If years of fictitious leadership have taught me anything, it’s that I become a grade A asshole when put in charge. It’s really Paradox’s fault. Somewhere between murdering pregnant women in Crusader Kings to burning heretics in Europa Universalis, the stepping stones toward my rise to power started to be the bodies of my citizens.
So up steps the somewhat cringingly named Frostpunk, trying hard to find a place in my heart for Mary Joan Frozencrotch and her starving son’s aversion to the sawdust in the morning gruel. I am not moved. However, this does make him an ideal candidate for a suicide mission to fix my steam core. The hungry burn first.
A rock and a cold place
The main selling point of Frostpunk lies in forcing the player into hard moral choices. However, I’ll preface this review by saying I never thought twice about authorizing the dirty work. It’s a tough ask to make me hesitate, but the realities of the situation you’re put in immediately undercut these potential conundrums.
There are three unrelated chapters, each with its own motivations and problems. You are the unnamed chief of a group of arctic migrants, fleeing a Victorian London towards an unnamed frozen wasteland for some desperate reason. Giant coal powered space heaters tower in the middle of a frozen crater. It’s perfect for forming a little shanty around to call your own. Sticky situations arise soon after. Dropping temperatures and external pressures pile up quickly. You are tasked with fixing them without everyone dying.
Ice fishing for a response
I dislike how dramatic the narrative tries to be. Your people have two mental health bars: discontent and hope. The trials and tribulations of being extremely cold tends to your tax people. The game offers two mutually exclusive options to help: faith and order. Both start off innocuous enough but can snowball into unintended extremism. On my first playthrough, I found that setting up a propaganda center made evil nazi banners roll down my buildings. During the final recap, the game has the gall to chastise me for being some frozen fourth reich. “Was it worth it?” the game asks. Well nobody died so I’d say mission accomplished. Both options, while visually different, offer similarly intense options.
You are lured into hard choices by scripted events but they tend to be heavy handed and arbitrary. There are a bunch of little annoying moments that try and force feed you drama. Your first 24 hour shift automatically kills someone to force you to deal with the fate of the body (which never happens again). This usually meant me setting children to go first as to not kill off one of my valuable engineers. Similarly, each law I pass has a predictable response, usually with low context ham-fisted attempts to make me feel bad for making the “bad choice” (and vice versa). Choices are usually extremely binary, (i.e good or evil) and more accommodation for some middle ground would have made me feel less trapped. Also, the game is extremely drab, impersonal and depressing. A bit of levity, context or tonal variation would have given the tragedy a little more punch and meaning. Just giving a name and frozen face to one of my ants isn’t enough to make me care.
Snow country for old men
The objective is to make me feel uncomfortable for making a kid work in a sawmill or something equally heinous. But there’s a huge underlying problem to all this. The desperation baked into the setting make “extreme” actions much more palatable, since the alternative is everyone freezing and dying (and me losing). I’ll feel bad if I’m working these people to death for a new golden toilet so the king of France doesn’t laugh at me, but if the goal is keeping everyone from shattering into ice cubes, I’ll drag little Timmy into the goddamn coal mine personally. From a practical standpoint, am I really doing to throw a playthrough out if I don’t like an unethical law? The real choice is not whether to flog people to prevent a riot. It’s more like flog people or start a new game.
These moral ideas clash with the mechanics as well. You only need to make the worst choices when the situation is truly dire. I’m no sadist; my proto Nazi society never needed to torture people. I created my nationalist state with little violence, yet the game still treats me like proto Hitler.
Moral choices are really only a problem when resources are short. Normal difficulty is far too forgiving for me and hard was fair, but with very thin margins for error. Even the most horrid measures usually don’t solve anything. The seeds of your demise are sown far before emergency measures are even on the table. One bad choice in the beginning will crash your town hard and fast. Moral failures of our dear leader are generally just an afterthought.
This is further compounded by what I like to call “Hitman Syndrome”. Eventually I was able to carve a solid path to success but this was only after learning about the troubles to come in a busted attempt. Every runthrough hits the same notes after a certain condition is met. Planning ahead for things you’re not supposed to know about next time deflates the difficulty dramatically. Lower difficulty means nothing really nasty is necessary.
Ultimately, I can acknowledge the game does try to emphasize hard choices in the face of adversity in a way that’s more thoughtful and effective than most. It’s a believable and gradual transition from a dusty group of wanders to a secret police totalitarian state. My quibbles stem largely from an overly rational and jaded perspective. There are also some interesting optional objectives which can break your stable base should you choose to try and help the outsiders. Someone with a softer heart would likely have been less critical and these decisions would resonate more.
Work life balance
Luckily, I did enjoy the mechanical side of Frostpunk. As mentioned, the focus is on a central heating core, with your settlement growing radially around it. The game does a nice job making you really think about what you’re doing. Temperature is obviously a big issue, as colder temperatures make people sick. However, heating requires coal so you have to find the people to make some. Mental health and food are in the mix as well. Resource points are scarce so better technology is a must. Without the efficiency upgrades, you won’t be able to sustain larger populations. There’s also a whole world to kind of explore in a map/ text based format. You can gain valuable resources or recruits which can freeze over if you’re not quick enough. It’s all a delicate balancing act which forces you to not only address the concerns of the moment but think about what’s ahead.
No more ice puns ice wear
When the responsibilities begins to pile up, you need a strong interface to ensure things don’t become a grind. While Frostpunk is not perfect in the tools it offers, the workload for an increased populace is kept fairly steady throughout. Old citizens should be mostly self sufficient so accommodating new additions is always the bulk of the effort. Refreshingly, I never felt overwhelmed or the need to pause to set things in motion, preserving the pace. There are also some well designed overlays and shortcuts. For example, the temperature management screen is really well thought out and effective. There are also some good mechanisms that allow the tedious types to micromanage small details (like heater schedules) without feeling overly complex or necessary for those who don’t.
The gameplay is largely solid but there are some snags, especially on the AI side. Buildings don’t magically erect themselves so you need a robot or group of people to construct them. Exactly when your people get around to it though can vary wildly. Workers don’t come during their shifts but sometimes get to it after work and sometimes call it a night. This can get frustrating when you need something done quickly as there’s no way to direct anyone manually. Automatons are also particularly dumb when asked to do something other than work a resource pile. I also would have appreciated a little more mechanical depth, such as unsupervised children being less productive or unemployed citizens causing problems.
Ice boxed in
Each little chapter is good at showcasing different playstyles through the central problem. For instance, the story where you’re tasked with protecting the seedlings of tomorrow makes you invest heavily in autonomous robots. The refugee scenario makes you deal with waves of people so spatial planning and population control become key.
It all works extremely well, but after the three campaigns, it doesn’t seems like there’s anywhere left to go without adding new buildings/tech. While good at making you learn, especially on hard, the question asked seems to be “can you do it” rather than “how can you do it”. Everything from how the tech tree is laid out to the resources available is a big glowing sign towards a particular strategy. This really kind of kills any kind of creativity and replayability since every situation feels solved after you’re done.
I was reasonably satisfied by the amount of game I got from the experience, but the quality and length of the free updated content will really determine Frostpunk’s longevity. Things feel a little boxed in as of now, but I can definitely imagine some interesting scenarios given some new tweaks or content. There’s one on the horizon with more promised, so perhaps waiting to see what kind of support the game will get (and a discount) would be prudent for those not immediately entranced by the concept.
Chip off the old ice block
Visually, Frostpunk looks and feels really good. Everything has a nice polish to it without being flashy. The animations are crisp and well done and the custom artwork splashes and interface are thematically appropriate. The robots are really a nice touch, morphing like a Wild Wild West version of Optimus Prime for each job they do. Your little town looks convincing as all the dusty people wander around from place to place. The visuals lend a lot to the atmosphere, which is the real star of the show.
Your town emulates what kind of leader you are, whether it be Nazi-esque or hyper religious. For instance in my police state, beyond the New Order banners everywhere, there are guards walking around, towers looming overhead. There’s also awesome subtle audio clues, from announcing the morning “march” to work, or shifting from bringing your tools home to returning them to work. Weird machines emanate occasional barking motivation, church bells ring and monks chant. People fight and bodies pile up if you don’t pass the appropriate laws. If you take a second to really immerse yourself in the details of the world you’ve built, you will not be disappointed at what you find.
Should you buy it?
Frostpunk is an ambitious and polished effort that should be applauded for pushing you to really think about the choices you make. While the moral choice system missed the mark for me a bit, I cede that my perspective is not one many will share. Importantly, there’s a solid backbone of game mechanics and visual flavor to back up these questions. It’s not a terribly long runtime with limited replayability if value is a concern. However, it’s a unique experience and with content on the horizon, I’m optimistic that we have a game of enduring worth here.