Frostpunk Review: Damned If You Do, Damned If You Don't

  • First Released Apr 24, 2018
  • PC

Candle in the wind.

Huddled together in a crater, they gather around their last hope against the cold--an aging steam generator. Fueled by coal, it can kick out just enough heat to give the last bastion of humanity a faint glimmer of hope. A moment like this illustrates the essence of Frostpunk, a survival-style city-builder where you must lead a lonely band of survivors not against encroaching armies, but against a frigid storm that's wiped out most of the human race.

As temperatures plunge well below freezing, it's your job to guide the remaining populace towards establishing a successful, self-sufficient camp. You'll need hunters and hothouses, mines and saw mills. And you have to keep all of these machines running in temperatures that would make even the hardiest penguins shiver.

The essentials are pretty simple, though. People need houses and jobs. Because this is a survival situation, everyone works on a near-constant basis. The day starts at 5:00 AM, and people have a few hours to finish any construction projects before they head to their primary job for 12 hours. Then they head back home, finish a few small tasks, and go to bed.

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This cycle is hugely important because you'll need to always make sure you have enough fuel to keep the generator running through the night. A major part of this is planning out when and where people need to be to complete their tasks. If you survive, you'll build outwards in concentric rings, ensuring that, as you expand, your core can keep up with the heating demands and provide enough warmth for your citizens to combat the pervasive chill.

This all works seamlessly, too. There’s a natural pattern to it all, and you’ll be given little challenges throughout the day to help give you a bit more structure. Often, these are emergent consequences of past decisions. If you were able to keep people alive through the night, but not warm enough, then they could get sick--posing a new set of challenges to prioritize for the day after. If any one element of the city is neglected a bit too long, then you’ll start getting more strident demands from your people, which often become more intricate, two-to-three-day goals. The structure for it all is elegant and precise--you always have just enough work, and you’re never left without near and moderate-term goals to help give you direction.

Your mission is also strained by all manner of unavoidable disasters. Everything from sudden cold snaps and necessary amputations to mining disasters and refugee crises crop up, requiring your intervention. This forms what could be called the crux of the game--balancing hope and discontent. Compassionate actions give your people hope. They remind the huddled masses that we (in the general sense) haven’t lost touch with humanity. Dispassionate or draconian acts, however, drain the collective will. Unlike most moral choices in games, neither are unilaterally better.

Compassionate actions are typically better long-term goals for short-term hits. For instance, taking on gravely injured or terminally ill refugees will help hold your people together--reminding them that if they are ever left out or lost, they will be found and cared for. At the same time, medical care in the post-apocalypse is damned near impossible, and if you don't have the facilities to care for the people, you'll soon end up with a pile of bodies spreading disease throughout the colony. Manage to fix up the wounded, though, and you'll have an able-bodied workforce embued with the unbreakable spirit of hope.

These are the kinds of choices Frostpunk lives on, and what separates it from every other comparable game. Frostpunk gets a lot of mileage from it, too. It’s hard to cling to the moral high ground--even if you succeed--when you’re reminded of the sacrifices you’ve made along the way. That gives your decisions weight in a way that SimCity and many of its ilk simply can’t. Here, the effects of disasters are tangible, and the game rightly blames you for your personal failures.

One of your citizens approaches you: "Children should be put to work. We're all in this together, and we need help right now." Then, you're shuffled over to a rough-hewn book of laws for your band. There you can, with a click, start putting the kids to work. Or you could build child shelters to house the kids and keep them healthy and safe from the cold. The citizens didn't present you with that second option--and why would they, they can only see what's immediately in front of them?

Frostpunk itself, in the tutorial, notes that the people you serve are always looking for a solution, but not necessarily the best one. What's ultimately best depends on the emergent challenges you face. Do you have a mysterious illness spreading wildly through the camp? Are you struggling to find coal, forcing you to char firewood and construction materials to keep the generator going? These questions are constant and agonizing throughout. Frostpunk drips cynicism and bleakness. And yet it is that hopelessness, that fundamental need of human beings to persist in spite of everything that Frostpunk seeks to embody most. You become the bulwark against fear--even as you look across the land and internalize just how hard this fight will be.

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That's powerful precisely because it hurts. Every time you make a tough call, doubts linger. If you had been better, if you had chosen differently, maybe you'd have been able to save everyone. Adding to the distress, Frostpunk's Hope meter shows you the consequences of your decisions right as they happen. Send children into the mines and you can watch the camp's faith evaporate as a whole chunk of meter gets lopped off.

This system--balancing the will of the people against their own needs--works so well precisely because every mechanism in the game is built to support that core idea. Your job is to manage the emotional fortitude of the people as much as it is about anything else. In time, you'll be able to form scouting parties, outposts, and build a sprawling network of makeshift towns and settlements that stand together. But again, that arc intersects with countless brutal decisions. Should you send a scout to help survivors fight off bears? What about risk turning off an electrical super-weapon that fries everything it touches--but with the potential of a new safe haven from the world outside? The story of your civilization, of your masses hoping, is forged in the choices you make along the way. And they become a part of the narrative you build.

Frostpunk is among the best overall takes on the survival city builder to date. Its theming and consistency create a powerful narrative through line that binds your actions around the struggle to hold onto humanity in uncertain times. Hope is a qualified good, but you may not always be strong enough (or clever enough) to shelter that flame from the cold.

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The Good

  • Agonizing conditions force gut-wrenching decisions about how to run your camp
  • Phenomenal aesthetic choices reinforce core themes
  • Effectively pits short-term and long-term goals against one another to create challenging play

The Bad

About the Author

Dan Starkey’s a big fan of building cities. Starting with SimCity 3000 Unlimited, he’s been building up all kinds of municipalities, hoping that they will stand the test of time. He was provided with a copy by the publisher for the purposes of this review and managed to complete two of three main scenarios over 25 hours (in the last one, all his people froze to death. RIP.)