Frost Punk was a game I was endlessly excited for. Base building strategy mixed with having to manage the citizens of the society that you run. Managing both their expectations for the basics of food and shelter, but also maintaining a basic level of decency and livability. Mixed into that is the occasional peppering of moral choice, scouting and exploration, an extensive book of laws you can sign, as well as a very extensive research tree. Sign me up!
On paper, Frost Punk is fantastic. A great mix of disparate genres and mechanics forming together into one cohesive unit. It’s a combination of time controllable strategy, giving you plenty of time to plan builds and tactics as well as being able to see the fruits of your labour in short order, as well as a great concept and unique temperature-based survival mechanic that sets this game apart from those that came before it. But video games aren’t played on paper, and for this game to put its money where its mouth is, it needs to nail the execution, and this is where Frost Punk can falter.
The basic concept of the game is simple, alternate steampunk history and a massive blizzard that wipes out humanity. Think The Day After Tomorrow but with more steam-powered mechs. You are the leader of the camp, and you need to keep everyone warm, fed, and most importantly, happy. You do this by building structures such as houses, hunting huts, coal mines, health posts and everything else you would expect to have in a thriving mini-society. You need to manage resources like wood and steel, food and the game’s little twist, heat. The maximum temperature I encountered during a mission was -20 degrees Celsius, so you may want to zip up your hoodie when you boot it up. You can also make and send out scouting parties to see the fate of your neighbours and collect resources you cannot obtain on your own. Once you start building houses and researching ways to keep people warm, that’s where you notice the first problems.
The first thing you notice after you get a game halfway going is that there is very little to easily determine what building is what, especially if you play zoomed out so you can see everything that is going on. This isn’t to say that the buildings don’t have individual looks, but when placed in close proximity it can look like a confusing mess of pixels. Some buildings are taller than others, some give off light and heat, but this isn’t enough to differentiate them from the other tall buildings or the other buildings that give off heat. This will lead to frantically clicking around or opening the build menu to find that one building you desperately need to access.
Frost Punk’s UI itself doesn’t get off scot-free either, unfortunately. Having to click around frantically to be able to fine tune the build queue on your factory or to change the number of people assigned to a guard post could have been fixed if the UI had some way to quickly check the status of different buildings. The game handles resources much more elegantly by comparison. Your coal mines, steel wreckages and whatever other detritus you need to pick up off the ground are all in a convenient economy menu, but the same can’t be said for buildings.
Fortunately, the UI is not without its merits, and basically everywhere else it shines. The temperature display is front and centre and larger than any other display on the screen, and next to it you have a weather forecast so you can plan ahead in case you need to quickly build better lodgings or turn the heaters on for a day so you don’t waste precious coal. The research screen and the book of laws are well laid out and very easy to navigate, although what lacks is the ability to see further down the research tree, meaning you can’t properly plan for future research acquisitions.
The build menu for Frost Punk is simplistic, cohesive and user friendly. Your current missions, your current population’s discontent, hope, labour utilisation, health and any pressing concerns they may have are well summarised and laid out, with your scouting parties given a nice ETA as well as a progress bar for their journeys. The rest of the UI is filled out with your resources at the top, with a bar underneath displaying how much of your storage is full. That bar will change colour to red to warn you to build more storage when you’re running out of space, as well as a time bar which displays the controls to speed up and pause time, as well as the current in-game time, with the population’s current task displayed.
The UI provides a very nice way to interact with the mechanics of the game, which for the most part are well implemented, fun and super addictive. I found myself unable to get out of my seat for the first 3 hours I was playing this game. Managing the hope and discontent of the camp was done mostly via moral choices. The peasants will demand things of you. Ignore them and the problem will fester, try to fulfil the demands and you will be given a timed objective. Succeed and your camps hope will rise, or its discontent will fall. Fail and the camps discontent will rise. If your camps discontent rises too high, or hope falls too low, you will be taking a very long walk into the snow alone after you are exiled from the camp. A cruel fate.
The wild is not without its merits, sending out scouting parties can net you resources of all types, as well as steam cores, a resource you can not produce yourself and is used to power some hi-tech gear in your base. You can also find more survivors which you can either escort back to your base, give them a map, or just let them die. Scouting is a vital part of the operation, especially when you get closer to end game, but it provides no challenge or any kind of real danger to you and your scouting crews. Subsequent play-throughs of Frost Punk also reveal there is next to no kind of randomisation to the events you encounter, not just in the wild, but also during the missions.
“The lack of endless mode, campaign editor, or other form of replayability makes this game a stretch to recommend”
In total, Frost Punk offers 3 scenarios which if you are a strategy veteran shouldn’t take you more then 5 or 6 hours to beat. After this is done, there is little to do. The scenarios repeat themselves, offering little in the way of random events or adversity, they even all have the same stock ending with some text over the top recapping the major events of your town. The lack of endless mode, campaign editor, or other form of replayability makes this game a stretch to recommend, especially at its $30US price point. But that isn’t the only issue with the game that would stop me from recommending it.
There is an elephant in the room, and that elephant is called frames per second (FPS). This isn’t a debate on if a game needs to be 30 or 60 FPS or unlocked or locked. With the FPS unlocked I could get it to run at my monitor’s native 144FPS at a few times during my play-through, but there were times the game would not run well at all. Not only does the game hang on start-up 50% of the time, I also experienced a few unrecoverable crashes which lost my progress. These crashes seemed to have been triggered by the game’s autosave system. The irony is palpable.
When an autosave is triggered you can tell because the game slows to a crawl, and when you are looking at the base’s main generator, you will be lucky to top 30 FPS. My computer is much higher than the recommended specs and I was running it on medium settings so there is no reason I could not have sustained a high framerate. There was some other glitches I ran across like my research not starting if I was to start a new research when it was outside of work hours, or my research tree being flung off the screen if I was to get the details of a piece of research on the right-hand side of the tree. There was also the issue of my streets not building which means some of my building wasn’t functioning, but the UI was nice enough to inform me of that one.
The Bottom Line
In the end, this game is a hard pill to swallow. High price point, with low replayability and glitches that make the game much less fun than it should be. If this game had some sort of endless mode or randomised mode then I would be shouting this game’s praises from the streets to anyone who was walking by. But the way it runs mixed with not really having any reason to go back to it is enough to keep me away.