Review: Frostpunk

City building with an ice-cold heart.

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Review: Frostpunk
Developer: 11 bit studios
Publisher: 11 bit studios

I never got around to playing as much of This War of Mine as I should have. It’s a strange admission given how I watched a friend of mine play it for hours. There was something addictively grim about watching how decisions played out, seeing the fantastic risk/reward mechanics at play, and having disturbingly frequent discussions about who should live and who should die (and why).

11 bit Studios, the same dev behind This War of Mine, is at it again with Frostpunk. Kinda. While both simulators, This War of Mine has a micro focus on its cast of characters and Frostpunk takes more of a macro approach. The setup is simple enough: the world has frozen over in an alternative history and it’s up to you to keep your people alive.

Things start out chilled enough, but you’ll soon be met by threats that range from predictable to unexpected. There are times when past decisions came back to bite me in the arse, but by midgame, I was confidently able to roll with the punches. Admittedly, this was after a few false starts, all of which I restarted. Part of the early tension is about managing the unknown, so while it’s worth restarting once you wrap your head around the early build order, it’s ill-advised once you get deeper into proceedings.

There are some relatively straightforward things to learn but, ultimately, you’ll be aiming to keep discontent low and hope high. During early game, engagement is high because the path to best managing these things isn’t immediately clear. Part of that early game is also microing the limited workers and engineers between resource gathering and the types of tasks that help to bolster hope and bash discontent (sometimes literally on that latter point, depending on your governance decisions).

As you start unlocking technologies and signing new laws, though, the path becomes a whole lot clearer. While still paranoid and regularly saving during midgame, I started to pave a path towards a self-reliant simulation. By the time I crept closer to endgame, Frostpunk became easier rather than harder. Sure, the temperature continued to drop, but my savvy generator upgrades made short work of that.

When endgame arrived, though, there’s an event that creates a fantastic sense of momentum until Frostpunk’s somewhat abrupt ending. That fantastic tension returned, and I was forced to deal with the reality that I might not be able to achieve every essential item on the new to-do list before that ending swept in to town. I was fully engaged again, and the tension was complemented by a pitch-perfect score that rose with the tension.

That said, more concerning was the lack of connection to my populace. In late midgame, when I was cruising on autopilot, I also discovered that the game throws arbitrary debuffs at you. For instance, it doesn’t make sense that discontent is rising because of apparently sick people, when I have empty beds in my health facilities. I first noticed I wasn’t connecting with the human element of the game when I would freely march wasteland inhabitants back to my city without a guide, knowing full well that some would die.

That way, I reasoned, at least I wouldn’t have to build more beds. While I can acknowledge that these kinds of decisions are part of the game anyway, the lack of emotional connection to them, and the absence of discontent/hope consequences for these kinds of decisions lessened the oomph of these regularly occurring moments. There’s also a stack of downtime, particularly when your population grows, and there’s very little to do, even during the days, which are supposed to be the most involved. This means there are some clear missed opportunities with Frostpunk, especially in the lack of meaningful replayability.

It also doesn’t help that there are lingering bugs and optimisation issues, apparently more so if you have a lot of saves (the menu slows to a crawl), and the graphical options are strangely limited. Despite my lack of an emotional connection with the population—which is clearly supposed to be a big part of the game—I was still warmed by Frostpunk’s simulation element, even if there’s only a handful of hours in the main campaign (and very little reason to replay).

7 10
Verdict
Though repetitive with stacks of downtime, Frostpunk has a strangely addictive gameplay loop (more so, I imagine, if you emotionally connect with your people).
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