Impressions: Against the Storm
Against the Storm (AtS) is a roguelike city-builder, and may very well be the first of its kind. Each game feels like the early to midgame turns of a Civilization match as you explore the foggy forest in pursuit of randomized resources that will force you to adapt your builds in new ways every time. And right as the combination of production synergies and passive abilities make your base amazing… the match is over, and you prepare to do it all over again somewhere else.
Random really is the name of the game. The win condition is raising your Reputation bar to maximum before the Queen’s Ire bar fills up. To raise your Reputation, you complete randomized Orders (quests), solve randomized Events/Caches strewn in glades on the map, leverage randomized Cornerstone abilities (passives), or raise the Resolve (happiness) meter of one or more of your races past a certain point to earn a steady trickle. You’ll do all of these things by collecting resources randomly distributed on the map, with buildings that were chosen from, you guessed it, a random assortment.
If all that randomness sounds a bit off-putting, well, it is. At first.
The genius of the game’s design is how it leans into adaptability. For example, if you wanted to make Beer, it’s very possible for there to be no Wheat on your map and no Farm building offered to grow Wheat. That sucks. But Beer can be made from Wheat or Roots. Or maybe you get offered a series of choices that leads you towards Wine or something else instead, which you trade for Wheat. Damn near every production building in the game has 3+ alternative inputs available, and since some buildings are more efficient than others, you are passively steered in certain directions that might be out of your comfort zone. I’ve had maps where I was just never offered something fundamental, like Planks or complex foods, and had to radically alter my gameplan to survive.
Remember Sid Meier saying games are a series of interesting decisions? That’s Against the Storm.
Successfully completing a map gains you progression currency you spend unlocking passive bonuses and other goodies back at the Smoldering City. After that, it is back to the world map and selecting the next hex to tackle. Each possible biome has a general theme and resources that appear more frequently. Select your randomized starting party, add some specific resources of your choosing, and then spend the next 5 minutes with the game paused to study the randomized buffs/debuffs you have received, and choose your randomized starting three building blueprints. You will repeat this cycle 5-6 times until the entire world gets reset (except for meta-progression) and you start everything again.
It is worth noting here that I don’t actually like city-builders all that much. I played SimCity 2000 for hundreds of hours ages ago and Frostpunk was okay, but I’m not especially a fan of games where you alternate between Pause and 3x speed. AtS is especially egregious in this regard because of all the interlocking parts with production buildings and various, randomized resources. That very randomness though, is precisely what has kept be playing for the last 25 hours – specifically the desire to optimize the madness. Each map will take you 1.5-2 hours to beat and then you are given a clean slate, so don’t come in thinking you will be making a self-sustaining colony or anything.
Overall, I am very impressed.
The game is starting to wind down for me though, as I have noticed my desire to win just for the upgrade currency to unlock new passives… that will make wining again easier. The offset for that are higher difficulties, including “Prestige” (aka Ascension) ranks that have ever-increasing maluses, but that’s not exactly what I’m looking for. And if I was, I would just play Slay the Spire.
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.