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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.

Inflection Points

In Divinity: Original Sin, I have definitively hit an inflection point in terms of character power. And that is kind of a shame.

Basically, once you hit level 15 you can start learning “Master” level skills/spells. As one might expect, these can be extremely powerful. For example, one of them is Meteor Shower, which drops 30 little fireballs in a specific area, each of which can deal a few hundred points of damage apiece in addition to spread fire in the area. These powerful spells cost a lot of Action Points – generally meaning needing to wait around multiple turns to save up enough AP – and are limited to One-Per-Battle in terms of cooldowns.

The issue is that you can game the hell out of the system. The AP cost is entirely irrelevant if you happen to spot a group of enemies before engaging in combat, for example – AP only exists within combat, so go nuts for the alpha strike. Hell, I bring down the stars on even one dude, because why not? It’s always been powerful to initiate combat with a “free” spell, but up till now those spells didn’t necessarily gib your target.

Another of the Master level skills allows an Archer to fire 16 arrows in a 45-degree arc. Great for groups… or, you know, if you want to effectively one(16?)-shot bosses from point-blank range. Oh, and hey, there’s a low-level Ranged Power Shot skill that increases damage by 20% at the cost of accuracy. Which would normally be an issue if not for the fact that Arrow skills auto-hit as long as the target is in range.

MMO players will recognize this phenomenon as “Optimizing the fun out of the game.” As I have mentioned previously though, the optimizing process itself is what I find fun to begin with. And it has been pretty fun figuring this out. The problem is that the game is now “solved,” and I am in one of those positions at the end of a Civilization match where winning is a foregone conclusion, but for the long, tedious march to an official win condition.

I said this situation is a shame because I’m not so sure it was necessary. Up until this point, effective AoE in Divinity was actually decently limited. Yeah, there were combos and such that you could set up, e.g. dropping Oil in an area and then lighting it on fire. But none of it was enough to one-shot groups by itself. Hell, often those combos ended up being counter-productive. The Oil+Fire combo was good for setting people on fire, but the resulting smoke prevented targeted follow-up attacks until they moved out of the area.

This scenario sort of reminds me of Final Fantasy Tactics, when you are suddenly given an excessively OP party member (Orlandu) for basically no reason. The game was challenging up to that point, and considerably less so afterwards. Why? What was the designer reasoning?

Sometimes inflection points are inevitable. At the beginning of a game, your character’s options for skills and magic items are likely limited, so there might be less room for synergies. More options means more combos means more opportunities for OP results. Simply not giving anything new past a certain level isn’t a particularly good design, so the devs might actually be trapped in that regard.

And, hey, I’m not blind to the fact that it probably feels good, both as a player and as a designer, to reach the endgame and feel like a total badass. Every wizard dreams of the moment they go from shooting Magic Missiles into the darkness to altering the fabric of reality itself. This is why games like WoW end up giving you +5% upgrades each tier instead of a more measured 1% – anything less feels unrewarding.

The fundamental problem is that I found the Divinity combat system rewarding as-is. Even with good equipment, things felt dicey all the time. I’m sure that someone out there had a lot of fun going from dicey fights to forgone conclusion ones, but that person is not me. And I cannot help but wonder if it was necessary at all. If super-skills are necessary, do they need to be this particularly powerful? Why 30 meteors instead of, say, 10? That would still be a huge improvement over the standard Fireball spell.

In any case, I am continuing to play Divinity and hopefully wrap things up soon.