Frostpunk review urban planning at the end of the world ars technica

Links: Steam | Official websiteOne part survival game and one part city builder, Frostpunk doesn’t give you time to play around. The citizens of this frozen, alternate-history England are cold, hungry, restless, and despairing. Your job is to manage these four societal factors—though not necessarily fix them.

Nobody is ever really happy in the world of Frostpunk. The world has already come to an icy end, after all. This reality is reflected in a series of political and technological upgrade trees that usually trade one pro for another con. Ordering the cookhouses to liquefy food rations into soup will feed more people, for instance, but it will also raise discontent.

Another option is to cut the gruel with sawdust, though that might make residents (aka potential workers) sick.

That latter option won’t seem so clever, either, when those sick workers can’t collect the coal that fuels the city generator that keeps everyone from freezing to death or the wood and steel needed to build new structures. Loyal, placated citizens are a resource just like anything else in this grim take on the usual city-management simulation.

This is not a slow and relaxing sort of playground like SimCity or Cities: Skylines. Nor is it a creative exercise in making the most aesthetically pleasing city possible. True to developer 11-Bit’s pedigree ( This War of Mine), Frostpunk wants you to confront what you’re willing to sacrifice to keep on living. And to do that, it constantly hits you with choices between two bad options. Making it fit

That’s not to say you can’t enjoy the horizon you sculpt. As the game’s name hints, there’s a steampunk-in-progress art style that starts with generally believable structures and culminates in coal-fueled spider mechs and iron limbs that put amputees back to work at the end of the tech tree. There’s a sweat-of-the-brow beauty under the layer of sleet. Unlike so much other steampunk, though, this mechanized Victorian vision doesn’t ignore the human cost of industrialization. You can literally imperil the lives of an entire generation of youth by putting a child labor law on the books.

Nearly every structure you raise, from hunters’ huts to propaganda centers, is fit into semi-circular “wedges” that radiate out from the central generator. The asymmetrical pie graph look this generates is a good fit for Frostpunk’s already unique style.

What’s less appealing are the unavoidable strips of useless land that pop up in between wedges as you get farther from the city’s center. Better civic planning can alleviate some of this problem, but the strictly sized wedges leave some unavoidable wasted space sitting between usable zones.

Aesthetically, the loose-fitting zones always make my pedantic eyes bulge. But it’s also a practical nuisance, since un-upgraded structures are better heated the closer they are to the generator. Not being able to place a medical facility in a toasty district is incredibly frustrating, especially when it’s because the game’s own built-in zoning is off by just two pixels.

The uneven construction isn’t the only UI nuisance, either. Frostpunk will show you what areas of your crater city are heated when assembling architecture. It won’t, however indicate if enough of the building you want to place is in the warmth to benefit from it. I’ve arranged countless tents so that they’re touching a spare corner of heating, only to cancel construction after the fact when I found that heat wasn’t sufficient. UI annoyances

I’d also appreciate more granular control over the game’s real-time crawl. The flow of time pauses and slows itself down when certain projects are complete, when new laws and research can be assigned, and when scripted events occur. But for some reason, the game doesn’t give much warning (besides a quick audio cue) when expeditions are ready to be managed.

If I could auto-pause the game when they’re idle and ready, Civilization-style, I’d feel a lot more on top of things. Likewise, I don’t need time to always slow down when a new day’s work shift is about to start. Not being able to customize game-flow details like these feels like a real oversight.

Frostpunk doesn’t go to quite the narrative lengths as Subnautica. It does, however, have a trickle of scripted problems that add character to your city and the people who live in it. And smaller crises, like sending your authoritarian regime to crack down on graffiti artists, or dealing with a grieving widow after you decided to store her spouse’s corpse for future use, add a sense of choice to the ghastly atmosphere and make your particular nightmare scenario unique.

Two additional scenarios—one that gives you a very limited population to work with and one focused on the haves versus the have-nots—only spin the tough choices and motivate you toward civic efficiency further. These scenarios are nice, but I wouldn’t mind a choice-free “free mode” to see what I could make from the polar populace without all the impending narrative threats.

The main menu does promise another scenario coming soon, at least. I only hope that more scenarios aren’t all that’s coming. Frostpunk might not be the open-ended city builder to revitalize that genre, but its linear focus on specific undertakings could be nearly perfect with a few tweaks. As it is, I’ll likely keep on coming back to the last city on Earth, convinced that this time I’ve got the perfect build order to keep its residents happy and fed. Tough choices be damned. The good: