Introduction

I’ve been looking forward to Frostpunk ever since it was first announced in 2016. Coincidentally, I also began reviewing games around that time and I knew that survival strategy as a subgenre would ultimately be redefined by the title I am about to present to you today. I shouldn’t be surprised about this game, since its developer is none other than 11 bit studios. Who else would simulate surviving against all odds, than the creators of the stunningly accurate This War of Mine? We’re talking about strategy veterans here, which also developed the Anomaly series of Tower Defense titles. Thus, my expectations were high to begin with and I was never disappointed. My assessment was correct: Hell really has frozen over. Life shall either adapt or perish along with the rest of civilization.

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Story

“The City survived, but was it worth it?”

New Home campaign, epilogue

 

…losing a piece of our humanity along the way? Perhaps more than that, yet I firmly believe that pragmatism must take precedence over frail notions of morality, when survival of what’s left of the human race, rests onto a couple of unpopular decisions which someone has to implement eventually. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t, yet survival at any and all costs does seem logical when you have very little left to lose and continuation of life itself, to gain. Frostpunk does an excellent job at simulating the difficulty of coping with the decisions you’ll sooner or later regard as unavoidable mistakes. What’s both refreshing and odd, is how most of the context surrounding the events which preceded the Great Winter and subsequent collapse of society, are gathered from the loading screens. The intro sequence to the main campaign, doesn’t even mention an exact location or starting year. The title is obviously representing an alternate timeline within a steampunk scenario, but that doesn’t mean that it won’t include historically accurate names for individuals and events which shall shape the current state of affairs.

A meteorological catastrophe which would make even the Ice Age pale in comparison, has set itself in motion and its ferocity is relentless. As far as you’re concerned, all that’s left of the human race, is now concentrated in small craters along the Arctic region. Choosing the North Pole as a last refuge and stand, was apparently dictated by the abundance of coal deposits which could sustain the marvels of engineering, so vital to those fortunate enough to survive the trip over frozen seas and oceans. Frostpunk focuses on British and American refugees which were not only aware of the cataclysm unfolding, but also had the technological means to architect a future, no matter how bleak for the citizens of the aforementioned craters. Standing tall and quite symbolically at the center of each settlement, a monolith of human ingenuity will ensure that warmth and life can be sustained even in the most cruel conditions. The Generator is the focal point of your efforts in this game. Should its flames be extinguished, death shall be the only outcome. Only a matter of time.

I promised names and dates. The year is 1887 and a joint project between the United Kingdom of Great Britain (the true superpower of the 19th Century) and the United States of America (with the assistance of Nikola Tesla), involved the  construction of Arctic Generators in the utmost secrecy, once the grim conclusion that the Great Winter has no end in sight, was finally agreed upon. It may not be the Long Night since there are no White Walkers to fend off, but the perpetual winter portrayed by Frostpunk offers the massive eruption of Mount Tambora from 1815 and the outright explosion of the Krakatoa Island in 1883, as some of the causes for the rapid shifts in temperature and atmosphere which finally lead to the “blocking or dimming of the Sun”. It remains a mystery and it’s somewhat irrelevant to your current situation of struggling to gather resources in an environment that “invites” frostbites in a matter of minutes.

What truly matters now is forging a new life near the remaining Generators which are still functional, while also dealing with glaring issues of a society desperate for change. It’s much harder to pin Frostpunk to a single subgenre, since it mixes elements of strategy and survival with politics and sociology in a rarely seen manner, in games or otherwise. You’re most likely used to the trope about humanity being its one true enemy even within a post-apocalyptic scenario. “It’s not the zombies, it’s the humans who are the real monsters” and so on. I prefer sticking to the element of a frozen apocalypse and compare Frostpunk with the Sci-Fi movie, Snowpiercer. They share several steampunk elements and the notions of selfless sacrifice which are shown in stark contrast to class struggle and segregation. The world has been turned upside down, yet some still consider themselves “more equal than others”. Orwell would feel like home in New London. Perhaps Bradbury as well, since you can’t simulate a “genuine” tyranny without book BBQs.

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Graphics

Frostpunk is a stunning game whose visuals will put a strain even on modern GPUs, depending on the resolution of choice and the city development stage. It’s a pleasure to finally write about another graphics engine apart form the “regulars”, such as Unity or Unreal. All the titles developed by 11 bit studios are powered by their proprietary engine, Liquid. It looks great and it runs smooth most of the time. Why am I saying that? Well, regardless of resolution (I didn’t even bother running it in 4K, since I knew what to expect) the frame rate will drop frequently in the end game phases of each scenario, when you’ll invariably have already filled the maps with structures teeming with workers, engineers and their children. Oh, I nearly forgot the giant robots as well.

So there’s plenty of action on-screen and most city builders have a hard time animating all of that at a decent frame rate, on a fully developed map that’s zoomed in. It’s also why most of these survival strategy games are PC exclusives. Consoles really couldn’t “ketchup to the mustard race” in this case. The one thing which really takes a toll on the frames per second, is the option to switch in real time between the normal and thermal vision modes. The latter, is an overlay that can be helpful in highlighting the areas which require the assembly of more steam hubs or activating built-in heaters that shall mitigate the deadly weather surrounding most buildings, insulated or not.

A useful tool, which I recommend you activate only when the action is paused. With so much information and tips being offered at all times, I could only complain about the lack of an option for hiding the HUD. You know, at least temporarily so I could really snap some epic screenshots. In the current absence of such a small yet crucial element, I had to contend with screenshots taken during the preset cutscenes following the unlock of a story event. Frostpunk deserves an option to minimize the HUD/User Interface and I hope that the dev team can integrate this, in a future update. I really can’t find any flaws to the visuals themselves. The effects are perfect and the art style for most assets and drawings, confirm that this title is serious about its attention to details.

 

 

Audio

Above are Frostpunk’s theme which appears during the Main Menu section and also the song which plays out once a murderous snow storm is engulfing New London. Both convinced me that this title has one of 2018’s best soundtracks for games or other forms of entertainment. “The City must survive” and so it shall. Voice acting is present in the right amount, yet you’ll still have to silently read several pages worth of advice and instructions. The tutorial section is integrated into the campaign as well as the scenarios, which is something I’ve rarely seen but I can still appreciate the novelty it represents. Most sound effects you could think of finding within a steampunk world, Frostpunk will deliver without much difficulty. The hard part comes through the gameplay, naturally.

Gameplay

There are currently three scenarios in this title, with New Home serving as the main campaign and also the largest in terms of map size and gameplay duration. The aforementioned “New London” is the city from the campaign, yet the Ark and Refugees scenarios don’t offer names for their smaller settlements. The one thing these three cities share however, is the colossal Generator at their center. A true feat of engineering, this structure is both a furnace and a boiler as it ensures warmth and a safe water source. Powered by you guessed it, steam! You need to ensure an ever growing supply of coal, since the weather will get considerably worse as you advance through the storyline of each scenario. Building outposts outside of the City’s boundaries, can ensure a steady supply of raw materials until massive storms will force you to reconsider your initial plans.Did you expect simulated survival over several years? Nope, in the newly christened Frostland (frozen wasteland was also a waste of letters apparently), you’re considered lucky if you survive for a week or two. Apart from the campaign which lasts 37 days, the smaller missions set deadlines at less than 30 days for both the Arks and Refugees. Replayability and hopefully a sandbox/endless mode were promised by the dev team after Frostpunk’s release, so fingers crossed in that regard. The game really needs to let players test out just for how long can their Cities endure. In case you’re wondering why it’s called the Great Winter, you’ll start the New Home campaign at a “comfortable” -20 °C (-4 °F) and end it at an astonishing -150 °C  (-238 °F). Those last values are far below anything witnessed in recorded history. Such an extreme drop in temperature will force the Generator to struggle even heating itself, nevermind the settlement.

The final say in productivity comes in the form of self-propelled robots which are assisted by an artificial intelligence of their own. They’re not just intricate exosuits, like the Tallboys from the Dishonored series. I agree that both types share a spider-like resemblance which forces a rigid movement pattern. The Autobots from Frostpunk can’t be employed as tools of oppression, yet they shall serve their role quite admirably by replacing both human workers and engineers in many job applications. With the adequate amount of research invested into autobot streamlining, a City can become nearly as autonomous as the end game phase of Factorio. Robots can harvest the raw materials, they shall then process those into consumables and advanced goods, while ultimately robots can also learn to assemble more of their “brethren” as the situation shall demand it. A steampunk Skynet, if you will.

The shortest route towards cooperation between a Captain (that’s you) and his or her citizens, is also the one which has lasting consequences of the most unpleasant kind. I mentioned politics and I mean it when I compare Frostpunk’s portrayal of emergency and post-apocalyptic situations with textbook examples of societies condemned to tyranny. Given the relatively small population which needs to be kept in check (from several dozens to no more than 700), the dangerous albeit seductive slope towards authoritarianism become less of an impediment and more of a long-term solution which works miracles right from the start. Miracles for the selected few who are within the graces of the “Great Leader”, make no mistake. As in the case of most failed democracies, the process starts slowly and unbeknownst to the majority of its citizens guided by the experience and goodwill of an individual with more power than deserved.

The Book of Laws serves as a bastion of civilization, from its intended perspective. A remnant of the past, with tangible hopes for the future. It will shape the City and all of its inhabitants, since this precious Book shall dictate most aspects ranging from medical care to working hours (nothing screams “Victorian London” more than child labour, medical experiments and overly extended shifts). Still, by offering your citizens the options to work until they drop or simply freeze to death through lack of vital resources, many of them shall become more than just vocal. Discontent can lead to rebellion and even a “regime change”. You can’t allow that, can you? So we shall leave the mild Adaptation part of the Book aside and we will focus on Purpose. Indeed, welcome to the Dark Side. What will you choose between a full-fledged dictatorship and an equally deadly cult of personality transcending into tainted faith? Two sides of the same coin.

Both options lead down the same path? Perhaps survival itself might depend on it. The decision is yours, yet an open palm can’t always achieve the same results as a closed fist. Frostpunk excels at simulating these critical issues and while it seems like the epilogues are judging harshly any rash course of action, sometimes only a strong sense of Order or Faith, can ensure that a community remains united against a common threat, whether we’re talking about the lethal temperature or frail human minds. Manipulation works only if you tacitly accept it though. With choices set in stone once they’re issued, the lack of manpower or advanced resources can make or break a campaign. Your two most precious assets can’t be reproduced within a City. People and Steam Cores (the steampunk equivalent to supercomputers) are in finite supply and only the Cores may be recovered at any point from broken automatons or structures.

If a worker or engineer dies, that “one less mouth to feed” also represents one less set of arms and legs which could have contributed to the survival of the entire community. Don’t disregard the citizens, no matter how pragmatic you may be. Even a tyrant knows not to be wasteful, if he/she’s smart. Outposts and having multiple scouting parties, shall significantly speed up the discovery of new survivors and resource pools. I’d suggest you also build four research facilities since their combined efforts shall ensure a steady advancement upon the tech tree. Why do all those research projects have to consume copious amounts of steel and wood? I get it that it might be implemented for balancing issues, but I’d rather unlock the tech tree much earlier than spend so much resources as it would have taken me to develop an entire neighborhood within my glorious New London. At this point, I’m nitpicking so let’s wrap it all up.

Verdict

Frostpunk might deserve a perfect score from me, yet I’m holding it out for the promised endless mode and for future optimization that might cancel out the annoying frame rate issues which only get surpassed by the in-game temperature drops, on an imaginary level of that makes the game even more difficult that it appears at first glance. Don’t worry, it’s still just as challenging as it should be and since the base game caught my attention so much, I can only eagerly await its updates or DLCs which are bound to happen sooner or later. Brace yourself for the Great Winter and remember: The City Must Survive!

All the screenshots you see above, have been taken by me in-game through the Steam Overlay.