After putting it off for a very long time, I finally booted up Frostpunk via the Game Pass. What I experienced is one the slickest, most engaging city-builder games that I never want to play again.
One of the reasons I put off Frostpunk for so long was because it was made by the same devs as This War of Mine. Which is a great game, but doesn’t actually make you feel particularly good while playing it. That is kinda the point, from a highbrow, tweed jacket game designer angle. “Here, experience what’s it’s like trying to be a civilian caught up in one of those wars you like to simulate. Have fun!” Aside from that, I also had an issue with the game having a lot of Blind Choices.
So, I had some dread going into Frostpunk.
The premise of Frostpunk is that there is some global cataclysm in an alternate timeline Earth that makes the world freeze over. You are charged with keeping your citizens alive next to a coal-powered Generator as you face increasing environmental threats from the outside, and social unrest from the inside. While there is an Endless mode, the base game really revolves around Scenarios, which have defined escalation points (within a range) and endings.
Like I said before, the game is incredibly slick. You see your citizens march around in the cold, making paths through the snow. Instead of a grid, the game is based on concentric circles around your circular Generator. Laying down roads is a requirement for buildings, but the roads helpfully follow curves by default. Even better, buildings allow new roads to be built beside them, so you never end up in position where you have to destroy a building to make a new road. Everything about placing buildings and such just feels great.
What is not so great is seemingly infinite gulf between utter disaster and zero worries.
Your citizens need food and shelter, and you need Wood, Steel, Coal, and Steam Cores in order to give it to them. No matter the Scenario, the overall world gets progressively colder as time goes by, so you are on the clock. In the beginning, you need to start collecting Wood and Steel from wreckage on the map, and start building tents for your people to sleep in. After about a week, you may be in good shape: you have a Coal Thumper producing infinite Coal (at considerable labor costs), maybe you have a Scoting party able to start exploring the wastes, you have enough food for the time being, and maybe a few buildings that allow you to get Steel and Wood.
Then things go to shit. Maybe refugees arrive. That’s technically good, because now you have a bigger labor pool. But you need to pump out a lot more tents to house them, and they are unlikely to be within the normal heat zone of the Generator. So you research expanding the heat zone, but turning that feature on consumes twice as much Coal as before. Oh, and the weather dropped down two levels, so all your original people are freezing their asses off, which makes them sick, which means they are out of the labor pool and piling up in Medical Centers. Less labor means less people getting food or gather Coal/Steel/Wood, which means you have less resources to build more insulated houses. Meanwhile, your Scouts are accumulating resources, but you have to make decisions on whether to keep going or return back to the city to hand over said resources and otherwise delay finding more/better resources later.
Now, challenging the player is Game Design 101. Starting the player off in an uncomfortable state and having them work towards feeling comfortable as a result of their own good choices is the Ideal. But what I have learned in my time with Frostpunk is that the inflection point is nearly a vertical cliff. Not in the sense of difficulty per se, but rather in how there is no gradient between struggle and success – one moment you are fighting for your life every day, and the next you have effectively solved the game. And each time it comes as somewhat of a surprise. “Oh… my Coal Mine shut down because I too much Coal. Let me just build more Resource Depots to hold more.” Then the Scenario is over and you’re done.
In this sense, Frostpunk is not a survival city-building game at all – it’s a puzzle game. Do A, then B, then C, then win. It is just a matter of figuring out what A, B, and C are. If you play Frostpunk like a steampunk Sim City, or an RTS without units, you will have a bad time. It is way too easy to get infinite resources, which is “balanced” by the fact that the game only lasts X amount of days for each Scenario. Which is fine, I guess. But why dress it up in such a slick package, including having five tiers in the tech tree, as if any of that matters?
Despite all of that, I nevertheless played through three of the four Scenarios in the base game and briefly contemplated the DLC. It’s fun-ish for the time I spent playing, and I absolutely ended up playing for like four hours straight in one of those “one more turn” Civilization traps. If you end up really liking the formula, there are higher difficulties and even “no death” runs for the ultimate masochism.
If nothing else though, the bar for city-building games have definitely been raised from a UI/feel perspective.
Posted on May 6, 2021, in Impressions and tagged Blind Choices, City Builder, Frostpunk, Inflection Point, This War of Mine, Uncomfortable. Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.
Played it a long time ago, then went back after and played it again when endless mode was added. Endless mode makes clear that, at least for me, the scenarios are what make the game work, with their storylines and set timeframe. In endless its all about the building/survival, and while Frostpunk is very good in that regard compared to most city games, its still, as you said, solve A, then B, then C.
That said after Frostpunk returning to Cities:Skylines was ROUGH.
I tried Endless mode, and the issue I ran into was how they artificially stymied exploration. Presumably for good reason, as discovering an early Outpost-able resource would fundamentally alter the game, but still. Once I realized that, I started wondering about what other nonsense roadblocks they added just to make the game type “playable,” and just stopped.
I shamelessly dropped the difficulty to easy on my second try in order to, as you say, actually feel particularly good playing Frostpunk.
The first go at it was on the standard difficulty and I loathed the blind choices and snowballing effect. Then to make it feel arbitrarily worse, the temperature just kept plummeting, just because.
It felt like one of those games where you either had to play through and lose a bunch of times, in order to even know what traps were coming up ahead and thus, be able to be better prepared for it in future replay rounds; or you read up on a whole bunch of already solved optimization guides and optimal start strategies in order to cope at higher difficulties.
It’s basically wound too tight to allow for initial exploration or self-discovery without punishing penalty (and worse, it’s delayed so you only find out you screwed up much earlier, and now there is no realistically possible way to recover, but just prolong the pain or surrender).
What I really wanted in my strategy/city builders were interesting story generators, rather than an optimization metagame, and the atmosphere and aesthetic of Frostpunk seemed to promise the former, but delivered the latter.
Ultimately, Frostpunk just doesn’t really feel fun for those minded for less efficiency and more self-exploration; and it seems to strike a chord for the puzzle-brained achiever-optimizers. Welp, one man’s meat and another man’s poison and all that.
I agree with all that. There were many times where I found myself in some kind of bottleneck, waiting for Steel or something, and realized that a decision I made three days prior was what precipitated said bottleneck. Like having chosen to research a Lumber Mill instead of Steel Mill. Learning from mistakes is Game Design 101, but none of it feels good in Frostpunk the way it might in, say, some roguelike or similar trial-and-error game. I’m not sure whether it’s because of the delay in consequences, or just how the game feels like it is in a different genre than it really is.
All I can say though, is that I have zero fun looking at the weather report and knowing that there is no way I can build enough upgraded houses in time to survive the coming cold snap. Or when I can make it in time, but in doing so, uses up all of my resources and now I won’t have enough food. Ugh.
Makes me realize I should just be playing Sim City or Civilization instead.