It's an alternate version of the 19th century, where instead of the dawn of civilisation we have seen humanity brought to its knees by a colossal ice age. Huddled around a generator, your group of survivors needs coal to turn it on, but when you send a group for coal you neglect to get wood for shelter. Starting again, this time you get wood and coal, but forget the steel. Starting once more, you get all three, but the coal runs out and by the time you get around to getting more, which results in your survivors dying in the plummeting temperature as the generators shut off.
This sums up our opening hour with 11 bit Studios' Frostpunk nicely, because this is a survival game that doesn't hold your hand. We wouldn't go as far as to call it the Dark Souls of strategy games (although some might), but it requires you to always keep an eye on everything, because if one element in this delicately balanced machine goes wrong it can lead to total disaster, whether that be food, coal, health, steel, or even hope itself.
You see, in the beginning, it seems like they're all going down at the same time, and that's because they most certainly are. You're not a glorious conquering leader like in other games such as Age of Empires; you're just one person trying to keep as many people as possible alive, which means delicately considering what to do and what things to build to keep your group as stocked as possible. That also means making some hard choices along the way, which will most likely include making some sacrifices.
As you play through the game you'll have notifications popping up from your citizens, such as demands for graveyards as opposed to disposing of the dead in the snow, and whether to give a child injured at work the day off. Desperate times call for desperate measures though, and it won't always be as easy as saying yes to all of these things. Learning to say no is the key to survival, especially if you haven't got the means to facilitate everyone's desires.
You also have a Book of Laws as part of your leadership, which allows you to make even tougher decisions, like packing the food with sawdust to make it go further or increasing the lengths of shifts. Sure, some might understand, but for the most part morale will go down if you make unpopular choices. This balance of morality and efficiency forms countless dilemmas in Frostpunk, and that's the unique pull of the game; choosing whether to be the bad guy for the sake of survival, or keeping the hope gauge at the bottom of the screen (opposed by the discontent gauge) up at the expense of a few resources. It also fits nicely with the 19th-century setting, what with child labour and basic rights on the line.
Then comes the all-important question of research, as you can't just rely on the basic tents and resources you have when you settle near the generator. By building a workshop you can construct more things like beacons to try and contact others, as well as research to improve the efficiency of what's already established in your colony. As with everything else though, this also requires resources, and it might at times seem as if you're taking two steps back every time you take a step forward with your research. It's all worth it though because you'll need this to become more than just a struggling band of survivors. You'll want to live rather than just survive, after all.
Dwelling on the beacon for a second, this is important because as you establish your settlement you'll need to try and gather more people, as the game opens by your band of survivors being split from a larger party. Finding these extra helping hands becomes another priority on an ever-growing list, then, and that's when you're introduced to the larger map, showing you other points of interest in the world aside from your humble dwellings, adding another element to the game to consider.
Perhaps the most important part of Frostpunk is the cold, or should we say, the heat that you create in the cold. Everything in Frostpunk is constructed in a radial grid around the middle generator, and that's because this generator - as well as each subsequent one you build - heats a circular area which you then build in. This unique approach means you need to slowly fan out your 'empire' according to the heat (and by extension fuel) you have, slowly expanding as you can afford to make more generators with more power. Buildings outside the generator's heat won't work to maximum efficiency either and may well shut down, so it's always important to make sure heat is at the top of the priority list.
As you might have guessed from the title, there's a Steampunk aesthetic to all of this, as despite allegedly being in the 1800s, we're still able to build large mechanical structures in the iconic Steampunk style, complete with all the flair you'd expect. This is all the more striking when you see billows of smoke and large flaming structures rising out of the snow and the ice, and once you eventually clear the surrounding area and leave it free of frost, you feel like you've truly conquered the elements.
In terms of music though, there isn't much to speak of, and that works to the game's advantage. Much like the workers in your crew you're left to plod along and tend to all the tasks at hand, so there isn't much epic about the music. Instead it's about quietly handling what needs to be done, with subtle audio cues letting you know when things need to be attended to, all of which is accompanied all too often by the howling of snow and wind around you.
The magic, the crux of the experience, lies with the people that populate your settlement, and it's your citizens that make Frostpunk so gripping. Each of these people has their own lives, responsibilities, emotions, and opinions, and that's why making sure each of them survives is important. By characterising them so well, 11 bit Studios makes it all the harder to let them suffer, and even when we hear them grumble in the text boxes at the bottom we lament the fact they can never know how hard it is for us to be leader. We never meant to hurt them, after all.
What's all the more trying - for both our settlement and our patience - is that their needs constantly change. For example, building camps for everyone is all well and good, and will keep hope up for the most part, but soon they'll demand better accommodation, which may require bunk houses above the tents. This always keeps you on your toes and thus the problems keep on coming, so it's safe to say you're never in danger of getting bored.
As you've probably already gathered, Frostpunk is unforgiving, and small mistakes can often lead to an irreversible downward spiral. That's why we would've liked a tutorial a bit more comprehensive and direct than small bits of text that popped up on the screen as we were playing through, as some of our early defeats were simply due to not knowing that we needed to deploy certain features like resource storage. A guided hand before throwing us into the wild, then, wouldn't have gone amiss.
If you do eventually go tumbling to your demise though, it's not always a case of starting from the bottom again. On Day 20 of the basic mode, for example, you unlock new scenarios, and you can even customise your scenario to make everything from the weather to the demands of your people easier or harder. It's no walk in the park, sure, but it's definitely something to consider if you feel like you've been left out in the cold.
All in all, Frostpunk really does balance morality and utility effectively, making you feel like you're in the position of a leader who has to make some really tough choices. You're faced with the needs of all the people under your control and the community looks to you for guidance, their survival depending on your decisions, even the unpopular ones. While managing their expectations and your ever-decreasing resources, 11 bit Studios has built on some of the hard-hitting themes first explored in This War of Mine to create a tense strategy game that requires your constant focus, since every choice could have dire consequences for you and your people.
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