Frostpunk is the latest game from 11 Bit Studios, the developers behind the excellent indie darling “This War of Mine”, and it is this which carries much of the same grim and socially conscious worldbuilding and atmosphere. Dark and depressing, Frostpunk is unlike any other experience in the city building genre. It uses the genre staple gameplay elements to convey the hard realities of leading and keeping a population alive, and how power corrupts absolutely everything. It is not only a deep gameplay experience, but one of the best truly interactive storytelling experiences that I’ve ever played.
Frostpunk starts with an introduction, setting up the exposition – you are a group of settlers escaping London after a cataclysmic event that covers the world in ice. It’s your job to lead these people to a massive generator in the north, setting up a new city around the warmth of the massive engine. It’s an intriguing set up and is certainly different from most others in the genre, and immediately after the beautifully animated opening cutscene, it’s hard not to want to see more. And from there on out, the visuals, gorgeous art style and sombre orchestral music mirror the opening.
As you are thrust into the game, the first thing you see is the massive engine; you begin to assign units to start collecting resources, slowly building your city. Similar to many city builders you will need to make houses and facilities for the population, using the materials you gathered. Eventually hours in, the plan is that you will have a huge bustling city slap bang in the middle of the frozen wasteland. Where Frostpunk stands out however is in its brutal difficulty. At the beginning of the game you are left with almost nothing; workers can only work certain hours, and there are very little options given to you. Resources are scarce and run out incredibly fast, especially the coal which is crucial to keeping the generator running, since this needs to be kept on so the cold can be kept at bay. You see, the cold slowly kills your citizens and keeping them warm is an absolute priority.
In addition to managing physical resources, you also have to keep track of very important statuses – hope and discontent. Hope and discontent can change depending on the choices you make and random events that will spring up as the game goes along. If one of these gets too high or too low, you can potentially lose the city. It has to be said that it is initially hard to keep control of these, and this is one of the principal challenges of the game.
Two very important aspects that affect these attitude shifts are technology development and laws. As the game progresses you can build workshops that allow you to research new tech and buildings. Some of these are incredibly crucial, and should you fail to research the right heating systems or invest in the correct buildings, your city could freeze or starve. There is constant pressure to stay ahead of what Frostpunk brings in terms of tech.
It’s with the other feature however that Frostpunk throws its most brutal punches. There is a book of laws, in which you can enact policies that can greatly help the process of keeping the city alive. However in a realistic fashion many of these laws are not pleasant and often downright immoral. For example, should you need more workers, it would be so much easier if you could just start making the children go to work, or force some residents into working 24-hour shifts. Similarly, you will need health posts to heal the sick citizens faster, so you force the organ removal from all dead citizens or overcrowd the hospitals. My own personal favourite though is found when your citizens are not eating enough, seeing you mix their meals with some saw dust. These feel like horrible actions to run with, but are necessary, however very quickly these laws can devolve your city into a sadistic society, albeit a functioning one.
In these mechanics Frostpunk is at its most cerebral and impressive, and through the intense difficulty and uncomfortable choices, it slowly starts to tell a tale to its player. A message of how a dystopian society happens, how power can corrupt, how the desperation for survival overtakes any civilized sense. It’s impressive how much 11 Bit Studios has managed to express things simply through the gameplay itself, and the kind of emotions they can evoke.
It also a simply excellent city builder despite all that. The challenge is tough but always fair, there is a shocking amount of depth to the technologies, and it warrants hours of experimentation. It has kept me glued to the screen for hours on end, trying out different tactics.
It’s not easy to beat FrostPunk’s main scenario though, but when you do it’s hard to feel accomplished. As the closing lines scroll by, it taunts you by commenting, “We survived, but was it worth it?”. Chances are that by playing through on your first time, you’ll have made a terrible city to live in and will be forced to come to that realisation. However it does not have to be that way, and with enough practice and micromanaging it is possible to beat the game with a respectable and kind society. That’s how Frostpunk sucks you back in; always wanting for things to be better and to try to action different strategies.
In addition to that, Frostpunk on Xbox One comes with all previously released content as well. So there are three other side stories that you can play through as well as an endless mode which tests how many days you can survive. In fact, I was pretty shocked to how much there was still to take in well after the main game had been completed.
Frostpunk is another incredible title from 11 Bit Studios, and an utter triumph for the genre. It’s an incredibly unique and engaging deep dive into the bowels of the icy tundra, a textbook example of emotional storytelling through gameplay. If you can stomach it and face the cold, Frostpunk is an experience you will likely never forget.