Review: Frostpunk (Computer)

Reviewed by Taleweaver, posted May 21, 2018, last updated May 27, 2018
I've been asked to do this review, but aside from the steam key I don't get paid.
May 21, 2018
  • Release Date (NA): April 24, 2018
  • Release Date (EU): April 24, 2018
  • Release Date (JP): April 24, 2018
  • Publisher: 11 bit studios
  • Developer: 11 bit studios
  • Genres: City-building, survival
  • ESRB Rating: Mature
  • PEGI Rating: Sixteen years and older
  • Single player
    Local Multiplayer
    Online Multiplayer
From the outset, Frostpunk appears cold, dark and gritty. And with good reason--the elevator pitch for this game would be something like "Anno meets Don't Starve". Want to know more? Then by all means: keep reading...

Winter has come

Frostpunk takes place in an alternative universe. We're writing about a steampunk-themed England in 1886. Without warning, the world has fallen in a never ending winter to which mankind wasn't prepared for. Entire nations have collapsed and fell into chaos. The only hope for survival are huge-ass coal furnaces the government constructed somewhere in the center of a circular valley. You are the leader of a bunch of refugees arriving there, and it is your task to build a civilization around this generator. Preferably before your population freezes or starves to death.

As you start, you have a handful of resources, the furnace, 85 people and limited knowledge. The game gives some basic objectives, but isn't holding your hand. In my opinion, this is a good way of doing this. Because you're inexperienced, the chances of survival the first time are very slim (unless you SERIOUSLY study up on online sources in advance), but at the same time it always leaves you with enough pointers and hints to do better the next time. The game has side missions and tutorials. While they are helpful, they're too static to truly grasp the concept of the game. You really want to gather coal and start the reactor (as instructed), but the urgency doesn't become clear until you discover the consequence of what it means not to have enough coal. Ideally, you want to be one step ahead of your what your population needs. If you wait to build shelters until they start complaining about the cold, you will need resources for both tents and medical posts. By the time you'll have that, you'll be chasing the facts because people will have become sick, morale will drop and resources will roll in slower. And this is just a simple example of how things slowly spiral out of control.

So let me be straight with you: if you want a city builder where you can sit back, relax and solve problems as they appear by clicking a few things (e.g.: fixing that hilarious killer coaster only after the novelty of watching your peeps skyrocket into the lake wears off), then this is not a game for you. Tough conflicts are going to come your way, and if you take them lightly, your population will suffer the consequences. Frostpunk isn't messing around in this aspect: it isn't afraid to shove a realistic portrait of a half-frozen kid in your face, muttering "why do you want this innocent child to freeze to death???". The game has some simple but effective mechanics in place to make sure that when things go wrong, you don't just shrug it off. As an example: at one point I was low on coal so I used a passed overtime-law to make sure my population wouldn't freeze. As a result of that, one of the coal gatherers died, which caused some grief I could only partially implore by building a cemetery and allow a ceremony.
Aside the resource management, you have to keep their hope and discontempt levels within reason by passing laws. Should children be working or not? Are you going to prolong life as much as possible or go with experimental treatments? Will you add sawdust to the food to make it more fulfilling (at the cost of lower hope)?

If it wasn't clear yet: this game isn't a cakewalk.

childrenlabor.jpg firstdeath.png lastsurvivor.jpg childinjured.jpg

Progress and hurdles

I've played a good handful of city builders, but this is the first one where I had to restart because my population threw me out. It hurts, because a large part of the joy is the building things. Starting from scratch is harsh...but very valuable. My second and third attempt started out (much) better, and each got me further into the game. I learned that if you didn't anticipate, you'd quickly found yourself in all sorts of catch-22 situations. People don't want to dig up coal to warm themselves because the premise is cold. They don't want to gather wood for tents until everyone has a tent. Some complain that there's not enough hands to do all the work, but employing children apparently isn't an option.
Even later in the game, seemingly little problems can escalate. At one point, there'll be panic because your settlement is the last one alive and there'll be a semi-open riot to leave to London. The high level of hope in my city quickly plummeted. One of the missions to get hope back was to heat all houses. I did that well in time, but five minutes before the deadline the temperature dropped from -40 to -60 degrees Celsius (from -40 to -75° Fahrenheit). People complained about the cold and the breaking of my promise, and I was thrown out by a punk who must've promised my people he'd "make the generator great again". :glare:

The way things progress is certainly interesting. Aside placing buildings, assigning workforces and passing laws, you can (and must) also research a wide variety of buildings and techniques. You start out with crates of supplies nearby, but later on you'll have to build sawmills, coal mines and other things you need to research first.

Expeditions deserve special mentioning. Once researched, you can start sending out expeditions. This is needed because it'll give you access to resources you can't otherwise attain:

  • Humans. Unlike most other city builders, Frostpunk works on a day-by-day basis. This means that there is no reproducing, and children don't grow into adults (that I know of). As a result the only way to increase your population is to search for survivors and bring these to your city. This is generally a good thing, though obviously your city infrastructure needs to adapt to these new groups.
  • Steam engines. Most buildings require wood and/or metal. The best ones tend to require a steam engine. can't produce this in your city, so the only way to obtain these is by having your explorers bring it in.
  • Automatons: these are gigantic robot spiders that in and of itself steals does the job of an entire crew of workers. These also don't require sleep or food, so they're a very powerful boon for your city. While they become technically available in the factory later in the game, these too require a steam engine.

So all in all, you aren't completely helpless. But the task in front of you isn't simple.

expedition.jpg choices.jpg ending.jpg shortcut.jpg

Human & other resources

As you can imagine, a game of this type has different things to manage. Luckily, it doesn't deal with neither the complex chains of the Anno series nor with the multitude of items in Don't Starve. Here's a quick rundown of what is in Frostpunk:
  • coal: this is the most crucial one. It is constantly being used to heat the city. Run out, and within the day you'll take a serious dive in health, morale and discipline. Do not run out of this...ever!
  • wood & metal: your basic materials for buildings and upgrades.
  • steam engines: as mentioned, you cannot harvest this resource from within the game. The only way to get it is to send out scouts.
  • raw & cooked food: hunters and hothouses provide raw food which can be made into cooked food that'll feed your population.
  • heat: this is the toughest one to get right. At first you need to build your city around the generator. Later you can upgrade the radius, as well as build steam hubs that act in the same way. They each have a cone-shaped area of effect, and some buildings have isolation or better heating on their own. Nonetheless, building your city requires some creativity, as some buildings are larger than others.
  • faith & entertainment: these buildings have cones of effect as well, so figuring out when and where to place is also a factor. Luckily, this is something of a later concern.

Humans require the most management. These are either workers, engineers or children. On most buildings, you've got to assign workers, engineers or a combination of them (or children, depending how you set your laws). The buildings they work and live in need to be warm and they'll need food or they'll go sick or angry. It's this angry-level (which comes in the form of a 'hope' and discontempt' meter) that'll ultimately kill you in the end. So keep all the above within check to the best of your abilities.

amputee.png steamhub.jpg warmth.jpg londoners.jpg

Technical aspects of the game

In terms of visuals and aesthetics: the screenshots speak for themselves. While colors aren't exactly popping out, it's always easy to recognize the different kinds of buildings. Rotating, zooming in and out and all rapports you want to have are given to you instantly. Aside one or two hiccups (temporary freezes of about 10 seconds), I haven't even experienced slowdowns in about 9 hours of playtime. And not only is my rig about average in terms of today's specs (8-core 3.5 GHz, 8GB RAM, GeForce GTX760) but I also left my settings at the defaulted maximum. And that gives some neat (and useful) effects. Once a place is heated, snow melts around it.
Sounds and music are also great. I'm terrible at explaining this, so either go listen to this youtube video or believe me when I say it would fit perfectly in a 'Game of Thrones' episode (preferably somewhere north of the wall ;)).

Admitted: there were times where I wanted to zoom in further than the game allowed me to, but this was just because I was curious where one person was going. The default zoom level is more than fine.
By the way: for now, this is a windows only game. PS4 and xbone versions are confirmed in the works; a mac version may be coming later. Navigating the maps is easy and intuitive: left click to select something, mouse wheel to zoom, hold the mouse wheel to rotate and hold the right mouse button to move sideways. In other words: you can easily play this game using one hand (I used my left hand mainly to scratch my chin and going " will I solve THIS situation?" :unsure: ).

winterhomefallen.jpg theark.jpg expedition.jpg settings.jpg

Ponderings and conclusion

Frostpunk is a phenomenal experience. If this review sounds a bit too much like I'm banging on about my personal experiences: that's because these experiences stick. Other games tend to take the suspension of disbelief for granted, but Frostpunk goes the extra mile. The cutscenes (with mostly still images), the ice on the UI, the fact that everyone has really warmed my heart when I first managed to reduce the number of homeless and sick people to zero.

So...are there any negatives? Hmmm...maybe. Other reviewers have said something about limited replayability. I can see where they're coming from. Not having an endless mode limits things a bit, and the reason I sank so many hours in Anno 2070 was because the problems were always trivial. Frostpunk can be a bit frustrating if it hits you with a problem you didn't foresee (enough). There's also more than one scenario, but these get unlocked if you manage to survive to day 20. It's doable, but I'm not sure if the other scenarios prolong the game in the same way (the second scenario has only scientists and four buildings to keep warm).

But all in all, Frostpunk is a fairly unique game. I mean...I have almost accidentally stumbled upon the "rebuild"-games, but I can't think of anything else that is even remotely similar. So those out there who like innovation or city builders: get this game. Anyone else with a decent enough PC: unless you absolutely hate city builders or roguelikes, I honestly suggest you give this game a try.
+ Great atmosphere (visuals, audio)
+ Leaves an impression
+ Innovative mix of city building and survival
+ Lots of meaningful choices (though you'll curse at most of them)
- Tough (but fair)
- Won't be everyone's cup of tea
9 Presentation
Despite the snow and ice, frostpunk features a dark and grim color palette on everything that isn't frozen. Blizzard winds roam the land and leaves snow on the rooftops and crystals on your monitor. People are restless and become desperate, and it is all conveyed just so well. It's clear that 11 bit studios (whom also created This war of mine earlier) knows what they're doing.
9 Gameplay
As said before, the game is about city building and survival. But to be complete, it touches on elements of 4X games as well, as Xploring, Xpanding and Xploiting is of major importance (no Xtermination, though).
7 Lasting Appeal
I like survival games, even though I'm bad at them. In the end, I end up abandoning it. It's clear that Frostpunk learns from the best in the genre, but nonetheless, I can't see myself playing it for 20+ hours. It's hard to describe why, as "repetitiveness" certainly isn't it. It's probably the theme: helping people survive is great, but it's not as fun being the leader when it means constantly foreseeing what people need and give them that (as opposed to what people want).
out of 10
Overall (not an average)
It's just an amazing experience. Unfortunately, you're going to have to take my word for it. The screens don't do it justice. The reviews and gameplay doesn't do it justice. Actually playing it yourself gives a sort of constant concern for your inhabitants, which makes the tough decisions really nailbitingly hard ones.

DS1, lcie nimbus, T-hug and 1 other person like this.

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