I’d love to end the review right here, safe in the knowledge that every city builder fan will then go ahead and buy the game on whatever platform they enjoy. Unfortunately, my words don’t command that much respect – at least not yet – so I’ll do my best to tell you, in detail, why Frostpunk is the best game you’ve not yet played.
First, a disclaimer: I’ve only recently gotten the PS4 version of Frostpunk, but for the last few months I’ve been flittering between different save states of the game on Xbox One X and on Window 10.
Playing on PC is easily my favourite way to play, if only because I can use the mouse and keyboard with ease – the traditional tools for city builders. Though, the console versions’ controls are perfectly fine, employing a radial menu similar to what we’ve seen before in other city builders like Cities: Skylines and Tropico 6.
Like those other games, the controls do take a bit of time to learn as there’s a lot to navigate around, but the game does a great job at steering you in the right direction, and the intuitive design means you’ll be flicking through the menus with ease in no time at all.
So, Frostpunk – what is it?
Frostpunk is a city builder set in an alternative England where history has taken a different path and the world is now in the throes of a new Ice Age, and you, the leader of a small community, need to build up your town and keep your people safe, fed, and crucially – warm.
This is no easy task in the new Ice Age, but you do have a head start thanks to the core of your community – a great big steam generator that provides limited heat and power. It starts off just about strong enough to keep the inner circle of your town warm, but you’ll upgrade it over time, allowing its life-saving heat and power to stretch far and wide.
You start with just a small community of people who need to be put to work, scavenging whatever supplies are lying around. No hands should be wasted, and careful management of your work crews is necessary to keep the town alive.
You’ll find coal, metal, and wood in the vicinity of your base, and you need to assign workers to collect them. However, these natural supplies will only last so long, so you need to build mines and wall drills to keep the supplies flowing long-term.
At first, it seems easy, and then people start to get sick. Working out in the cold will kill anyone after enough exposure. When the workers get sick, the workforce numbers dwindle, and supplies start to slow down. Everything has a knock-on effect. Fewer workers means fewer resources, which could mean less coal for the generator, less food for the hungry mouths, and eventually, less support for your rule as the leader.
Managing the workforce and the flow of resources is vital to your colony’s survival, and your reign as leader.
As the game opens up and you research new technologies and social structures via laws, things get a little easier. You can send scouting parties to explore nearby locations. A successful scouting trip could result in a decent haul of much-needed resources, or even new people to join your town. Though more people does mean more mouths to feed and homes to build and warm, it also means more hands to put to work.
It’s a constant balancing act of keeping people happy, fed, homed, and warm, while also making sure that there are supplies for whatever lies around the corner.
A temperature gauge at the top of the screen tells you the current temperature, as well as giving you a warning on when the temperature will fluctuate, either upwards of downwards. You can use this knowledge to plan ahead a little. Cold snap coming? Stockpile as much coal as possible. Warming up? Maybe give those workers some rest and turn down the heat to balance out their time off.
Sometimes, a truly horrible storm will make its way to your town and the temperature will plummet harshly. You do get a few days notice, so there’s time to prepare. If you fail to prepare, you’re gonna end up with a lot of sick workers, and maybe some dead bodies, too.
You can always sacrifice the happiness of the few for the good of the many by forcing coal workers to work extended shifts to keep the generator running through the harsher periods, but do this too often and you’ll have to face the discontent.
This is what I really enjoyed about Frostpunk. No matter how prepared you think you are, it’s difficult to ever get to a position where you’re truly comfortable and can look a storm in the face without having to pay with bodies, even with the later upgrade and Automatons – big machines that can work any job a human can, but doesn’t need heat or food.
There’s always the risk that something will go wrong. The next storm is always around the corner and the next crisis could happen at any time.
In other games, like Age of Empires 2 (same-same, but different) I’d always hit a point where I couldn’t lose, even if I tried. Frostpunk has yet to give me that security.
Frostpunk keeps you on your frostbitten toes at all times, and for a relatively chilled genre – city builders aren’t known for their excitement – I was always looking forward to the next challenge; the next big decision I had to make; the next chapter in my own story.
Admittedly, my story ended up with me being banished to the icy wilderness a few times after having pissed off the townsfolk a bit too much. This rarely happened early on in the game; it was usually after putting a few good few hours into building my arctic metropolis that the shit would hit the fan and I’d be left speechless as I’m ushered out of town.
The game’s presentation and circular grid work amazingly. I wasn’t sure of it at first because it seemed like the maps would be a bit too small – even the larger ones – and, well, yeah, they were too small for my liking. That’s by design, too.
You have to play smart and use the limited space you’ve got in the best way possible. The game forces you to reuse and recycle areas once they’ve served their purpose; to build homes and workplaces in logical manners that reduce exposure and maximise productivity. Basically, you’ve got to act like a penny-pinching retail manager.
There’s a story mode in Frostpunk which I’ve not touched. I tend to avoid story modes in these kinds of games purely because I don’t want to invest time and effort into a city that will be scrapped or limited by the game’s narrative. Instead, I prefer to play endless modes, and Frostpunk dutifully delivers on this front. Maybe I’ll try the campaign one day, but honestly, across three versions of the same game, I’m happy enough with endless mode.
Frostpunk is a unique twist on an ancient genre, but even today it feels fresh and after more than 100 hours of play – lockdown was a great time to play Frostpunk! – I’m still excited by the prospect of starting a new colony in arctic Britain.
Frostpunk PS4 Review
Frostpunk is an exceptional city-builder survival game. Managing resources, and the mismanagement of them, has never been so crucial in a game. Death and disaster is only one cold night away, and your reign as leader is always on the line. If you can keep the many plates spinning – and full of food – you might just make it to 100 days.
Review Disclaimer: This review was carried out using a copy of the game bought at the expense of the reviewer. For more information, please read our Review Policy.
Reviewed using PS4 Pro, Xbox One X, and Windows 10 PC.