Frostpunk Review: A Wonderful Winterland Filled With Tough Choices

Frostpunk turned me into the awful dictator I never wanted to be.

Right from the moment we arrived at the tiny, frozen outpost, I had my citizens’ best interests at heart. Within a few hours they’d gathered enough coal to fire up the generator, the only source of heat in this snowy world. I felt a surge of pride as it roared into life and soon, the colony began to grow. Fast forward two and half weeks and I was using my own private army to crush those who dared utter a word of dissent. Where did it all go so wrong?

The Day after the Day After Tomorrow

As compelling as Frostpunk is, it’s utterly, utterly unforgiving. From the team behind This War of Mine, this survival strategy game puts you in charge of refugees who have abandoned the frozen wastes of New Ice Age London in search of a new life. As their duly elected muggins-in-charge it’s your job to keep them fed, warm and in possession of the bulk of their limbs. And you’ll fail.

Even if you’re a city-building prodigy, the challenges Frostpunk throws at you will push you to your limit and have you cursing your populace for doing something as inconsiderate as dying of hypothermia. Your proto-metropolis, by necessity, fans out from the main generator, warmed by the heat it gives out. Assuming there’s enough coal in your reserves, that is; once the generator’s comforting orange glow sputters out, you’ve got maybe a day before people start expiring.

The greater bad

And then there’s the matter of producing enough food to keep your citizens fed; food which, in turn, has to be grown or hunted. This, like most tasks, requires both an appropriate building and enough workers to knuckle down and do the job. Employees who, in all likelihood, will end up getting sick, particularly if they venture outside the city limits. Then they’ll require medical treatment, which in turn involves building a medical post, and it just never ends.

Playing Frostpunk is like spinning a hundred plates; you have to accept that some of them are going to smash – or, in this case, end up as human ice sculptures – but it’s the compromises you’ll make that really hurt. Do you extend work hours, knowing that people will hate you but that you’ll at least have enough fuel to keep them warm?

And what about those survivors your scouts discovered? Sure, a few extra hands would help, but can you afford to feed them? Maybe it’d be better if no-one knew you’d found them. I mean, it’s the greater good, right? And child labour’s not so bad, if it helps you gather enough wood to put a roof over people’s heads. This kind of messed-up thinking led me to, 15 days into one playthrough, establishing a militia to put down any local protests. It was only when citizens started piping up that I realised just what I’d become. It didn’t stop me, though.

Misery loves company

But as utterly miserable as Frostpunk is, it’s a hugely engaging game. It works precisely because it’s so grim; every little success carries with it a huge feeling of accomplishment. Something as a simple as being able to keep your people fed is so rewarding, particularly if people were starving on your previous playthroughs. Each failure is a learning experience, teaching you how best to keep those plates spinning.

Frostpunk does, however, have its flaws. The game boils the success or failure of your colony down to two bars, “hope” and “despair”. Allow the former to dwindle to nothing and it’s game over. This makes sense from a gameplay standpoint but since you don’t spend any real time with your people, the game lacks This War of Mine’s emotional impact. You’ll want the best for your people but you won’t specifically care that Little Billy Onions lost his mother to the cold because you never knew her. You’ll just be faintly miffed that you’re now one worker down. Another issue is that while there are an additional two scenarios to tackle with the promise of more to come, the game lacks a scenario-free sandbox mode; so subsequent playthroughs can become a tad familiar.

Nice Ice, Baby

If doom and gloom isn’t your thing then Frostpunk won’t appeal and you’re better off with a less misery-drenched city-builder such as the excellent Cities: Skylines. But if you’re a sucker for the punishing post-apocalyptic (and this game can certainly dish it out) then Frostpunk‘s bleak winter wonderland will keep you hooked, turning you into a horrible, horrible person in the process.

Frostpunk is available on PC.