The RPS Verdict: Frostpunk

"We are united again! No more division! Frostpunk is good!"

Snow and coal simulator Frostpunk has gripped a few of us in its cold prosthetic claws over the past week. We especially like the warm feeling it gives us when you switch to heatmap mode and see the temperature rise in your new houses. But it also isn’t the steam-powered morality trolley it often tries to be. Here, city bosses Katharine, Matt and Brendan discuss how they kept their people alive and whether they’ll play again. SPOILER WARNING: Cold details of the story await.

Brendan [sniffing]: Hello, friends. Hello.

Katharine: Were you also playing Frostpunk into the early hours, Brendan? Did you feel the cold creep into your weary, weary bones?

Brendan: I might’ve been. I built a big church and now my people want the priests to be in charge of crime and punishment.

Matt: What could possibly go wrong?

Alice [interrupting]: You’ll want a medium-sized church, they’re only into singing and communion wine.

Matt: So far I’ve bought it, played for 15 mins, then realised I was too tired to grasp everything and stopped so my people wouldn’t suffer because of it.

Katharine: I’ve started building some churches as well, but only because the ‘Faith and Spirituality’ path for dealing with everyone’s sudden depression over the whole ‘Actually, everyone is dead’ revelation sounded slightly less woolly than the ambiguous ‘Order and Discipline’ route. Does Order and Discipline mean I’m going to have to start training police or gang bosses who simply have stern words with their fellow workers? Who knows. After accidentally letting a third of my survivors die in the first 15 minutes because I didn’t know I could turn the generator on, I needed as many non-police workers as I can get.

Matt: I’m glad I’m not the only one who did that!

Steamy.

Katharine: I sent my people to go and gather coal, to stockpile 200 like it said, and only realised after people started dying that, ‘Oh, I could have turned on the generator almost as soon as I’d started collecting it’. That might have something to do with the imminent rebellion I’m now facing. Soz guys.

Matt: Did you restart?

Katharine: No, I didn’t. I probably should have, as I also didn’t know you could build streets until about 30 minutes in, and it was even later when I discovered they didn’t have to snake around existing buildings. All this time, my workers could have been walking on actual roads to gather their coal, wood and steel. Instead, they were forced to wade through the never-ending snow drifts.

Matt: Hah, yeah I’m abandoning my dudes to their frozen fate.

Katharine: Things got a bit better after that initial, accidental cull, though, so I carried on, only for it to go horribly wrong again about an hour later when a minus 70 degree cold snap meant I had to hurriedly research better heating. Luckily, I think I’m coming through the other side now. It’s pretty grim, but it’s still a lot less bleak than This War of Mine.

Brendan: My place began fine. Only 2 people died in the founding of our city.

Katharine: Haha, you’re doing far better than I. My cemetery is stuffed with about 70 so far. At one point, someone seemed to be dying every single hour. I don’t think things are improving either.

Brendan: To be fair, we did have to dig up the bodies after burying them the first time. Because I wanted the space.

Matt: Awkward.

Brendan: And then a woman started crying because she saw her frozen dead husband again.

Katharine: Awks.

Brendan: He’s way outside the heatzone now. She can visit him any time she likes. In minus 60 degrees.

Fire in a hole. Seems legit.

Katharine: When I built my cemetery, I had a small boy sit there all night looking sad.

Matt: Jeez, this game. I’m guessing you can check the name on tombstones? He must have had someone there.

Katharine: Yeah, it was his mum.

Brendan: The snow pile has no names.

Katharine: You monster, Brendan.

Brendan: No names, just future organs. It’s like a big fridge. Keeping all the good bits fresh.

Matt: Right, I’m going to go and stock my own fridge full of organs. I’ll be back.

Katharine: Did you conscript all your children to go down the coal mines, Brendan? Because judging by the tone of our conversation, I can imagine that’s something you probably did.

Brendan: No, they did work in the kitchens and had a jolly time collecting coal from piles on the surface, but I didn’t throw them down the mines. In the book of laws, that’s where I stopped developing the “children as a workforce” idea. I was keeping the “weins do all jobs” law in my back pocket as an emergency measure, a backup plan if my workforce was suddenly stricken down by sickness or a nasty event. But in the end, the kids were all right.

Marcellus Hope was a bugged character in Brendan's game. He was stuck somewhere and was permanently marked as both "starving" and "disposing of a corpse". A ghost child who was never directly viewable on-screen, no matter how much you clicked on his portrait, Marcellus Hope became a constant, ever-present reminder of a terrifying possible future in which all children are devouring the bodies of the recently deceased.

Katharine: I stuck my kiddies in a children’s shelter and made them apprentice medics, thinking that would be a way to ease my very, VERY limited supply of engineers, but it WAS NOT.

Brendan: If there was a cold snap and I couldn’t heat the gathering posts, the city’s children would usually get relieved and I’d replace them with workers, if possible. The church says they are our future (they don’t really say that in-game, but I like to think they are that sort of church). This highlights one of the game’s flaws, I think. Mostly, it’s about moving workers around, fiddling with numbers. I found myself having to make my own fun much of the time, as far as the humans were concerned. I basically had to imagine “oh no, those steel workers have been working 14-hour shifts for days, they must be exhausted” and act on that impulse, almost against the system of numbers going up. In other words, a lot of the impactful, human stuff was just my brain filling in the blanks.

Katharine: Because I continue to have such a low population, one trick I’ve developed is to rejig my hunters when they return in the morning and put them straight back to work on resource gathering. Then, just before the work bell tolls, turn them back into hunters. I’m not actually sure whether this is an effective tactic, or whether I’m actually just driving everyone to an early grave by making them work 24 hours without technically enforcing the actual 24 emergency shift button.

That blue coldspot in the middle is the "stuff pile"

Time-travelling Matt: I’m back, and I’ve made it all the way through the blizzard. I avoided pesky church-meddling by going down the Order and Discipline path, which does indeed involve policing your folk with guards. Also torture.

Brendan: Heathens.

Matt: Alive heathens! Mostly. The only people I wound up losing were a guard that got himself stabbed chasing a thief, and a suicidal poet.

Time-travelling Katharine: I haven’t made it through the blizzard yet, but I have got to the point where I’ve been forced to create church police like Brendan as my rowdy, discontented Londoners were getting far too bold. First they started stealing supplies, then they stabbed one of my priests.

Brendan: I’m glad to see you’ve both invented time-travelling alter egos, rather than admit we started this feature last Thursday and are finishing it today. But never mind that, I want to know what options opened up for Matt the Fash in the law books. What other buildings can you make if you go the authoritarian route?

Matt: Well, if I’ve learnt one thing from Frostpunk it’s that Propaganda Centers fix everything. Building that not only gave everyone a massive initial boost to hope, but let me send messages to their doors every couple of days telling them everything was fine. Later on I recruited some people as informers, which help me put more people in prison. Wait, did you guys not get prisons?

Brendan: The only prison in my game was when the mine collapsed on 30 workers and I left them there to die.

What smog?

Matt: Ah. The prison in my game was one where the inmates got beaten up so they’d all become nice, productive members of society again.

Katharine: Man, I should have gone down the prison route. That would sort my nearly 70% discontent / 10% hope problems right out.

Brendan: It’s interesting that the two routes are essentially the same, then. The religious folk get a confessional, public shaming ritual, which has the exact same effect. And it sounds like sermons boost hope in the same way propaganda does. When you’ve only two ticking metres to concern yourself with, the limitations become clear. Everything else is just thematic dressing. I’m not bothered by that, because it’s so short and has enough flavour to keep me happy, but it’s definitely a sign that the game is less complex than it often appears.

Katharine: I haven’t got as far as being able to build confessionals yet, but I do wonder whether one hope-booster is more effective than the other. In my experience, the sermons do very little to help improve the mood, but maybe that’s because I’m making so many other terrible decisions. I also find it hilarious that whenever people go to listen to a sermon, the game lists them all as being ‘Gravely ill’, presumably because they’re out of action for a bit.

Lift your hearts up.

Matt: My propaganda post did only tick the hope metre up by a little each time. Thinking about it, I probably owe more to some well-placed guard towers and fighting pits – I got a neat permanent boost for making it so that everyone lived near one.

Brendan: How many people survived the final onslaught huddled in your hell city, Matt?

Matt: I didn’t lose a soul, AND I took in every last one of those sickly refugees. I don’t need no church to be a saint. Apart from the torture.

Brendan: I lost 45 people in the last few days, because the struts of the coal mine started to deteriorate. I was given the choice: send men to fix them at the risk of death, or abandon the most lucrative depths of the mine, dropping my coal output by EIGHTY PERCENT. It was the only pop-up decision in the game that made me pause for longer than a few seconds.

Matt: I don’t mean to be Boasty McBoastface, but my advanced automated steam mines just laughed that 80% reduction off. It might not be the case in the other scenarios, but in the main one you’re rewarded for ignoring big parts of the tech tree. I decided early on I was only going to research and build the most efficient things, and that meant I only had a few resource scarcity scares.

It's nat worm

Katharine: At the rate my city’s deteriorating, I don’t think I’m going to see this final snow fight.

Brendan: Wait, what’s your city called? Mine was ‘Bit Nippy’. At least, that’s what I put on the save file.

Katharine: My first manual save was dubbed ‘Bleak House’, which then turned into ‘Bleaker House’, ‘Bleakest House’, ‘Slightly less Bleak House’ and ‘Even Bleaker House’.

Matt: Mine was ‘Bloody Londoners’ for most of the game.

Brendan: Right, here’s the important question, I think. You’re both at different parts of the game, but do you see yourselves playing through another scenario? I don’t think I’ll go back to it. I liked it, but I feel like I got my fill, like I’ve seen all the metre-balancing it has to offer. I enjoyed the city-building, and the tension of the last few days was great. But now I’m on the other side, the weather is clearing, and I’m happy to leave Bit Nippy behind.

Lord hear us.

Katharine: I’d definitely like to try again, if only to fix some of the stupid things I did in my first playthrough. Like remembering to turn the generator on and not killing 30 people straight off the bat. I’d also like to see if I can organise my resources better, making things more efficient and better planned-out, with things like proper roads and stuff.

Matt: I was thinking about replaying the main one, but probably won’t now that I know the Faith path is so similar to Order. I’ve started the next scenario, but it’s way harder and I’d forgotten how uncomfortable I feel when things are threatening to spiral out of control – which is odd, because that’s arguably when a game like Frostpunk is at its best.

Brendan: I think there’s definitely more satisfaction to be had in making an efficient, pretty city here, as opposed to indulging the “losing is fun” school of thought. I can imagine plenty of folks are currently working out how to make dystopian machine-like cities, the likes we sometimes see from masters of Sim City.

Anyway, let’s wrap this Verdict up, like a small child in a woolly scarf. Are you both happy to recommend it to all those fans of snow we cultivate here at RPS?

Lord graciously hear us.

Katharine: Definitely, as long as you’re prepared for some gruelling moments of number-crunching and throwing all humanity to the cruel, bitter wind.

Matt: I am, though like both of you I’d recommend it as a flavourful city builder rather than an engine for generating interesting moral decisions. I was expecting some of those to give me pause, but without a personal attachment to any of my citizens I was surprisingly happy to, um, become a fascist.

Brendan: A GODLESS HEATHEN, you mean.

Matt: I’m a saint, Brendan.

Matt's propaganda machine is still functioning

A Saint.

Frostpunk is on Steam and GOG for £24.99/$29.99. Check out Xalavier Nelson Jr’s Frostpunk review for a more detailed analysis of its systems.

14 Comments

  1. Premium User Badge

    Drib says:

    More endgame screenshots than I expected.

    But yeah, lines up with what I figured. A lot of games try to make you care about the effectively nameless nobodies in your town, but they’re… nameless nobodies, why would I care about them? Why would anyone? If you have 100 guys, losing one isn’t about how dear old McGillicuty, the corner ice-chemist for the past forty years, finally breathed his last, surrounded by friends and family. It’s… a 1% worker loss.

    But that said, it can still be fun to balance meters. Sounds like something to pick up on sale.

    • Luaan says:

      Funny you should say that, since it’s true of almost all the real people in the world too. Why should I care about millions dying of malaria when it’s just a statistic?

      It’s your choice to care or not. Yes, it’s easier to care about someone you know. But would you really like that micro-management hell in a game like this? That’s something you can afford in a game with 10 people, not a thousand. Even in a game like Dwarf Fortress, with their skill system and keeping history of every individual dwarf… you still only get a few people you care about. Most people don’t care even then, beyond the dull “Damn it, now I need to train a new super blacksmith”.

      Even in games like X-COM, you really only care about the people to increase your own enjoyment of the game – you can treat them as disposable peons and probably get through the game a lot easier anyway. Remember Dogmeat from Fallout 1?

      I’ve been trying to get people to care about “game people” for as long as I can remember; but I realised that game design only gets you so far. In the end, humans treat most of the world as NPCs anyway, so it’s not really the game’s fault if it doesn’t break that pattern. You can help people care, maybe you can even get them to care more about real people as well, but ultimately it’s about how much that particular gamer is willing to go through the effort of caring for someone.

      A lot of gamers ask for NPCs to be more human (persistent, going about their daily lives, grieving their murdered husband that you happened to murder for a few shinies…), but even when a game delivers… nothing happens. People still don’t care. Because how could you expect the majority of players to care about an “unreal” person, when they already don’t care about almost all the people in the world? And that’s not even taking the past and future into account :D

      If you want to care, there’s few games that don’t allow you to care. Even in a game like Command and Conquer, you can try to keep all your people alive, or even try to minimise enemy casualties. Yes, the same thing is easier in a game like Original War, where people have names… but in the end, it’s about your approach. Care or do not. There is no “wish for people more worth caring about” :P

  2. DoubleG says:

    There’s an interesting mechanic in the game that I haven’t seen discussed much — in order to get the best ending, you need to deliberately stop using one of the game’s systems. The game never explicitly tell you this, it just quietly updates the menu picture for the “Law/Faith” technology path with increasingly dystopian images the further you go down the path.

    The game’s been billed as an experience that forces you to make morally compromising choices, but that’s not necessarily true — you just have to ignore your instincts as a gamer, stop collecting unlockables, and ignore the blinking button that’s telling you to keep going.

    • Archonsod says:

      As far as I can tell ‘not crossing the line’ merely needs you to avoid enacting the ‘ultimate authority’ law (handily indicated by it being a glowing button). It’s perfectly fine with using the dead as an organ bank/fertiliser, instigating secret or not so secret police, using children as a forced labour supply and even abandoning the sick and injured to the cold. Just don’t declare yourself Pope/President for life while you’re doing so.

      • Blastaz says:

        It’s earlier than the first one, you can take a couple of picks but more than three down and you cross that line.

        Then the achievement golden path is more discerning. That requires you to make the moral choices in the adaption path as well.

  3. Archonsod says:

    The only real difference between the Faith / Order path is that one focuses more on raising hope while the other lowers discontent. Funnily enough even the main narrative thread is the same, the only thing that differs is whether you deal with it via imprisonment or public penance.

  4. Carcer says:

    I’ve not read the article, but I am compelled to point out that the slug in the URL refers to a game called “Frotpunk”, which sounds considerably different to and far more exciting than the game actually discussed here.

  5. kwyjibo says:

    How can I draw a conclusion from this article when there is no Optimus Thumb rating?

  6. GomezTheChimp says:

    I live in the West Highlands. The climate`s already like this…

  7. Premium User Badge

    Lo says:

    The alt text on the last pic :D

  8. Carra says:

    I had a good time with the game. Lost time while playing it which is always a good sign.

    It’s a rather short game though. I got through it and the extra scenarios in about twelve hours. Not bad but I hoped for some more scenarios.

    • Luaan says:

      It’s worth trying on hard too – they’re harsher enough to require you a lot more than on normal, and you need to use things you’ve learnt in the previous play-through to succeed.

      They’re planning at least one extra scenario and an endless mode as free content, I think, and it might be interesting what modders come up with.

      In the end, it’s only really short compared to city builders – it’s really a story game rather than a sandbox. I certainly consider it well worth my money, and it’s been a very long time since a game got me so tense over the endgame (and it even managed that on the second scenario as well, though not the third).

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