Most city-builders have you setting out to build a sprawling, shiny metropolises. In the leader of the genre, Cities: Skylines, you might have to contend with a natural disaster or two, but the most pressing threats most of the time are too much traffic and poor trash collection. Frostpunk turns the genre on its head to create what might be the first survival/city-builder where each move centers around the survival of your community. Frostpunk takes place in an alternate version of the late 19th century. This world is a more advanced place than our own reality was at the time, with steam-powered contraptions that replicate a lot of modern technology. As wonderful as all this tech is, the world was ill-prepared for a massive drop in temperature which has rendered the planet into an arctic wasteland. Expeditionary groups have set out in search for areas where humanity can weather the cold and attempt to solve the mystery of the sudden temperature drop.
Fighting the Cold
You play the role of captain of a British expedition. You and a group of Londoners set out on a journey to colonize a vast crater. At the center of the crater is your lifeblood, and one of the focal pieces of Frostpunk: the Generator. The Generator is a massive steam-powered furnace which will form the center of your colony. This is your most important building. Without a constant supply of coal to fuel its ravenous needs, it will dim, and your people will freeze to death. Unlike most city-builders, there is an ever present enemy in Frostpunk. You will spend the entire game fighting against the cold. Each decision you make will have to take temperature into account, and each building you place will serve as a bulwark against the icy tundra.
It's not a process you can take your time on either. Your population starts the game homeless, and you'll have to hastily assemble a tent village before they begin getting sick and losing limbs from frostbite. Even when your citizens have the shelter of tents, though, you've only got a reprieve. As the temperature drops, tents will become ineffective against the cold, and you'll have to upgrade them into bunkhouses, and finally houses that can span multiple levels. Of course, shelter means nothing without warmth, and the constant need for more and more coal to fire the furnaces, steam hubs and heaters to keep your population warm and alive gets more and more frantic as time goes on.
Fighting With Coal
When you arrive in the crater, there will be piles of wood, coal, and steel lying about for your citizens to gather. However, those don't last long, and this is where building positioning, work management, and resource management come into play. There are several methods you can gather each resource. You can mine coal and steel, hunt for food or grow it in a hothouse, deploy a sawmill to cut trees or drill through the crater wall to harvest frozen ones, and more. Each of these ways of gathering has its own pros and cons, and you'll likely find yourself trying to use a delicate mixture of each to provide the resources you need.
During my playthrough lack of coal continually threatened my city's survival. Even with multiple mines and coal thumpers, I couldn't keep up with demand, so I built a series of charcoal kilns that convert wood to coal. Since I was generating a surplus of wood, this allowed me to still have enough to build while turning the excess into the resource I needed more of. The most critical resource in Frostpunk, and the most difficult to accrue is humans. None of your buildings matter without a workforce, and without your constant attention, you'll find yourself with a ghost town real fast. There are two meters that affect your population's feelings towards their circumstances.
Fighting the Crowd
The Hope and Discontent meters are primarily an indicator of how well you're doing as a leader. The goal is to keep hope up and discontent down, but it's rarely as simple as that. To ensure the continued survival of the colony, you can enact laws at a rate of roughly once a day. Some of these laws will raise hope and lower discontent, like allowing the dead to be buried in cemeteries instead of thrown into a heap in the snow. Others will give you resources or boosts you need to push ahead at the cost of an angrier populace. If you're short on labor, you can enact a law that allows for children to work at "safe" jobs.
If you find yourself perilously low on a resource, or in desperate need of a technology researched you can impose emergency 24-hour shifts. However, no matter how good you might think you're doing in the long run, your citizens only care about the here and now. While forcing overtime to stockpile some resources might seem like a good strategic idea, the second the hope gauge emptys you're given an ultimatum by the colony to shape up or ship out. By the time that happens though it's tough to improve their moods enough to keep you around.
Frostpunk also differs from many city sims in that it has a story. In addition to managing your colony, you'll need to send out scouting teams to survey the surrounding areas. Your group isn't the only one in the area, and it's essential that you locate the other teams that were sent out. The story maintains the same melancholy feel that This War of Mine had, and most of the discoveries you make out on the tundra are grim at best. However, you'll get the opportunity while exploring to rescue refugees to add to your city's populace. This doesn't all happen in a vacuum though. Your citizens are affected by the news that the scouting teams report.
Find a settlement that you thought should be teeming with life full of frozen bodies and your people are going to lose hope. In addition to the main story, A New Home, there are two other scenarios (and more coming) that tell smaller stories and present unique challenges. The Refugees has you preparing a city that can become a home to hundreds of displaced citizens and dealing with the unrest that occurs as a result. The Arks tasks you will keeping seed storage vaults warm enough to prevent their contents from freezing with a small number of humans to do so.
A Refreshing Take on a Staple PC Genre
Frostpunk is a unique take on city-building and crisis management that manages to make you care about the simulated humans that make up your workforce and citizenry in a way that other games in the genre don't. Each person is an integral cog in the machine that keeps your city warm and alive and managing their needs along with the resources that you require made for a frantic and rewarding experience. The game does lose a bit of its luster after you beat the main scenario, but the two additional stories do put what you learned to the test. I'm eager to see what new situations 11 Bit Studios adds to the Frostpunk in the future, as the concept has a ton of untapped potential.
This review is based on a PC digital code provided by the publisher. Frostpunk is available now on Steam.