only are resources in perpetually short supply, but temperature, the threat of mass starvation, and the morale of the population at large are among the additional variables that players must keep in mind throughout their attempts to lead the city. However, survival requires sacrifice. To that end, the Book of Laws is a wonderful inclusion, allowing a unique vision of The Last City to be built with each playthrough. The options available therein usually lack real depth, but the ramifications of each are keenly felt through dynamic events and the citizenry’s emotional reactions. The ability to influence morale is sometimes torn almost completely from the player’s hands through discoveries made in the wider Frostlands. Such setbacks make the game feel patently unfair, and failure will, perhaps, most frequently result at least indirectly from these moments.
Nonetheless, the developers clearly do not intend for Frostpunk to be a one-and-done affair. Following banishment, players can jump immediately into a new venture, more confident in their abilities for having learned from their failures. Forewarned is forearmed, and knowledge of possible ramifications allows decisions to be weighed more carefully and different research topics to be explored, all in the name of keeping the city alive. However, each change bleeds into the gameplay with unforeseen consequences. For example, attempting to keep the populace happy by providing shelter sooner leads to greater discontent as their demands become more difficult to fulfil. No matter how proactive the player tries to be, they are forced to be reactive. Constantly being on the backfoot in this way can feel incredibly frustrating, yet enhances the sense of satisfaction from even the smallest successes. Even so, those victories are often pyrrhic. Providing adequate food or raising the populace’s hope level frequently requires the use of underhanded or unsavoury tactics, forcing the player to examine the measures they would be willing to take in service of the greater good.
Frostpunk’s strengths stem from this determination to force users to meditate upon their actions. Many games are capable of moving the individual emotionally, but comparatively few are capable of making them think—truly think—about events as they unfold. The choices in Frostpunk usually boil down to Yoda’s immortal mantra of “do or do not,” yet manage to convey gravitas. In deciding whether to scold a careless child or force the amputation of a gangrenous limb, the player must balance what they feel is right against what is best for the community at large. Most troubling is how rarely those two considerations align. This seeming impossibility to do the ‘right’ thing contributes to a profound sense of hopelessness, which is underscored by the game’s chilly presentation.
The team at 11 bit studios utilises a combination of familiar imagery and minimalism to reinforce the bleakness of the gameplay. Dominated by white, the play space feels barren and dismal. This trait changes as the game progresses and construction takes place, but that brings additional issues. A lack of planning for the layout of the community can lead to the sinkhole becoming overly cluttered, which becomes particularly problematic as the uniform design across the buildings can make them difficult to distinguish from one another. Nonetheless, small visual flourishes emphasise the daily struggle of The Last City’s inhabitants. For example, buildings outside of the generator’s heat radius become heaped with snow, while tracks cut through the whiteness by workers fill in overnight. No matter how much effort is poured into trying to make the sinkhole habitable, Mother Nature can only ever be held at bay, and even a momentary slippage can give the environment the inroad it needs to break down the will of the populace. The tenuousness of the people’s morale is also underpinned by the audio design, particularly via the limited use of ambient noise. The Last City may grow, yet almost the only noises the player hears are the clarion calls announcing new laws and the daily notices to begin and end work. Thus, Frostpunk implies a life of routine and rigour that the player is powerless to improve.
Few games are as unremittingly grim as Frostpunk. In this world of snow and sacrifice, success comes rarely, and hope is but a fleeting memory. Failure is almost assured, and the lessons learned in that process can only be applied to a certain degree. Additionally, some elements intended to be challenging can be exasperating. Nevertheless, these gripes are relatively minor and do little to detract from the engrossing atmosphere. Although the title is unlikely to be remembered as a benchmark or future model for the city builder genre, it stands out from the pack by daring to carve out a wholly unique niche and refusing to pander to the mass-market mentality.
Reviewed on PC.