by Sergio Brinkhuis
previewed on PC
Bring a jacket
Frostpunk’s scenario doesn’t sound so farfetched in this age of climate change. The world has turned into a frozen ball of ice and most of its population has died of hunger, cold or a combination of both. A handful of survivors gains knowledge of an effort to create a coal powered steam engine big enough that it can warm an entire city. Seeing it as their last hope to survive the extreme weather they set out to find this engine. When they arrive they find the project abandoned, the steam engine sitting idle in the center of the remnants of a starter town.
The guys behind 11 bit studios - of This War of Mine fame – are back with another heart-wrenching game and they let me give it a spin.
Finding the town empty gave me the shivers, both from the cold and from thinking about what might have happened to the previous occupants. There’s not much time to fret about such things though, my people were freezing. The game told me to get the engine going as quickly as possible and provide some tents to chase off the cold. The steam engine not only sat at the heart of the town, it also quickly became the very center of everything that I did.
For starters, it required a constant supply of coal. While your people will survive the 8 hours of daytime when the sun is shining, they’ll start freezing to death if you cannot run the engine at night. It seems an easy decision tasking your people to mine coal but they need to eat too and there aren’t enough workers to fully do both. Potentially, people will start eating each other in sheer desperation if you do not provide food which means fewer workers. You can see the conundrum here and the game is full of such choices. Most of them will not be as impactful as the balance between food and warmth but many of them matter greatly.
The town is laid out in rings around the engine, each ring indicating a heat zone. Running the steam engine at a higher heat level allows it to spread its warmth out to rings further away. But, you guessed, running it at higher heat levels means using more coal. While housing just improves when you provide warmth, many of the more useful buildings require heat to produce wares. My food processing station sat still for the longest time because I placed it too far away from the engine, leaving my people eating less healthy and less nourishing raw food instead.
At night, the city turns colder, causing the workers to all flock to the steam engine where it is warm and cozy. The few times I could not supply enough coal throughout the night and the engine turned off, darkness overtook the city and made it look lost and foreboding. The simple stats bar at the bottom of the screen told me just how much damage my lack of preparation was costing me as the number of sick and hungry people slowly rose to alarming levels.
This War of Mine hit me harder than any game did before. Its bleak, uncomfortable and sometimes difficult to process message about life in a war zone was one I had barely given thought to beyond “Those poor people out there”. Frostpunk promises the same levels of discomfort and really forces the player to ask the hard “what if” question. It does all that in the guise of what looks to be a very good game though. One that can be enjoyed despite, or maybe because of, the looming climate elephant in the room.