Frostpunk: Talking about the cold shoulder
Some say the world will end in fire (Robert Frost: Frost and Fire)
That bummer of an opening sentence is pretty grim in of itself, but what about the opposite outcome? When the world ends with an eternal winter, would that be just as grim? The answer when looking at Frostpunk seems to be....yes. Either way, we are going to be very miserable (but least survivable).
In an alternative history, the 1883 volcanic eruption of Krakatoa (along with some other weather and environment factors not made clear) has plunged the world into a horrific ice age. You are the captain of a group of survivors; it is your job to manage the running of a city. You have to try and keep as many people alive in the mists of political uncertainly and fluctuating weather patterns.
The story only really progresses once you achieve certain goals, in-between the story events you have deal with particular events that occur organically. These can be anything from thank you letters to riots and thievery. While seemingly insignificant in the day to day workings, smaller events play an appropriately deceptive role in affecting the story. Riots and refusal to work will lead to an inability provide for the people, which then causes a vicious cycle.
That sense of desperation
Frostpunk successfully broadcasts the sense of desperation and terror one would experience in such an environment. Emotions are highly strung and there are often no correct choices. Frostpunk demonstrates how difficult it can be to lead a population under stress and existential terror. Even if you manage your city perfectly, a plot crucial moment of refugees might send you into a tail spin if you cannot provide enough for them. The world is chaotic, unpredictable and many aspects will be out of your control.
Frostpunk brilliantly interlocks story with gameplay, insuring that consequence of action. That story plot points and gameplay are interconnected, that each will affect the other. Do you increase your limited labour by putting children to work, insuring short term survival at the long term cost of moral and loyalty? Do you give open a public house at the risk of drunks attacking woman? Frostpunk is from both a narrative and gameplay perspective a balance of risk, reward and opportunity cost.
How they react to you
Humans are a fickle bunch, intelligent but are very susceptible to emotions such as panic and terror. They often fail to see the greater good of short term hard ship for long term comfort. Even grasping the full scope of the situation. As a result of this, you have to take into account that the most pragmatic laws you can sign in, often will see discontent rise and hope fall. Emotion is a resource that needs to be managed in Frostpunk. If discontent rises above hope then people will not work as hard as they should. They might even refuse to do so.
If hope drops to zero (and remains there) you fail. You not only have to manage resources but also the feelings of your population. They have to trust you in order for society to function. If you fail to deliver on your promises your people will be upset and hate you. If you sign in an unpopular law (forcing children to work) people will hate you for a while. Frostpunk understands the irrationality of human beings. It casts a non judgemental, but a mature examination of when humans are pushed to their extremes.
Frostpunk is a hard as nails city builder and management Sim. The key word in that sentence is “management”, as everything from the humans to the wood to what items need to be researched have to be managed.
The heat of life
The city cannot survival without generators. However heat in the cold only goes so far and space is limited for buildings. Keeping buildings consistently cold could render them inoperable or increases the risk of illness and death. You have to insure that you are running at a coal surplus as well, as most upgrades to the heating system increase coal consumption, same applies to the number of heaters active at any given time.
Players have to prevent this negative feedback loop by monitoring how large the coal surplus is and how much said surplus can be reduced. This question feeds back into the size of the maps (discussed later). Can you risk the short term increase of people getting sick so fuel can be conserved long term or risk heat failure? Frostpunk forces you to balance the short term and long term goals. The player has to insure they keep watch of both their coal expenditure and changes in temperature.
Frostpunk rewards the player for paying attention and never becoming lazy or settling into a rhythm . It punishes them if they do so, if you fail to keep a supply of coal, things go wrong very fast and people will start dying. The challenge is simple in theory but difficult in practice; your strategy might fall apart with a single upgrade or extra heater.
Resource management is the core mechanic to Frostpunk and key to survival of the city. You only have so many people available, city citizens are split into three groups: Engineers, Children and Workers. Children do not work (unless you sign in laws that force them to do so). Workers cannot do certain jobs (such as doctors or scientists). This can be fulfilled by the engineers. You have to divvy up the workforce effectively in order to increase productivity.
In the main campaign this is not so much of a problem as you keep getting refugees. But in the second campaign you have only a set number of engineers and workers. In the Ark scenario, you have to get by with an extremely limited supply of workers. Not only you do you have to set them to start harvesting resources, but also you have set explorers out for the essential Steam Cores.
Steam Cores are unique in this regard; they cannot be mined or harvested but salvaged from other crash sites. This not encourages but forces the player to set aside even more workers, in order to find the Steam Cores needed for upgrades to coal mining (etc) and assess to automatons. Dividing up the resources is important to insuring survival.
The smallness of the area
The area where the city grows from is rather small. Resources (such as wood coal or steel) are often limited in supply. This comes with the limited space required to set up housing, medical stations and more. Because of the small size, you have to plan ahead, take note of when supply is going to run out and what needs to take priority. Frostpunk will test your planning skills and your ability to micromanage efficiency. You might have to sacrifice building a house in order to insure your researchers do their job faster. How many houses can one build within small area (to maximise the heat area). Frostpunk lets you decide how to design your city, trusting you to understand the importance of limited resources and unlimited needs of the people and survival.
Frostpunk is a difficult game, hell even on normal I had to restart four times. I am not holding this against the game; I enjoyed myself even when I was struggling to make ends meet. The challenge of maintaining resources and the constant threat of dooming the city was very fun. But I needed to get this post out before it took me too long to complete, hence the shift to an easier difficulty.
The easier difficulty is a little inconsistent however, while on normal Frostpunk is consistently punishing and infrequently rewarding. You feel like you are just scraping by, surviving. On easy difficulty however, I just breezed by. There were minimal issues I had to take care of. It was only during the final storm when the difficulty lurched up a couple hundred degrees (lol). By the time it ended 433 people died and I was just about to run out of coal.
Now, I can admit that my struggle was in part to do with my inexperience with city builders and survival games. It was one of the reasons why I reduced the difficulty. But it is unlikely to explain the sudden jump, because on easy the problems I faced were relatively quick to solve. Before suddenly faced with the inability to do anything against the storm. I wish that either (on easy) the storm severity might have been less powerful .Maybe some escalation before the storm, just something instead of going from 5 to 25 within a single turn.
Graphics and art style:
Even though you are looking down at the tiny doll people and houses. Majority of the colour scheme is pure white snow and gray mental. None of these prevent Frostpunk from looking ugly. The sheer vastness of ice and snow are very effective in creating the apocalyptic mood and setting. The sense of isolation is further exacerbated by the lone human settlement. A piece of harsh metal gray against the natural terror of cold and snow. Frostpunk is beautifully bleak.
Asides from one crash, pretty solid all around.
Frostpunk is a hauntingly tragic struggle for survival in a harsh environment, as hard as concrete but always compelling. I cannot really compare Frostpunk to other city builder survival games (considering that this is the first I have played). But the first impression is pretty great!
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