Frostpunk Console Edition Review: Surviving in the Last City on Earth

By Heidi Nicholas, 7 days ago
Most city-builders ask you to make your city thrive; to start with the bare necessities and raise a meagre village to a plentiful city. The punishing world of Frostpunk won’t ever let you get that far. All you can do is try to survive. The world is slowly freezing. All cities have fallen, all societies have broken down. London has been swallowed up by snow. The last few survivors travel North, trying to escape freezing to death, and losing more people along the way. You find a Generator, far up North, where you can build the last city, and begin humanity’s last stand. And it really is the last city — it’s in a crater in a frozen wasteland. There’s nowhere else to go. If you don’t survive the cold here, you don’t survive. The temperature plummets, and there’s a storm on the horizon.

Frostpunk: Console Edition

The only thing more aggressive than the weather is your people. The player takes on the role of captain for this struggling society, and as such all success and every failure is yours; they’re perfectly willing to fatally exile their leader if they fall out of favour. Frostpunk makes effective use of these citizens. Their facial design all looks pretty much the same, but interacting with them brings out their individuality ; their name, their biggest concern, what they’re currently doing, their health, home status, and relatives. These humanizing details make it harder then the game forces a difficult choice; players might feel soft-hearted when understanding an individual's plight and history. But this compassion can only last so long. By the end of the campaign players may find themselves merciless dictators, utilising public executions and prisons to ensure that if the people aren't happy, at least they aren't rioting. Better to keep the Generator and city going with a fraction of the population, than to refuse harsh measures, let the Generator stop, and everybody die. This is how Frostpunk is so effective. It's serving up its citizens as real people, and asking whether players are willing to let them fall and face the consequences.

Frostpunk

Those two ominously flashing bars at the bottom of the screen, Hope and Discontent, will start to take up nearly all of the player's attention. Lose Hope, or gain too much Discontent, and you’ll be thrown out into the wilderness. It seems easy, when running dangerously low on resources and having signed the Extended Shift Law, to panic and use it on every building available, forcing workers to continue labouring for hours. But then Discontent shoots up, and suddenly the player has been kicked out into the cold. Building prisons can lower Discontent, but then a bunch of the workforce has vanished. The game does a great job of reacting to the Hope and Discontent levels. Starting a day with high Hope means civilians happily set off to work even if the temperature had plummeted during the night. Let the discontent rise, and the people start to show their apathy towards mutual survival. This is where Faith and Order come into play. As hope starts to fall and fear sets in, the player needs to give their people purpose. Choosing the path of Faith will allow the player to rule with spiritual strength, whilst Order demands strict efficiency from the people. Both are effective choices, but both descend further into extremes until you’re running the city as a tyrant or a god.

Frostpunk

If things get too drastic, leaders will be pressured to sign their favoured laws — and of course the second a law is signed the people will react with their varying opinions. This is one area where the game could have benefitted by giving a little more help. I was struggling with my Hope level at first, because I didn’t fully understand the law mechanism; I thought it was a reactive measure for when the situation was beyond hope and the citizens begin to pressure their leader. But laws are meant to be interacted with just as much as the technology tree, and are extremely effective at managing Hope and Discontent. There are purely positive laws, unindicated by the game, which can be freely signed and boost hope considerably. The game could have benefitted, too, from greater range with the camera — there is a consistent urge to zoom further into the details and see what the citizenry are up to.

Frostpunk

The Generator is all-important, pumping out the heat which stops the city freezing to death. It can’t ever go out. The city can never afford to run out of coal, and heat can't be wasted. A little more of a tutorial could have been useful here too. Hunters huts, for example, don't need to be heated, and so shouldn't be placed as close to the Generator as other buildings. There are basic introductions to each feature, enough to understand the basics of buildings, but not what they can evolve into, or how best to use them further down the line. This isn’t always necessarily a bad thing. Frostpunk’s punishing pace and merciless gameplay mean that any little accomplishment feels like a real satisfaction. Learning from mistakes makes a player feel more prepared for the next playthrough. The difficulty works in perfect harmony with the story’s pacing and the timing of the game. Rest stops don’t exist in Frostpunk, and going even a few in-game hours without building something feels worryingly wrong; there’s a real urgency to utilise every second to prepare for what’s coming next. Frostpunk’s soundtrack plays beautifully into this. In the beginning it’s suitably sombre, but in the final crisis point of the game when doom is imminent, the instrumental music in the background becomes faster and more intense.

Frostpunk’s world design is beautiful to look at, its buildings reflecting the grim and gruelling gameplay. They all have a severe, slightly unfinished look, so that even though the city grows by the end, it still doesn’t look like a prosperous place. The game felt full and populated, too. The hum of conversation arises whenever the player zooms in the camera: yells and cheers from the fighting pits, or angry chants around the Generator when the situation devolves into full on riots.

Frostpunk heat map

On my first go at Frostpunk, my people rose up and exiled me. On my second, the Generator exploded. Another go had almost a third of my people decide that my rule was so bad, they’d rather take their chances elsewhere. I struggled with starvation and frostbite, lack of shelter and medical services, and it was addictive. My people may not have been having fun but I definitely was. I was more and more determined to “beat” the game. In that vein, Frostpunk is definitely themed towards replayability. The various choices for laws and the paths of Order or Faith alone are more than enough to tempt players back for a second run through. Players aiming for immersion can choose to play anywhere on the scale between compassionate ruler and merciless dictator. The general style of the game and the way players are taught about it means that it’s definitely tailored for replayability, especially if you come to it without guides.

The replayability of the game is also reflected in its setting. After building a beacon, the citizens can reach beyond the tiny crater where the city dwells and into the frozen wasteland beyond. There’s numerous locations to scout and explore, many of which lead to locations further away. Unless a player is hugely efficient they won’t have time to reach them all before circumstances change. These places of interest change location for each game, meaning that every play through requires fresh adaptations. There’s also the extra content to consider. Progressing through the A New Home Scenario (which serves as the main story), players can unlock The Arks and The Refugees. The console edition also includes the free DLC The Fall of Winterhome, and there’s also a customizable Endless Mode where players must survive for as long as they can, meaning there’s always something to come back to.

The console edition for Frostpunk has an unforgiving achievement list, many of which look as though they’d need their own dedicated playthrough to achieve. Many require a playthrough where certain buildings or technologies are deliberately used or avoided. Several fresh starts alone are needed just to get a feel for the ropes in Frostpunk, and to understand how best to build the city’s economy from the ground up. To get these achievements, therefore, players would need to have played through the game enough to understand what these specific buildings were, how they worked, and how they could be replaced.

Check out our Best Xbox One Simulation Games Available in 2019 article for a compilation of other great games in this genre.

Summary

Frostpunk is hard, gruelling, stressful, and very enjoyable. The difficulty of the gameplay is balanced by the well-paced and urgent story. There’s a real feeling that you’ve got to keep moving, and when you succeed with an obstacle which tripped you up in an earlier attempt, it feels genuinely satisfying. Frostpunk is great at forcing the hard choices. Decisions which were earlier dismissed for being too harsh are brought back round as the game progresses, and it’s interesting to see how much your attitude has changed. The world looks and feels realistic, with the art style matching the 19th century setting. Frostpunk can be overhelming and would benefit from a longer tutorial, so it’s understandable if those new to the genre find it too tricky. But a well-conceived narrative and premise makes it worth picking up whether you’re new to the genre, or have years of city-building experience behind you.
4 / 5
Frostpunk: Console Edition
Ethics Statement
The reviewer spent 11 hours desperately clinging on to civilization, earning three achievements in the process. An Xbox One digital code was provided by the publisher for the purpose of this review.
Please read our Review and Ethics Statement for more information.
Heidi Nicholas
Written by Heidi Nicholas
Hey, I'm Heidi! I've just finished studying a Masters in English Literature, but I've been obsessed with gaming since long before then. I began on the PS2 with Spyro, before graduating to the Xbox 360 and disappearing into Skyrim. I'm now a loyal RPG fan, but I still like to explore other genres — when I'm not playing Assassin's Creed Odyssey, or being lured back into Red Dead Redemption 2 or The Witcher 3!