One of your citizens is refusing to part ways with his frostbitten left leg. If your medics leave him alone then gangrene will kill him within days, adding another body to the growing pile dumped in a snowdrift on the edge of town. If you forcibly restrain him and amputate you’ll save his life, but he won’t be able to work, making him a burden on your already-strained resources. So: what do you do?
These are the kinds of bleak choices you can expect in Frostpunk, a city builder about surviving an apocalyptic snowstorm in the 19th century. Your job is to keep a group of survivors safe by building a city around a generator that gives off barely enough heat to shelter your citizens from the -40°C cold. In my preview build (the game releases 24th April on PC) I gathered wood, steel and coal from the scant resource piles around the generator and turned them into roads, tents, hunting huts, food halls, and resource labs that could unlock new steampunk technologies, all the while battling against the blizzards.
The further away from your generator you build your growing city, the more you risk people succumbing to the cold, and some buildings—such as the medical centre—won’t function if they’re too chilly. In cold snaps, even tents pressed up against the generator will turn to ice, so you have to research heat upgrades and smaller steam hubs to keep buildings warm.
I like how consistently grim Frostpunk is. Everything about it, from the sparse writing to the ice curling over the UI, is oppressive. Even something as simple as sending workers to gather resources feels like a trade-off. If I stop a group harvesting crates and send them to hunt for food then fewer people will go hungry, but I won’t have enough wood to build new homes, leaving some people to freeze to death in the wind. If I need more coal to stop my generator spluttering out, I might have to remove some hunters from their post, which means others will starve.
Your greatest weapon against the elements is your Book of Laws, in which you sign new policies to change how your citizens behave. It functions like a skill tree, with branches that open up as you decide which laws to enact. Some offer passive benefits, like the sick healing more quickly, but most are last resorts that you sign to stave off disaster. Halfway through my ten-day playthrough, my food runs dangerously low, so I start serving meals bulked up with sawdust. By that point, I’d already introduced child labour and enforced round-the-clock work shifts because I was running low on resources.
There’s a limit to how much your citizens can take, shown via their ‘Hope’ and ‘Discontent’ meters. People are angry about finding sawdust in their soup, so I try to placate them by approving the construction of a pub where they can forget their sorry lives. But even that has downsides: it will have to be staffed by two workers, which means I’ll collect less resources elsewhere.
The policies are imaginative—you can harvest organs from dead bodies and use them as fertiliser to grow food, for example—and developer 11 Bit Studios promises they’ll get even more complex in the late-game, where you’ll be able to set up neighbourhood watch towers to keep the peace or crack down on troublemakers with an iron fist.
I’m also intrigued to find out what happens outside of my city. If you zoom out you’ll reach an overworld map, and you can send teams of scouts off into the snow to explore nearby landmarks and search for signs of life. They’ll find stacks of resources that they can carry home, and stumble across groups of survivors that they can escort back to your city. If you prefer, you can just point the survivors in the right direction and give them a nudge, but without an escort some won’t last the journey. The resource piles and the extra bodies are welcome — more than once, my returning scouts saved me from the brink by dumping valuable wood, metal and food into my city’s depleted reserves.
This overworld map feels like it will be the setting for the game’s overarching story. My objective in the demo is to find another city, and it ends when I come across the broken remains of a previous settlement, its inhabitants frozen in the snow. I have no doubt that, at some point in the full game, I’ll come across another purring generator surrounded by a circle of tents, which will throw up a series of decisions to make.
Frostpunk’s bleakness feels like more than just a thematic choice — it feels like an attempt to solve the age-old problem of city builders making citizens feel like numbers on a spreadsheet rather than actual humans. After I approve child labour, it’s not long before a young boy collapses in front of his friends, and the game shows me a portrait of his limp body being carried out of town. These mini-stories, accompanied by pretty artwork, both demonstrate the consequences of your actions and help frame difficult decisions. Instead of simply asking you whether you want to build a cemetery, Frostpunk shows you a woman that’s sitting in a snow pit holding her dead husband’s hand and weeping. “Perhaps you should have agreed to give people proper burials,” it suggests.
Frostpunk is not going to be the city builder that makes you care about the lives of the people you’re controlling, and the story-driven approach doesn’t completely remove the feeling that you’re playing a numbers game. But by focusing on the lives of individuals, it makes you think a little harder about the decisions you make.
Oh, that guy with the frostbitten left leg? I ordered it chopped off. If you turn a blind eye to the child labour stuff, I'm all heart.