A unique blend of city building and survival
11 bit studios had their big breakthrough in 2014 with the survival adventure game This War of Mine, a stomach churning exploration of war-torn cities and the desperate people trying to survive within them. The game used familiar mechanics to explore the horrors, both internal and external, of having to scrounge through a bombed out urban wasteland in attempt to simply endure. You can find some of these ideas still being kicked around in 11 bit’s newest game, Frostpunk. In Frostpunk you take control of a colony attempting to survive a meteorological anomaly - the plummeting of Earth’s temperatures and the beginning of a new ice age. Luckily, you’ve got the power of steampunk technology on your side. The game blends survival mechanics with the familiar set up of a city builder - think SimCity but set in Antarctica, and you have a good idea of what you’re getting into.
It’s not a terrible premise - though it feels a little shallow. It might have been a little more engaging had 11 bit provided the same deep-dive into the horrors of the situation as they did with their previous game. There are some moments when Frostpunk peels back its numerous stats and objectives to explore the actual people in your winter wasteland, but they are fleeting and forgettable. The game loses some intimacy and immediacy - an expected problem whenever studios enlist the city-builder mechanics that the game uses. Sometimes events like a death or workplace injury will prompt you to make a law for your city, but these don’t feel like part of a human story - just bureaucracy. You really have to dig and follow around the citizens to see these moments payoff and that time is better spent worrying about your resources. The game boils down to numbers and statistics, and that kept me from truly investing in the game.
That being said, it’s hard to find flaws in the execution of Frostpunk’s core gameplay. 11 bit is certainly a capable developer and it’s clear that a lot of thought and care went into the well-crafted balance of the game. Furthermore, there are constantly underlying goals and objectives to help pace the game out, giving the player a purpose as opposed to simply building the best arctic colony possible. For those who dig city-builder games, there’s enough of a twist on the familiar ideas of the genre that you’re likely to find something to enjoy.
You begin the game by trying to provide housing, food, and medicine to your colony. Starting with 80 people, this goal is fairly easy to accomplish. Time in Frostpunk is based on workdays; every morning people will wake up at 6AM, they’ll head to work at 8AM, then quit at 6PM, beginning the cycle anew the next day. Yet, building and research are accomplished fairly quickly - almost always completed in less than a day, so it won’t be long until you have your colony well underway.
Managing the workforce is the bulk of the gameplay as you gather the four main resources of coal, wood, steel, and raw food. Do you have enough people gathering coal? With a surplus of steel, could you maybe divert some of the workforce to help make sure you have enough wood? What is the point of all of these resources? Well, you’ll want to build things, sure, but mostly you’ll be focused on keeping your people warm. One of the biggest departures for Frostpunk from other city builders is the importance of warmth and how it affects the health of your population. You start with one giant generator that acts as a heat source to your small colony, but things get more difficult as you expand and buildings are too far from the core to be adequately warm. This leads to researching heaters for buildings or steam hubs that can heat small sections of your colony. All of this heat costs coal, making it a valuable resource in the game.
Just when you think you’ve got your heating issues solved, the game hits you with cold snaps which complicate matters. The plunging temps mean that you’ll have to come up with measures to keep buildings warm, since they’ll shut down if they get too cold. The temperature trends downward overall, but like any climate it rises and falls every few days. So you might be able to get by on individual heaters for buildings at first, but by the end of the game you’ll be burning through coal at incredible speeds. You can research improvements so the heat can spread further, and coal be used more efficiently. Another option for dealing with the plunging temps is to send your heat generator into overdrive. This causes the heat levels of the generator to expand, but it also raises a stress meter which if left unchecked could cause an explosion and end the game.
It all plays out in fairly rote aesthetic. The sound design is effective with the whipping winds accented by the horns that summon people to work or call them back in for the night. And there’s something inherently cool about watching the billowing smoke rise from your city - a world of heat and industry juxtaposed against an icy landscape - the generator also makes for a circular structure of your colony, which is kind of cool. The game might owe a bit to the Jakub Rozalski aesthetic, but it’s hard to make a steampunk game these days that doesn’t feel like an homage to the Polish painter. Each individual citizen is rendered on screen so you can follow them as they go about their day. While impressive, I don’t think it’s all that interesting on its own, but it’s fun to watch the colony come to life each morning and quiet down in the evenings. Trails of colonists cut through the snow as they gather the resources required for survival. The real issue is that the game lacks anything memorable. The static images that convey major events are pretty generic and aside from the aforementioned industrial motif, there’s not much else to the visuals. And really, the game doesn’t seem all that concerned. This is a game about numbers and that will largely be what you’re eyes are focused on.
The workforce management mechanic gets trickier the deeper you get into the campaign. When you first build hunter huts to house hunting parties, you’ll have to divert some workers to this new occupation. When you build cookhouses and medical posts, you’ll need five-person crews to man them. Some buildings can only be run by people who are engineers, so you might have to save specific people for those positions while using workers for more of the grunt work. Once you build a beacon you can send out scouting parties, bringing back more supplies but also extra colonists, meaning you’ll need more of everything to go around, but have some extra hands to help with the labor. Eventually available resources will grow scarce and you’ll need to build sawmills, coal mines, and other resource-gathering buildings to keep the necessities coming in. You can even build automatons - large, industrial robots that can help with building or resource gathering. Like most city-builder games, responsibilities keep mounting, making the game more and more difficult.
And that difficulty curve is well balanced. It’s rare that you’ll ever feel overpowered in Frostpunk, and when you do it’s probably because you’re not working toward some of the right goals you’ll need to survive. Frostpunk is a little vague on what it wants from the player at times, and when your shortcomings become obvious it’s a little too late to right the ship. For instance, you can make it for most of the game with limited storage facilities, so building them seem superfluous at first, but when you reach the end-game you quickly realize that you’ll be burning resources at unprecedented levels and you’re not equipped to hold enough of what you need. You can save your progress at any point, but it’s unlikely you saved at the exact moment things started going wrong, thought there are autosave markers you can go back to. Once you make a mistake in Frostpunk, things tend to snowball (no pun intended) out of control. This means you’ll probably have to play the scenarios multiple times before you understand what unwritten rules you should be following as you progress, and find the ideal build order.
That’s not a huge issue because the scenarios are pretty short. There are three different scenarios currently available; you’ll have to progress past the twenty-day mark in the main campaign before the two additional scenarios are made available. There’s a nice variety between the three scenarios, one focuses on you building a self-sustaining colony run by automatons so that humanity will have the means to start again - even if you’re not there to see it. Another is about rescuing waves of refugees that keep coming to your city. Each scenario is creative in its own way, presenting its own challenges, though it’s a little surprising that there isn’t a pure sandbox mode if you’re looking for a less scripted experience. If you’ve played a scenario a couple of times you could probably knock out a playthrough in 5-ish hours. So having to start from scratch isn’t that punishing, though it does make the opening hours pretty dull.
It also doesn’t help that the game moves at a crawling pace. It’s funny because even though playthroughs aren’t that long - they feel eternal. A lot of that is due to the low stakes. The objectives are good because they help direct your gameplay, but I often didn’t care about fulfilling them. When a group of workers wanted to leave the colony and return back to London, I honestly felt like keeping them wasn’t in my best interest because it was less mouths to feed. It’s also likely some of that slow pacing is deliberate, as 11 bit studios have built a game where they feel like every hour counts - and that’s worth appreciating, but it doesn’t make all of those hours that interesting.
Options on what to build and how to structure your colony come through choices made in the book of laws and the research tree. The book of laws is introduced early and helps you determine what your colony will be like based on the edicts you sign. You can use child labor to add numbers to your workforce or build a cemetery to lessen the pain of losing loved ones. These decisions don’t usually have an immediate effect on your colony, but change how future issues will alter the mood. The mood of your colony is reflected in two meters, one that measures hope and another that measures discontent. You can build structures to try and lower or raise these meters, and they also change based on having enough resources to survive, as well as occasional story decisions you make. The research tree is less about dealing with the morale of people and more about improving your colony. Not only does it allow you to build new buildings, but it also allows you to improve the efficiency of those buildings and that can be important late in the game.
At about the halfway point of the main scenario, a story event forces you to take drastic steps to change your colony, either becoming an authoritarian police state or a theocratic dictatorship ran by a zealot-like cult. It’s a dark and unsettling turn for the game that presses you into a tyrannical position, maintaining power through means that would be frowned upon by most modern governments. Gameplay-wise, this allows you to have more ways to change the hope and discontent meters with structures like churches or prisons. You can also write new laws to increase your military authority or religious fervor. Yet, it’s still an odd tone shift for the game. Suffice it to say that 11 bit doesn’t think very highly of what people would do when confronted with the end of the world and believe extremes measures would be needed to prevent chaos.
There were a some technical issues. I had the game crash on me a couple of times, which is particularly frustrating as I lost big chunks of progress. There also appeared to be some quirky things happening with the citizen AI, though it was hard to tell if it had an effect on the actual resources gathered. It’s nothing that should deter you from playing Frostpunk, but it is annoying.
I don’t know if I like Frostpunk as much as I respect it. The gameplay mechanics are solid and overall the game certainly is a strong effort from a veteran studio that knows how to blend survival gameplay with unique elements to create something different. Still, it just never clicked for me. I enjoyed spending time watching my resources grow and seeing my colony evolve, but I never felt invested in its people, or felt a connection to what I was creating. Frostpunk is a game that fans of city-builders are probably going to have a lot of fun with, but it’s unlikely to create any new converts to the genre.