Frostpunk Review – Chillingly Beautiful
Platform: PC (reviewed)
Developer/Publisher: 11bit Studios
Release: 24th April 2018
City building games may be one of the genres we see some games from here and there but never truly great ones, except every few years. Examples like Cities Skylines come to mind here but not much else. This year 11bit Studios decided to release the title they were working on for quite some time, hitting this particular niche, while trying to establish itself as a prime example of it. Surprisingly, it worked and Frostpunk quickly became a hit with glowing reviews and dedicated fans, rightfully so.
Set in a world governed by frost and snow, humans are on the brink of extinction. Some leave the capital London, following a man who promises them a future in a new city, so they clinch on the last glimpse of hope, trying to survive. Unfortunately, the world is getting colder and colder around them, forcing them to abandon many, or die entirely.
At its very core, Frostpunk is nothing more than yet another city builder, right? You build tents for your people, so they´re not homeless and freeze to death, feed them and get them to work, how much depth can some temperature even bring? Frankly, not a whole lot, since the basic gameplay consists of pretty much everything you would expect from this setting. Every few days the temperature falls, letting your people freeze more while forcing you to research new houses, build some, get coal to fire up your generator, who provides the much-needed heat and last but not least let hunters gather food so no one starves.
One of the few actually really cool things is the fact every building that produces something or has a certain effect has to be operated by humans. Gathering coal takes 5-15 people to be efficient, same with coal mines, sawmills, wood gathering, researching and much more. On top of that, your population is divided into engineers and workers, former naturally being ideal for medical and tech facilities while latter will be the workforce. Now, combine that with the fact you start out with 80 and 130 will already put a heavy burden on your resource management, getting everything optimized is a task on its own. Especially since the colder it gets, the more resources you need, while having to introduce new positions like guards to keep order in the city. Where you could put 15 on gathering coal before, you´re happy if you have enough to have 3-5 work in a mine.
Nonetheless, everyone vaguely familiar with those tinier scale management simulators will feel right at home here. For example, even me who never had a lot contact with it, needed less than an hour to build cities who could easily hold up 4-6 hours before going down. Naturally, this only increased over time, since Frostpunk isn´t a difficult game at all, as it relies on systems you´ve probably already seen in many others. On the other hand, the new mechanics like having to build in circles around your generator and the overall heat mechanic add depth on multiple layers.
With every 10 degrees down, all citizens are pushed to another edge of getting sick and unable to work. As a result, balancing your typical faster gathering and building upgrades with the heat range and power extensions becomes one of the biggest tasks in the game. Paired with the impact the temperature has on your worker’s health, happiness, effectivity and more mix things up in many meta-layers. For example, when you are forced to build gathering hubs and mines on the outskirts, steam hubs and other means to bring heat to those further away places have to be managed since they burn through your coal supplies like nothing. Unfortunately, with time those aren´t enough and it didn´t happen only once that more than a few dozens of people died of sickness and freezing. Mastering this balance and different elements will be the very core of Frostpunk and mainly responsible for your success. In combination with the human resources, in particular, keeping the balance between having enough people to operate the growing number of machines, while not having too many so your city will become overcrowded and be forced to expand faster than planned, is the true core of the game.
However, in the end, I wouldn´t say Frostpunk should be played for its gameplay alone, actually, I think it isn´t even its biggest appeal. Instead, the reason why I enjoyed my time so much, is the fact all of those systems come together in the end, forming an atmosphere utterly perfect for this desperate setting. By forcing you to balance people and growth at the same time, it´s not possible to save everyone you find, make everyone happy and be perfect all the way. No one would like their perfect ecosystem be destroyed by some surprisingly found refugees, so letting some people die doesn´t sound too bad.
After all, Frostpunk doesn´t forgive many mistakes and you can destroy hours of progress by simply having too many people at a time. This is the very thing it teaches you over every playthrough and sooner or later, the more drastic options you detested at first become the most helpful ones. This is one without any kind of walls, guidings or what-not but through the game design alone. Saving everyone you see is impossible if you´re not planning everything from minute one and who is? At the same time, finding lost cities which suffered the same fate as ours may will, according to found citizens, the whole world asks one thing: Is it worth putting everyone at risk for saving 20 people? At this moment, it actually achieves something not many titles can in all media: Letting you understand the view of desperate chief.
The other big reason for Frostpunk´s amazing atmosphere is its visuals. Presenting a really great looking world not only for this genre but in general, it provides everything fans of both management simulators and atmosphere could wish for. On the one hand, you have your dozens of citizens working at their everyday jobs in real-time, building houses, carrying their lanterns around and all these little things one would hope for when imagining how to portray this colony. Overlayed with a really good interface, which may have problems pointing out more advanced stuff like skills, yet excelling at offering a compelling UI to allocate, observe and analyze your people, heat, generator or happiness. On the other hand, the visual design itself is just great, portraying a giant world of ice with its limited colour palette and your vibrant, healthy city in contrast. When your generator shuts down, everything will go dark, leaving the colony in the uncertain room between life and death, while a well-working city will look like exactly that. Similar to movies, it makes use of shadows, lighting or colours among other things to create a world that could work in every genre, not just this one.
Frostpunk is very good at what it does, really. It offers tons of content with new scenarios and features added over the course of the past months, while built on top of a super accessible but challenging and fun base. It´s one of the rare games that merge every aspect of a video game, to create a worthwhile experience and an atmosphere as well as underlying stories, effectively offering something for everyone.
[A Review Code was provided by 11bit Studios]