‘Frostpunk’ Review: Survival City-Building in a Winter Wasteland

Jeremy Ray
Game Reviews Indie Games
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4.0
of 5
Review Essentials
  • Beautiful snowscapes and art direction
  • Empathetic decisions with real, smart consequences
  • Clever radial city design
  • Nicely balanced and paced as a city-builder
  • Exploration and story events are always the same
Reviewed on PC

It’s the end of the world, as we know it. In Frostpunk, the snow has consumed everything. Hundreds of Londoners set out to create a new city, built around a life-saving, coal-burning Generator. Managing the world’s last city, Frostpunk tests your ability to have your empathy pulled in multiple directions and stay frosty.

Witness the rise of the winnable city-builder. Much in the same vein as They Are Billions, Frostpunk tasks you with building a city to weather a timed calamity. In this case, you’ll weather the weather.

Frostpunk is essentially steampunk in a universe where the sun is dying. The planet is scorched. Daring friends to lick metal poles is strictly forbidden. You and your expedition will make a new home out of a resource-rich crater, braving nature’s icy wrath until the worst of the storm passes and you realise…

We built this city. We built this city on rock and coal.

A Frostpunk city nestled in a large crater

If Looks Could Chill

Frostpunk is a beautiful game. From the early moments of just a few tents around your Generator to the bustle of coal industry filling your cozy crater, it impresses graphically. Even the menus are pleasant to look at.

Workers will make tracks in the snow as they wander out to build or gather. You can zoom right in and see what individual citizens are up to. Clicking on them will even reveal aspects of their grim, grey lives.

Your city itself will huddle around the Generator for warmth, as Frostpunk’s novel city design sees buildings created outward from the center. The essential roads that connect and power your workplaces fit in between buildings, as do the mobile mini-generators. It’s all very clever.

Trails in the snow lead away from a Frostpunk city

Even as the architect of your radial rooftops, the similarly snow-covered shelters make it hard to tell if you’re clicking on one of the three different kinds of temple, or the four different kinds of medical centre. We sometimes clicked from white roof to white roof, unable to find our Cookhouse. But it’s a nice touch that you can tell how heated a building is by its crest of snow.

The further out from the Generator, the colder it gets of course. At first it feels unfair when the game dips you from a delightful -20C to -40C. For every 10 degrees Celsius the temperature plunges, you’ll need to research additional heat and insulation. Below a certain threshold, your workers can’t work, your engineers can’t engineer, and your doctors can’t doct.

A heatmap shows which buildings are warm and which are freezing

The combination of Generator power and range upgrades, mini satellite generator hubs, and individual workplace coal burners will tickle the optimisation centre of your brain. It’s not just about resource parity, it’s about stockpiling for the hard times.

Trust us. You’ll be wishing for -40C before the end.

Hope and Discontent

Here’s something different. In this new icy world, there are only so many productive hours in the day. Although the day/night cycle doesn’t affect the temperature in Frostpunk, night is when people often get sick, and you’ll have to plan for most buildings and workers functioning for 10 out of 24 hours.

The off hours are still relevant — cooldowns cool down, and automatons still work. But no one’s going to work through the night unless you force them to do so with laws.

It’s the end of the world, but these jokers are clocking off at 6pm. Bloody unions, amirite?

Automatons walk from the Generator to their workplace
Automatons can work through the cold nights

In addition to managing your coal, wood, and steel, you’ll have to manage your people’s mood. Represented by the Hope and Discontent bars at the screen’s bottom, this is the mechanical representation of empathy, preventing you from pushing workers until they drop in the snow.

Mix too much sawdust into their food rations and their ungrateful stomachs start to rumble. Treat a few people on the floor of a crowded Medical Post, and the whingers start to lose Hope.

For survivors of a winter wasteland, these people just can’t seem to chill.

Order and Faith

Like the air around them, your citizens are prone to radical extremes. Partway through the game, you’ll choose between extreme nationalism and blind zealotry to combat the cold.

The paths of Order and Faith are thematic opposites but similar in systems. Both use buildings with an area of effect to keep citizens in line. Both culminate in eliminating the Hope bar as you become unquestionably supreme. Nothing like a good public execution to take your mind off that mild frostbite.

Things get mighty grim towards the end, and it takes extreme measures to survive. Your citizens will likely banish or execute you before everyone dies. In Frostpunk, the only fail state is a failed state. Before the Hope bar reaches zero or the Discontent bar reaches full, it’s up to you to convince them that fortune favours the cold.

Frostpunk has a great understanding of what a moral choice should involve in an interactive narrative. It avoids Telltale’s “Kobayashi Maru” formula, a simple serving of two bad outcomes. Neither does it fall into the trap of offering story consequences without representing those results tangibly in gameplay.

Every decision is appropriately weighted against a thematically sensible in-game resource. Sometimes you’re weighing up Hope vs Discontent, or Discontent vs time, or skilled engineers vs coal, or scout exploration vs an increasingly sick population in need of heat. It’s all tied to something solid, in a way that makes sense, and in that way Frostpunk achieves its goal as an empathetic, story-driven city-builder.

Scouts, Events, and Sameyness

People are a valuable resource. A fragile one too, considering this resource can get sick. People don’t reproduce within the timeframe of this game, so adding to your numbers involves scouting the surrounding Frostland for survivors. If you’re short on workers, whether you force them through longer shift hours or introduce child labour is one of Frostpunk’s many tough calls.

They are however, from game to game, the same calls at the same times. Frostpunk is a city-builder, but also very much a crafted scenario with fixed points along the way. Each game will have the man who refuses an amputation. Each game will feature the troublesome rebels who want to pack up and go back to London.

As you explore the wider Frostland for resources and survivors, the map will be the same each game along with its events and rewards. You’ll know exactly where to go to get the automaton, and exactly where to set up the outpost sending you 800 coal per day.

There’s seemingly some post-decision randomness at work. The aforementioned unwilling amputee may later thank you for saving his life, or he may commit suicide. But often, you’ll know the script, fully aware of exactly how many volunteers will die when you send them to save the coal mines.

All of this means Frostpunk’s carefully crafted narrative comes at the cost of discovery. It’s absolutely worth replaying, but don’t expect anything new.

That’s a trade we’re happy to make in a game so utterly unique, and the developer has also said it’s planning a sandbox/endless mode.

Is Frostpunk Good?

Frostpunk is hard, but you’ll get the hang of it. And when you do, it’s waiting with some harder scenarios, and all-too-rare intelligent achievements for you to play again in challenging, interesting ways.

Just like 11 Bit Studios did with This War of Mine, it has brought a unique take to this genre with well-thought-out underlying systems. You won’t get the million hours that you would from Civilization or Sim City. But you will get something completely different, interesting, and memorable.

It seems odd to apply the word “fun” to a game so grim, but like life in extreme circumstances, Frostpunk finds a way.

Jeremy Ray
Managing Editor at FANDOM. Decade-long games critic and esports aficionado. Started in competitive Counter-Strike, then moved into broadcast, online, print and interpretative pantomime. You merely adopted the lag. I was born in it.
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