Frostpunk Review – Tonight, Hell freezes Over

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Platforms: PC
Reviewed On: PC
Developer: 11 Bit Studios
Publisher: 11 Bit Studios
Singleplayer: Yes
Multiplayer: No

Set in a Steampunk version of the 1800s with everything having gone to an iced-over hell due to a sudden ice age which somehow snuck up on humanity, people have decided to leave the cities in order to found new homes using large generators, massive machines that burn coal to provide some warmth amidst conditions reaching -70c. As the captain of this expedition it’s up to you to construct a city, maintain hope and keep everyone alive. No pressure.

The game’s biggest triumph is how quickly you find yourself bowing under the pressure of survival and becoming somebody who is willing to delve into the murks of morality in order to keep as many people alive as you can. A shortage of the coal needed to power your towering generator might just push you into signing a law that allows child labour, even in dangerous jobs where death can occur. Rations may be short, so you choose to start making more soup that isn’t as satisfying or enjoyable for the people, or perhaps you even allow rations to be bulked out with sawdust. Mandatory 24-hour work shifts could be enacted in order to gather wood and steel so you can research more heating options. A cemetery might be the more pleasing option, but the easier one is to sign another law that sees the dead being pushed into a hole in the ice, a decision that later allows the corpses to be recycled for food.

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Survivors are your currency in this wasteland, and your initial goal is to send them out into the snow in order to gather coal, wood and steel from the nearby piles. These are finite resources, so you’ll be aiming to move up to sawmills and mines in order to keep everything ticking over. While that’s going on you’ll need to construct housing for your people, hunting posts, cook houses, medical centers and even a workshop to research new technology, including things that will increase the range of your generator because othewise everyone outside of the inner ring will be living in freezing conditions. The colder they are the more likely they are to become sick, or even suffer from frostbite that can lead to amputating limbs.

The key is that you don’t have a lot of survivors for the first while but you do have a lot of stuff that needs doing. There never seems to be quite enough people to adequately run things, but you can expand your population by researching and then building a beacon which lets you send out expeditions to locate stranded survivors and various resources out in the wastelands. The problem is more people means more housing, more coal to heat them and more food so that they don’t…well, die.

This is the game’s genius; you always feel on the brink of failure. A lack of medical care leaves your population hurting, but can you really spend the time researching better healthcare at the expense of learning how to build a coal thumper since the nearby coal piles are running dangerously low? How many people should you move away from researching new things in order to man the sawmill, or to go hunting at night for food? There’s never enough people to do the jobs, and thus there’s never quite enough resources, either. The temptation to click the button on a coal mine that forces a 24-hour shift is always there.

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Underpinning this are the discontent and hope meters that represent how your people are currently feeling as they trudge to work through massive snow drifts. Should the people become too discontented they’ll banish you from your own colony, and if they run out of hope they’ll attempt to leave in a bid to return to London, but not before trying to persuade others to join them.

Passing new laws gives you more ways to shape and mold your colony, including a choice during the campaign where you focus on order and discipline, or religion to give people hope. I chose the route of order, and before I knew it my city was becoming something akin to V for Vendetta’s version of London; guard towers helped keep hope high, as did my propaganda center that calmly informed people that everything was going well. Loudspeakers encouraged workers to do even better, wrong-doers were encouraged to sign loyalty pledges that asked them to snitch on their friends and family. Everything was done in the name of survival. It’s amazing what you find yourself justifying when things are grim.

Of course, part of the reason that the justification is so easy is because you don’t see your people as people, rather they are simply a collection of numbers. That’s why signing a law that allowed children to work in the coal mines didn’t feel as harsh as it perhaps should have. On the other hand, one could argue that seeing people not as humans but as resources is a deliberate choice by the developers in order to make you question what you need to do to survive. Morality, after all, is the privilege of those who can afford it.

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That’s okay, because automatons are the living (um, well, not living) embodiment of what you wish your people were; giant steel machines capable of working all day and night with no need for food or shelter. These huge beasts can be found my sending out explorers into the ice or even built at great expense in a factory, and while they are not as effective as a purely human workforce they  make up for that by never failing, never dying and never becoming cold. Plus, setting one on a factory or resource pile frees up the entire workforce that was there for other tasks. I got my first automaton from exploration, and its arrival was like a shining beacon of light in the darkness. Suddenly I could run a whole extra coal mine or ironworks. Oh, the possibilities!

All of this comes through the research menu, which at first appears to be a fairly standard thing. From here you can develop new technology to aid your survival, as well as buff your generator so that it can produce more heat in a wider area. The brilliant key behind the research system, though, are the Steam Cores needed to research and even build certain things. These cores are rare and can only be acquired via exploration of the wider world, and so every one becomes precious, and through that every research decision you make or large building you choose to construct feels like an important choice, an acknowledgement that you may be locking yourself out of other things permanently.

In a way, then, I almost resented the game when it suddenly became a lot easier. At some stage of the campaign I found myself with a thriving city, plenty of coal to fuel the generator and everything was ticking a long nicely. I even had enough Steam Cores to research all of the major stuff. To the game’s credit, though, it did find a way to kick me in the metaphorical nuts.

This boot in the pants came from one of the many events that occur. Your people will often voice their thoughts, asking or even demanding that you do things like heat a certain amount of the homes up or build something they feel the town needs. Brush these requests off and they’ll come back later with tougher demands, but accept and accomplish these little quests and your people will gain hope, although failing comes with consequences There are also the various events you encounter via your exploration teams who are exploring the wasteland, stumbling upon refugees, abandoned cities, coal mines and more. On top of all of this you have story events triggered by the campaign that are designed to keep you on your toes.

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Unsurprisingly in a game about an icy apocolypse the cold is often your biggest enemy as the temperatures frequently fluctuate, mostly in a downward direction. Between all of your research into new resource buildings and other things, then, you have to consider increasing the range of your generator and the amount of heat it can output, but for each new increase the amount of coal the generator consumes is vastly increased, straining your ability to get the black fuel out of the ground fast enough. You can also help out with steam hubs and installing heaters in work buildings, as well as researching better insulation, but battling the snow almost always feels like a deadly race.

It helps that the game looks simply beautiful. At the time of writing my main rig was dead, so I had to run the game on a much older machine that only had an aging R9 270 GPU, thus the settings were kept at medium, and even then the FPS struggled at times to handle the level of detail. Even without the graphics maxed out, however, this is a pretty game to look at, the buildings rife with details and small touches. Throw in some lovely lighting and smoke effects and you have a winner. I particularly enjoyed how the snow would build up on colder buildings but melt on warmer ones, and how the areas around heater nodes would become a melted slush.

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The big issue is the lack of content, though the £25 price-tag helps a little. Outside of the relatively short main campaign you’ve got just two small scenarios to work through. Sure, you can replay the campaign but the fun is taken out of it when you already know what’s coming, and without some sort of skirmish mode, challenge mode or anything there just isn’t much of a reason to come back to the icy wasteland of Frostpunk. Hopefully the announced free content will help sort this out.

There was a moment when I wasn’t going to review Frostpunk; no review code had come through and my main computer was dead. But boy oh boy am I glad I decided to purchase it anyway, because I adore this game. The lack of content hurts it, but the gameplay is simply excellent and the atmosphere is top-notch. It’s a fascinating and tense strategy game that makes each decision feel important., and I was hooked from beginning to end, absorbed in the world and the journey of my city and its people.

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