For a long time, when it came to civilization/city building games, one thing has always been true: The most popular system by far is the PC. It gets many more titles, patches are easier, mods can be added, and arguably, they control better too. However, with that being said, this generation of consoles has been getting the goodies too. Games like Aven Colony, We Are Billions and even Stellaris have all had ports, and it's another one of these "Console Editions" that we'll be taking a look at today.
Set in a retro futuristic steampunk version of Victorian Britain, "Frostpunk" tells the story of a group of survivors struggling to live in a frozen wasteland. Once part of a technologically advanced and powerful British Empire, their society came to a halt when the entire planet was swallowed up by ice. Not knowing why it was happening, or when it would end, the rich and powerful employed the best and brightest to build enormous land trains, and as a group, they set out to construct new cities in the warmer zones of the world. Even the mildest of these areas are far colder than anything humans can comfortably handle though, and the ice will be a constant in this new life. You play the role of leader to one such group and will need to rely on technology and harvesting resources to survive. Alongside the basics of managing heat, food and building materials, you'll also have to deal with the workforce, allocating them the relevant jobs and services as needed. You'll also need to play politics, dealing with the wishes and whims of your people, as you guide your group through survival in the frozen hell they've found themselves in.
Already a hit on PC, this "Console Edition" includes the original campaign and all of the DLC making this console version a complete one. Altogether there are 4 scenarios included, but only the first "A New Home" is available at the beginning. After surviving this scenario for 20 in-game days, the other 3 campaigns will open as well, with each telling the story of a different group of survivors and their unique situations. Alongside this is an endless mode, also available straight away, but I'd recommend starting with the scenarios first.
Whichever you choose though, gameplay mechanics are the same, and as you'd imagine from a city builder set during an ice age, the cold is a major factor when playing. Without some way to keep your people warm, they'll quickly become ill and die.
Luckily though, we've been provided a solution to this problem in the form of a huge generator located in the middle of the play area. Each scenario has missions and certain actions for you to complete, and in "A New Home" this begins with getting the generator up and running.
But of course, it isn't just as simple as turning it on. This generator burns a huge amount of coal, all of which must be collected by your meager workforce. By searching the play area you'll find piles of it in various places and can assign a number of workers to collect it. Once you've harvested the prerequisite amount of fuel and fired up the generator, it'll create a circle of warmth around itself, making an area where your people can live comfortably.
Which of course means homes.
At first you'll only have simple shelters available, but even these will require resources to be built. Along with coal, also scattered around the play area are dumped crates which can be harvested for wood, and another group of workers must be assigned to collect these. With heat and shelter secured, next up is food and by building hunting shacks you can assign people to search for sustenance.
And of course you'll need somewhere to prepare this food.
And people to cook it.
This is where we come to a main gameplay element, trying to survive in the ice is hard and Frostpunk is relatively difficult. Resources are always there for the taking but you'll rarely have enough manpower to collect enough to take advantage of it. You start with relatively few people and a major part of the experience is moving them from resource to resource, or from job to job, harvesting or doing whatever task is required at the time. Be prepared to be constantly struggling for enough supplies, and never having enough men, as juggling all this is a major part of the game. There are ways to begin to make life a little easier though. By building a research center you can assign workers to unlock new technology, or create upgrades as you progress along its expansive tech-tree. Creating Beacons allows you to send out a scout team and explore the surrounding area, usually encountering places with forgotten resources, or lost survivors, and these can be brought home and put to work. You can research better mining equipment, better housing and upgrade almost every building too. Most importantly though, you can upgrade the generator too, increasing its output and sphere of influence, giving you more building area to expand into but also costing more coal to power it. Collecting resources, assigning workers and researching technology are all fun, and although the game would be good with just these elements, it's only one part of what makes Frostpunk truly great.
Alongside the city building and resource gathering, you'll also have some difficult moral dilemmas to deal with too. You see, your people's well-being is measured in 2 ways: hope and discontent. When your people have no hope, or are full of discontent, they may decide to head back to London or even vote you out of leadership altogether. Managing these two factors includes some dark and difficult moral choices you must make, and it happens in a number of different ways. The first way is through your Book of Laws. This allows you to implement a rule that will affect the city and it’s populous in various ways. Don't have enough workers to manage all your needed projects? Think about introducing child labor to solve the problem. Forcing young ones into work will cause some discontent in the adults but the increase in man power might be worth the trade. Do you have workers dying of injuries sustained while doing their jobs? Have your doctors take heroic measures to save the lives of their patients. This not only raises hope in the general population but can save the life of a worker who'd have died otherwise. There is a downside however, some patients may require amputation to save, and because they can no longer work will also require you build a special care home for them to live in. There are many laws to introduce, many with their own unlock trees and each has pros and cons that will affect how your people see you. During the campaign scenarios, you'll also be regularly alerted to different problems that need your attention. Usually these will need some sort of decision from you and work as a side mission of sorts. For instance the people may alert you that too many of them are growing sick and ask you to help. You could promise to cure everyone, greatly raising hope but needing you to build more hospitals. You could promise to cure a few, raising hope slightly and requiring you to provide less bed space. You can even do nothing, which is a valid option as not fulfilling your promise before the timeframe will result in a huge blow to your leadership. There are other pop-up decisions you must handle too and these tend to have a darker, moral choice involved. One early one I remember was when a doctor asked for my judgment. A worker had been badly injured and heroic efforts are needed to save his life. His entire leg has succumbed to gangrene and needed to be amputated for him to survive. He was refusing the surgery however, saying he'd rather die than live as a cripple. I chose to save his life, ordering the doctor to take his leg before heading off and building a care home to look after him. A few days later, I get a follow up notification. The worker has killed himself. Not only that but he left a suicide note specifically blaming me for ordering the surgery to go ahead. This was one of many moral choices you'll make in your playthrough and are all well written and great for tugging at the heart strings. When the kids I had digging for coal asked me for a day off because they were all exhausted, I felt a genuine pang of guilt and these choices and dilemmas are what really elevates Frostpunk above the usual city builder crowd of games.
Aesthetically Frostpunk does well too. An opening cinematic tells the story of the exodus from London, and it's cell shaded style, and use of whites, blues and grays, really get across the feeling of biting cold. This is true in-game as well, with the same color scheme contrasting against the red and orange flames coming from your buildings. The juxtaposition really does get across the brutal chill your people are experiencing and shows how tiny their fires are against the vast ice field. All the buildings have a rundown, cobbled together style and its circular city layout gives it a distinctive look all of its own. The whole steampunk element really works and builds a world that's unique and interesting, certainly different from others of the genre.
When all is said and done, I really enjoyed Frostpunk and will certainly be going back to play more in my own time. While straight city building games are relatively common, it is something that Frostpunk does particularly fine. The frozen setting, and having to consider the temperature, is a unique concept that’s well executed. Add so is the interaction with your people, with its heartbreaking decisions you'll need to make, elevating the game to be a shining example of its type. With every part being so well executed, I'm even having a hard time coming up with any major criticism. One might be that the experience can be a bit unforgiving but as you can save at any time and modify the difficulty in various ways, but it increases replayability rather than being a negative. Identifying buildings quickly, especially when moving around the map, can be difficult. Some of the designs look similar when zoomed out but hovering your cursor over it for a few seconds will show its name, making this a very minor problem. An excellent city builder, with an interesting tech-tree to research, and tough decisions to make, I'd highly recommend this unusual take of the genre. Fans of city building titles take note as it tries to do something different while executing the fundamentals perfectly. A game that's as cool as ice, it definitely one to check out!
*Note: A copy of this game was provided for the purpose of the review.
Final Score: 9/10
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