I grew up on games like Caesar, Sim City, and other management sims. I loved them, and have always preferred their particular brand of Real-time Strategy to say, StarCraft or Dune or Dawn of War. So when I heard the guys and gals at 11 Bit Studios were making the first society-survival sim, I just about wet my drawers. I adored the Anomaly series, and who didn’t love This War of Mine? To say that 11 bit Studios is killer at making unique games is an understatement. And well, I can report that the steampunk society survival sim known as Frostpunk is every bit as good as I’d hope. This is our Frostpunk review for PC.
You play as the leader of a group of people who leave the failing city of London to find one of several heat generators that were built in the wilds to stave off the cold. When you do find one, it’s where you make a stand to survive in a world where the temperatures never rise above -20 degrees. Life is hard, brutal, and unforgiving. But you have the hope of dozens latching onto your guidance and decision making. When you start a game, you’ve got about 80 people gathered around the massive heat generator, and you’ve got to start putting them to work.
Scattered around the sort of ice-crater that’s now your home are several deposits of coal, wooden crates, felled trees, and steel wreckage. From this, you start to fuel the generator with coal, build tents with the wood and steel, and slowly research new technologies, like a beacon to attract other survivors and to use for your own scouts to find their way home. The more resources you gather, the more tech you can research, and the easier life will be in the cold… but it’s never really that easy.
Cold snaps come, making work harder, making machines stop functioning. People get sick, miss work, some lose limbs and need long-term care or prosthetics. Children may need to work, or have special care to keep them going. You’ll need hospitals, eventually cemeteries too (if you so choose). But you’ve also got to govern the people. At a certain point, you’ll have to choose between a rule of law, or ruling by faith, and that simple choice completely changes the direction of the game and the things you can, will, or must do to survive.
I could go on for pages about the sheer amount of choice, and the way you must live with those choices as a leader, and a people, but I’d rather not spoil it for you. There are “law trees” that you’ll work through, picking one of two ways to solve or deal with the rising problems of your people. An example is that you might choose to have children work which will make things a bit easier for the rest of the workers, but it will lower morale and hope across the entire community. The actual harder way to deal with the kids is to set up daycare for them, because then you’ll need workers to take care of them, instead of working in the coal mines or the steel mills. What do you do when things are that hard?
All the while, you’re also sending your scouts out into the cold, to discover new POIs, bring back new survivors, or find supplies and hope in the frozen tundra. Once you find your first automaton (a giant four-legged machine that can do the work of 10 people or more), you start to see how life can change for the better. My first time playing I only made it 13 days before I lost control of my people, couldn’t restore hope among them, and they banished me to the cold on my own. There are multiple endings, ways for things to conclude, but I’ll leave it to you to decide which is your favorite.
Frostpunk is a rare blend of social simulation, city management, and survival game that just about does everything right. There are times I wish it was a bit easier to come back from a misstep, but that’s the point of the game – you need to make choices, live with the consequences, and try again if you fail. I just feel bad that each time I do fail, the people who depended on me are let down, and likely dead. It’s that kind of emotion, a sense of real responsibility to these digital characters, that makes me think Frostpunk may be the best city management game I’ve ever played and one I’ll be playing for countless hours.
Note: Our review code was provided by PR ahead of launch.