Visiting PAX is always an interesting experience for me. I’m often underwhelmed, if not alarmed, by the trends I see in gaming, but at the same time, I often find a title which has gone completely under my radar which really gets me excited. This year was actually a pleasant surprise for me in that I found several titles which really sparked my interest, perhaps none more so than Frostpunk, by makers of This War of Mine, 11 bit studios. A realtime city-building strategy game, it’s not the type of title that I usually go for, but when you mix in some difficult ethical decisions and a bleakly oppressive difficulty, it turns into a fascinating work. I spent some extra time with the demo build, but could I save my people from disaster?
Frostpunk takes place in an alternate history where the Victorian period is interrupted by a catastrophic frost that envelops the world, driving humanity from their cities to gather around massive steam generators for enough warmth to survive. You play as the leader of one of these survivor groups, tasked with rallying your people and turning your meager camp into a successful city that can withstand the endless winter. This is, not surprisingly, a difficult task, as even keeping your city warm will require a constant stream of coal to power generators, not to mention gathering food to feed your people or supplies build them shelter. You’ll view your city from an isometric perspective, assigning your citizens to gather resources, build structures and work differing services: Some will hunt for food, some will research new technologies, while others will man medical centers to heal the streams of people who get sick or injured.
The world of Frostpunk is bleak, not to mention harsh, and no one will understand that better you. In order to keep your people alive, you will need to make some difficult decisions about how to run your community. My first act as captain was to institute child labor, putting kids to work gathering coal and lumber. It’s not a popular decision with the people, but we must keep the generators running 24 hours a day. Next I order the cookhouse (Now primarily run by children) to start adding sawdust to food to make it last longer. Again, an unpopular ruling, but even still there isn’t enough to keep our stomachs full. Making these calls and managing your people’s discontent is a huge part of the game, but being too sweet on your citizenry can be more disastrous then making them work emergency shifts.
My first impression of the game is that it’s hard. Really hard. Try as I might to balance the needs of my people and keep the lights on, my first few attempts quickly spiraled out of control. Somewhat surprisingly, I only find success in working my survivors mercilessly. We labor throughout the night, subsisting off a thin gruel, and when workers drop dead on the job, we roll their corpses to the side of the road. Even then every day is make or break for us. It’s a grim world, but being hard on my people keeps them alive. At least some of them.
Being a demo build, I don’t won’t to focus too much on the polish or function of the game. By and large, the interface works, though it could use a few tweaks for better playabilility, and I hope there will be some improvements to how I view and interact with my town, as it’s a little clunky right now. But those are all items that can be improved upon. Perhaps more importantly, I hope we see the UI fleshed out a bit more to help me understand what’s going on in my city. Other than that the game already feels very good to play. 11 bit studios is aiming for a Q4 release this year, which means we are getting close, but what I experienced feels like it only needs a few final touches before it is perfect.
The build I played took me through the first 10 harrowing days of leadership. The end of the demo was almost a relief, as our coal mines were chronically underproducing and a full scale shut down of the generator seemed to be no more than a few hours away. Frostpunk is a hard, sometimes even merciless, game about making merciless decisions and executing them with deliberate strategy. Anything less and everyone dies. If the full title can maintain the tension and stress that I experienced here, it’s going to be one hell of a game.