In an alternate universe, Planet Earth doesn’t have to debate the validity of climate science. We don’t make it out of the 1800s before a second Ice Age comes to humble us. The new normal becomes the sort of desperate and grueling stuff of sci-fi nightmares. If for some reason you watched Snowpiercer and wondered “what if they actually tried to live outside,” then 11 Bit Studios’ Frostpunk: Console Edition might be the game for you.
Frostpunk is a grim strategy game. In it, you must organize your fledgling community of survivors in order to weather the extinction-level climate. “Organize” can quickly turn into exploit, manipulate, and dominate, as the rigors of settlement building become more intense.
You and your pilgrims find a massive generator; a fiery steampunk pillar that will serve as the main power and heating source for your village. In the beginning, workers will need to be sent to wade through tall snow drifts to scrounge for scrap metal, wood, and coal. As time passes, your citizens become increasingly needy and despondent. To keep them alive and healthy, you’ll need to keep food on their tables and roofs over their heads.
The balance of learning what to build and when is a learning curve that can make or break early players. You’ll always feel engaged with the moment to moment happenings of your town. Keeping your hands hovering over all of the levers is the only way to ensure that you’ll be ready for whatever comes next. It’s a real-time strategy game that requires micromanaging, but it never feels like a chore. Maybe it’s because everything feels like a chore in Frostpunk that frantically checking coal usage levels and work shifts feels just like par for the gloomy course.
Frostpunk is a morality crucible. Making hard decisions becomes commonplace almost from the start. There’s never a decision that feels entirely like the right one. Enacting a law that allows me to extend a work shift for a full 24 hours seems like a “worst case scenario” play. But it hangs over your citizens like a shadowy threat. When things get tight and you’re forced to crack the whip, they grow more melancholy, even though the extra coal will guarantee our survival for a few more days.
Things get darker as the struggles mount. When workers start falling gravely ill or needing radical treatment like amputations, having children fill the roles becomes a thing you start justifying. It’s the easier things like cooking that you have them do first, but do you become desperate enough to have them shuffle in among the rank and file in the sawmill? When people begin to die, loved ones would like to bury them properly, but are you willing to risk the loss in production for the sake of sending the dead away respectfully?
You’re always walking a dangerous moral line in Frostpunk. Almost every decision you make is an ethical gut check. There’s no enlightened calculus around the fact that every choice bears the opportunity cost of someone’s suffering. This is integral to what makes the game such an impressive one, strategically. You already know that you won’t be able to just coast your way through any of this game’s scenarios like more traditional strategy games. You can’t actually stop the rot, only manage it. Perfect optimization is out the window. Just clever tactical acumen, lots of practice, and a heart of stone.
Frostpunk is surprisingly expansive. After many hours and maybe a dozen runs of the main scenario, I kept finding new things to tinker with and learn about. Sometimes, these came in bigger, story progression-related reveals like when you gain new trees of laws that can dramatically change how you rule over your people. Many laws have two possible branches that can lead to progressively specialized commands or buildings that further commit you to certain styles and flavor your playthroughs.
Building a Beacon, one of the early game objectives, allows for small groups of scouts to patrol the frozen wasteland around your little hole in the world. These map points can provide stockpiles of resources, story elements, and more survivors. Frostpunk is a game that is laser focused on the micro elements. So it was refreshing to see it acknowledge the greater world around it, both lore wise and gameplay wise.
Speaking of those micro elements, most of my playthroughs involved me learning more about the sorts of buildings I tend to build all the time. Some buildings can be adjusted based on location or time of day. Steam Hubs, little pylons that heat small areas of the map, can be adjusted to be on 24 hours a day, or only during certain times of day (like a daytime work shift) to conserve energy. Some of these discoveries are fun. Some feel like big advice that could have changed the way you placed and built them had this been tutorialized more directly.
Frostpunk is a curious societal study. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that developers 11bit have a talent for weaving dark and captivating stories that seem oddly relatable. For their previous game, This War of Mine, they spent significant time consulting with war vets, and researching real conflicts like the Bosnian War. This helped them create the anomalous feeling of being caught in an active, dangerous place, but being more afraid of the potential of dying in a skirmish than actually getting into the violent stuff.
This incredible sense of world building is everywhere in Frostpunk. The setting itself has very identifiable steampunky features – giant metal buildings full of widgets and machina, steam-powered automatons, etc. But most modern steampunk seems content with just copying imagery because its cool, and can be used as macguffin in order to play in settings that just enable reckless power fantasy.
Frostpunk feels a lot like a challenge to the idea that neo-Victorianism booned by better-than-age-appropriate technology renders the prominent social issues endemic of the time null and void. Yes, your late 19th century Englishmen can operate a giant contraption that rips whole trees out of the frozen walls of your crater. But you can’t just hot air balloon your way away from poverty and the consequences of making too many terrible decisions. This isn’t London gentiles drinking tea with top hats and telescoping monocles. This is Jack the Ripper-era London, with the darkside of industrialization and the added bonus of climate disaster. It’s a grounded take on a sci-fi genre that often feels too flighty for its own good.
This may feel like an out of place nitpick. But I think it strengthens the kind of emergent storytelling that can happen in the game. Your run-of-the-mill development decisions will come from you being directly confronted with a choice or set of choices. A response to people going hungry involves you enacting a new law. One that can either turn food rations into soup, or to stuff them with a sawdust filler. An event will reinforce a the existential dread of your citizens. You can choose to shape them up through the heavy-handed establishment of fascistic “order,” or attempt to inspire them with platitudes of faith. All of these are pretty relatable situations on their own. Sprinkle in some cool “science” fixes and you have the makings of a very memorable fiction.
To say Frostpunk is fun would be like saying watching The Road is fun. It’s engaging, challenging, inventive and unique. It cleverly re-purposes old genre tropes, and embraces the rigors of micromanaging dire people in a dark time with such earnest that it’s hard not to get charmed into hours of sadistic yet satisfying struggle.
Frostpunk: Console Edition review code provided by publisher. Version 1.01 reviewed on a PlayStation 4. For more information on scoring please see our Review Policy here.