Game review: Frostpunk is a city builder with a difference –

The makers of This War Of Mine return with a post-apocalyptic city builder that forces you to make some very tough decisions.
The city builder is one of the most laid-back and undemanding genres in gaming. Most are PC only (although there are exceptions, like the recent Surviving Mars) and usually involve making decisions at your leisure and slowly moulding a metropolis to your liking. But if you think about it, being in control of a whole city full of people should be an awesome responsibility full of impossible, morally-debatable quandaries. It never really is though, except when you’re overseeing the last human settlement on the planet.
Video games always manage to make surviving the apocalypse seem like so much fun, but it’s pretty obvious it wouldn’t be; especially when you don’t even get Mad Max cars as compensation. There’s certainly none of that in Frostpunk’s world: an alternative history version of Victorian Britain where the last survivors from London have grouped together to try and survive a new ice age, by creating a settlement around a still-working steam generator.
Despite the unusual setting, in gameplay terms Frostpunk is not that different from most ordinary city builders. Or at least that’s how it seems at first. This is the latest game from This War Of Mine creators 11 bit studios and despite the switch of genre it explores many of the same themes of human survival, selfishness, and sacrifice. And you certainly wouldn’t get that in a game of SimCity.

As you start the game the steam generator is a lonely-looking cylinder stuck in a snow-filled crater. There are lots of resources nearby, including coal and wood to mine, but nothing in the way of shelter or other buildings. But at first it’s pretty obvious what to do, even if you’ve never played a city builder before, as you send a certain percentage of the huddled masses out to forage resources and others to start building housing, farms, and processing facilities.
All of this looks fantastic on screen, with everything built in concentric circles around the generator – which itself can be built up vertically until it provides warmth for all and melts the snow. But you can forget any hopes of building a future utopia free of the failings of the old world because, as This War Of Mine already tried to show, the problem isn’t your circumstances it’s human nature.
A city builder does seem an odd style of game to feature such strong storytelling elements, in large part because the games are usually open-ended sandboxes with very little in terms of structured goals. Frostpunk is different though, not only in that it has a relatively short 12-hour story campaign but that the game constantly throws randomised daily problems at you – from dealing with a disease outbreak to a mining disaster. These are treated something like side quests that have to be solved and ensure the game never becomes so routine that you’re just sat there waiting for things to happen.
As well as all the minute-to-minute decision making you also have to set-up laws to clarify general rules for things like child labour and medical services. The latter are almost non-existent at first and the more hard-nosed leader would abandon anyone that becomes a burden. This will actually help too, so it’s not as if being heartless doesn’t have its benefits, but it has a terrible effect on morale. In fact all decisions do, as you’re constantly trying to balance the measure of hope and discontent amongst your population.
These edicts in turn influence the political nature of your society, and while you can’t choose the style of government simply by selecting an option on a menu your individual actions will have serious and irreversible consequences. It shouldn’t be surprising that executing political prisoners would lead to totalitarianism, but at the time it will genuinely seem like a decision made for the greater good. And that in itself is kind of scary.
It’s not even as if the game is desperate to paint you as a potential villain and the populace as abused innocents. Many of the more disturbing ideas for survival come from ordinary citizens and it’s down to you to either play to the crowd or find an alternative solution. Something you’re driven to do more when a request comes through from a specific individual, like a mother whose child has died in a cave-in. This helps to mitigate the fact that you’re, literally, always looking at the world from on high, and reminds you that these are supposed to be real people’s lives you’re playing with.
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Doing the right thing has never been made more difficult in a video game, and certainly not in a strategy title like this. But playing Frostpunk you gain a fascinating insight into how real political decisions are made. The situation in the game is exaggerated to an impossible extreme, of course, but the way you constantly have to balance pragmatism, populism, and humanitarism is fascinating and horrible.
Part city builder, part survival game, and part political thriller, Frostpunk is a strange but hugely successful combination of influences. It may tackle similar themes to This War Of Mine but in gameplay terms this is a much more compelling game, and an almost frightening insight into how humanity governs itself. ‘Was this city worth it?’ the game asks of its players, but the answer to that is never an easy one.
In Short: It may have the framework of an ordinary city builder but there’s an insightful, and frequently disturbing, philosophical message at the heart of this cross-genre classic.
Pros: The city-building is entertaining and varied, with interesting survival elements and random events. The political choices are fascinating in their implications. Excellent graphics.
Cons: Some of the interface isn’t as clear as it should be and the game requires a surprisingly powerful PC to run.
Score: 9/10

Formats: PC
Price: £24.99
Publisher: 11 bit studios
Developer: 11 bit studios
Release Date: 24th April 2018
Age Rating: 16

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