Platforms: PC (reviewed)
It’s pretty hard to screw up playing a city sim.
As long as you aren’t the most irresponsible mayor in the world, you can just wait until you have enough money to buy whatever you want. At least, that’s the case with games like Sim City and Cities: Skylines. In Frostpunk, I needed to wait until I had enough resources to expand my housing district and half my citizens died of exposure.
This isn’t a standard city sim.
In Frostpunk, you play the last vestiges of society struggling to survive an apocalyptic winter. On a good day, you are looking at temperatures of -20°C, and bad days can drop to temperatures as low as -150°. To survive, your city of steam and steel has been built around a large coal generator. As the last leader of human civilization, you must decide what sacrifices you will make to survive the end of times.
Much of Frostpunk will seem familiar to anyone who has played other sim or RTS games. You start with nothing but a couple resource piles around you, and a meager population of children, workers and engineers. You then assign your population jobs, sending some out to gather coal, others out to forage for food, and still others to build infrastructure and work in medical tents.
As you gain more resources, you build more buildings, which provide food, warmth, shelter, and more resources for your civilization. Eventually you will be offered the ability to research tech which not only makes jobs more efficient, but also opens up access to newer buildings and structures. If everything goes well, you will eventually build yourself a self-sustaining cycle which will allow your city to flourish.
Unfortunately, things are rarely that simple in the post apocalypse. Managing temperature is a constant worry. Even on the sunniest day, only the structures closest to the generator are warm enough to provide comfortable living. You can eventually research portable heating hubs, but these take up space in your infrastructure and act as a constant coal drain. You can also research the ability for buildings to come with their own heaters, but this makes them more expensive and acts as an even more intense resource drain. Everything is a balancing act in Frostpunk.
You are the law
So you need coal. Unfortunately, you don’t have a whole lot of workers to spare.
This is when the game taunts you by prompting you to open up the book of laws. Here you can sign laws into effect that drastically change the rules of the game. For example, if you need more resources you can choose to extend the workday even going so far to call 24 hour emergency shifts. Of course, this will raise the chances of people getting sick and will spread discontent among your population.
Some laws present you with a choice. For example, you can either sign a law that forces children to work, vastly increasing your workforce but diminishing hope, or provide safe haven for children in care centers, cutting your workforce and providing a drain on resources but raising hope and lowering discontent. Each of these laws opens up pathways to yet more laws. Working children can eventually work more dangerous jobs; even jobs that would put their lives at risk while cared for children can study to become aids for engineers or doctors.
Neither is the “better” choice. It’s all a question of how you personally want to govern your city.
Shades of gray in a sea of white
This approach to morality is one of the things that sets Frostpunk apart from its contemporaries. Normally games will present you with a choice between an obvious good and obvious evil choice. Sometimes games will tax your morality, making the “good” choice provide you with less resources, effectively asking how selfish you are.
Frostpunk’s morality is a more blurry shade of gray. While it might seem like making children work is the “wrong” choice, a less than sufficient workforce will make those very same children freeze to death.
Another good example is food choices. You can choose to fill your meals with sawdust, making people more content and your food reserves stretch longer, but at an increased risk of illness. Or you can boil your food into soup, which also makes your reserves stretch longer but makes the population lose hope from a lack of full meals. Alternatively, you can choose to not sign any food law, and feed your population three square meals a day, hoping you can keep up with demand. It’s a noble goal to aspire to, but if you don’t reach it people will fall ill and hope will fall anyway. It’s really just a question of what you, personally, believe is an acceptable measure for keeping your city alive.
The challenges of city survival
Another thing that sets Frostpunk apart from other sim games is its exploration system. After you research and build a beacon, you can send scouts out to other locations in the frozen apocalypse. These scouts might find more survivors or resources. You can even have them build outposts to provide a constant flow of resources to your city.
It’s this mechanic that sets up the game’s core narrative. As you explore you will find out more and more about what has happened to the rest of civilization in the post apocalypse. You might find remnants of other cities or rescue stranded survivors. These events create drastic game swings, providing you with a ton of resources, new tech, and maybe even steam automata which can do the work of fifteen normal workers.
However, they can just as easily swing in the opposite direction. Finding a city filled with frozen corpses can wreck your hope and spark revolution. This will cause you to open up your book of laws again and consider instituting martial law, or perhaps establishing a new religion. I decided to declare myself the Ice Pope, which… may have gotten a few people killed as heretics, but hey, sacrifices must be made for the good of the city.
This is the general ebb and flow of the game. You’ll build your city up enough to sustain itself before some event throws things off balance. Maybe a huge storm is coming. Maybe the populace is losing faith in your leadership. Maybe a huge caravan of refugees just came into your city and you’re not equipped to feed them. Whatever comes your way, you need to quickly respond before your city falls to chaos, sickness, and the freezing cold.
The whole time you are playing this political and sociological experiment, you are still managing the layout of your city. Unlike most sim games, Frostpunk is laid out on a radial grid extending out from a central generator. This provides some interesting city building challenges. You’ll want your residential areas to be close to the central generator for heating purposes, but that means that your work areas will be further away from your heat source, reducing their productivity. You want homes to be near recreation areas to raise hope, but you also want them to be closer to places of work to raise your work efficiency.
Then there’s the problem of roads. Roads can only be built along the edges of buildings, and every building must be attached to at least one road. You’ll naturally want to build your roads in some sort of grid system that makes sense, except each building has a completely different height and width, and you are going to build these buildings in the order you need them. Not to mention, roads cost wood which is also the primary building material for every other building in the game, and is also expended for scientific research. Infrastructure is a game of adaptation like everything else in Frostpunk.
As much as I’d love the sing the praises of the frozen post apocalypse, it’s not all fun and games. Frostpunk has some very real flaws that should be mentioned.
For one, it’s not very stable. Over the course of my review period Frostpunk crashed on me five times and would randomly freeze… which I suppose is narratively appropriate but is still annoying. It also seems to throw temper tantrums any time you alt-tab out of it.
It’s also disappointingly short. The main campaign can be beaten in about six to eight hours. Frostpunk luckily involves additional scenarios such as a science focused map where you have to protect the last seeds on earth from freezing to death, or a map where you lead a revolution against the wealth who hog all the heat for themselves, but these too can be beaten quickly. Each scenario has difficulty sliders for individual game aspects like economy, heat and health, and this gives you some impetus to dive back in and increase your score, but there is still less replay value than you might find in other sims.
Luckily, I could see Frostpunk eventually becoming a legacy platform. If 11-Bit studios decided to continue releasing updates, we could see new techs, new buildings, new scenarios and more. This would be more than enough to push me back out into the cold. There is something to be said for buying Frostpunk on future promise.
The budget $30 price tag doesn’t hurt either.
A sim game that makes you feel
Most sim games are a passive experience. You lay out some plans, click the fast forward button, and watch your city grow. Frostpunk is different in that it’s very active. Your people are always demanding something from you: more food, more heat, more sources of hope. You can approach all these needs in several different ways, but they will always tax your organization skills and morality. There isn’t a single moment where you can lay back and take it easy. You have to constantly be switching up work orders and policies in order to survive.
While this constant engagement can be exhausting, it also keeps the player emotionally invested. You feel the fear that this apocalypse is supposed to inspire. You play through weeks of the game muttering to yourself “I’m gonna die I’m gonna die I’m gonna die.”
At one point I was surviving a storm much worse than anything I had faced so far, a storm so cold that carbon dioxide froze out of the air and shut down my greenhouses. I felt like there was nothing I could do and I was going to start over, when I got a dialogue box saying that one of my survivors found a family member out in the cold and was able to reunite with them, nursing them back to health.
This inspired real-life hope in me and made me keep playing, sticking out the storm and eventually surviving. This level of emotional engagement is what helps Frostpunk stand out.
This is reason alone to purchase Frostpunk. It’s a sim game that makes you feel things. Much like 11-Bit Stuidos’ previous game, This War of Mine, it puts you face to face with the harsh reality of survival. However, you aren’t just looking out for your family this time. You are looking out for civilization itself. As the game’s tag-line goes “the city must survive.” How far will you go to ensure its survival?