Frostpunk review

4 weeks ago by Kendal Erickson

A frigid entry into the survival strategy genre that has more than earned its warm reception.

Frostpunk is a welcome mix of city builder and survival mechanics with a sprinkling of morbid governance thrown in. In a world frozen over, you must ensure your city’s survival while also debating the moral consequence of interacting with other survivors, as well as your own laws. You can give in to the temptation of absolute authority via authoritarian order, divine right by faith, or try to walk the line of maintaining a just and free society. While the consequences of your actions aren’t quite as emotionally gut-wrenching as the studio's best known game, This War of Mine, 11 Bit Studios has created a constant balancing act of maintaining resources, heat, and compassion in Frostpunk.

Each main campaign is challenging on its own, while also containing even more difficult side missions that will test your empathy for others and your ability to plan for disasters. Often, I found myself finally feeling like I had caught up to my resource intake requirements, only to have a new wrench thrown into the mix moments afterward. The scaling difficulty and optional goals allow players to either be selfish and focus exclusively on their own safety or be charitable and risk everything in the name of greater prosperity and basic human decency. I found myself barely scraping by in multiple playthroughs, teetering on the brink of immediate destruction, because I chose to not get caught up in authoritarian zeal and help as many people as possible.

In the Seedling Ark scenario, for instance, your engineers will petition you to abandon other settlements in the name of focusing on your primary objective of keeping the seeds of Earth’s flora alive for the next generation. From the very beginning of every playthrough, Frostpunk makes sure to remind the player that they don’t have to tackle every event, and that it is okay to say no or walk away from a situation. This makes successful ventures to tackle all the optional content feel even more satisfying when you finally achieve the impossible.

All of that said, Frostpunk is not without its issues. Chief among them is that there is little variance from one playthrough of a scenario to the next. Unless you are choosing to increase or decrease the difficulty manually, which is broken into different of aspects of gameplay, the replayability of each individual scenario suffers from always having the same scripted events. It is true that in A New Home you can choose to invoke the executive powers of Order or Faith, but most of the world exploration remains stagnant. You may have a coin toss to determine whether a scout survives an encounter with polar bears or not, but the exploration nodes themselves are always found in the same order, and the game-ending storm always arrives at the same time. You may certainly die horribly on your first few runs as you discover the end-game requirements of a scenario, but eventually that exploratory phase gives way to monotony and expected outcomes.

Alongside that, once you discover the “secret sauce” of an optimized build order, there’s very little else to do other than wait for research to finish and manage your heat usage. Given the requirements to beat a scenario aren’t random, once you know what those requirements are, you can plan for them right from the very beginning. Essentially, the difference in scenarios is very noticeable, but each run within a scenario feels almost exactly like a previous attempt. At some point it no longer becomes interesting to experiment, and the game suffers for that.

Paradoxically, there’s one area where I grew tired of having to experiment: the Research tab. While you can see the names of every research available to you at the higher technology levels, their actual meaning and context are hidden away until you’ve unlocked that level of technology. This seems rather byzantine, as some of the names like “Coal Mining Optimization” are easy enough to guess their function, but others like “Automaton Redesign” aren’t. It leads to awkward scenarios where you aren’t entirely sure how to address your current needs. Should you spend resources to unlock the next level of technology and hope it’s useful, or continue to improve existing options instead? Once you’ve played the game enough this becomes less of an issue, but it’s very irritating having late-game research initially hidden away from view. If I can already see the names, it’d be nice to understand what they do!

Lastly, there’s the level of micro-management required in some scenarios, food production being an easy example. Cookhouses and Hothouses only operate during the day shift, while Hunters’ Huts are run exclusively at night. You can abuse this system by reassigning everyone from the daylight buildings into the Hunters’ Huts just before the night shift begins, having those workers effectively work 24-hour shifts without consequence. I’m curious to see how 11 Bit Studios reacts to this exploit, if they even consider it one, as it doesn’t really fit tonally with the rest of the game.

The problem is that this exploit leads to a massive increase in productivity, so it’s hard to ignore once you realize it’s a viable option. But it neuters the impact of overworking your citizens and cheapens the narrative experience. Being able to force people to work all day without any backlash goes against the emergency shift mechanic, which is only supposed to be used sparingly and raises discontent. Regardless, because there are no macro abilities to remove and reassign workers beyond clicking on individual buildings, this can get tedious quickly with larger cities. While it is true that the game never explicitly points this out as an intended mechanic, it feels like a lose-lose scenario: it both circumvents intended game design and isn’t an enjoyable experience from a user interface perspective, but it offers massive in-game benefits.

There is still plenty of room for growth with Frostpunk. After crossing 250,000 copies sold in its first three days, 11 Bit Studios has already committed to free updates, expansions, bug-fixes, and potentially an endless survival mode at some point.

While I’m still uncertain about the amount of replayability the game contains at present, I wouldn’t give Frostpunk the cold shoulder. This game is a worthy purchase for any fan of the survival strategy genre.