Can you ever justify throwing orphans into a coal generator just to keep the heat on for a few more hours? Frostpunk says yes… but you’re still a monster.

Chuck another worker on the fire…

Set in 1886 AD but in an alternate universe with two key differences: Charles Babbage’s Difference Engine – the first theoretical computer – worked; and climate change is ravaging the world with snowstorms. The former is the excuse to give us gigantic coal generators and automatons with a Victorian aesthetic, but the latter is what drives the game.

Easy choice. I’ve only got one steam core…

The first thing you’ll see when loading the game is the fall of London. The Great Frost sweeps through the streets, killing anyone without access to heat or food and driving the evacuation of the capital. You follow one such group of frostbitten survivors trudging through waist-deep snow, clawing their way desperately to the dubious shelter of a colossal coal-powered generator that may keep the frost at bay.

Welcome to New London. It’s a fixer-upper

Morality is a luxury

On the surface, Frostpunk is a standard resource management strategy game with a grim premise. You manage wood, metal, coal, a few other resources… there’s a tech tree, a few bars, lots of numbers… But once you’re comfortable enough to take a few too many steps, the surface cracks and you’re plunged into the icy depths with increasingly Machiavellian choices.

You might start the game intending to be a saint, redeeming the poor, cold and hungry and creating a post-warmth utopia. And then perhaps one too many crises drain your coal reserves, and you’re given a choice – force your coal miners to work 24 hours straight, or watch the entire colony freeze.

These type of decisions keep coming, hammering home the point that Frostpunk isn’t about fighting for a better world. It’s about surviving despite the odds, making hard choices that might see you through. Even research and base building is less “What shall I do first?”, and more “What can I put off without dooming the last remnants of humanity to become meat popsicles?”

Awww… they get to die together

Everything is a trade-off, with the toughest choice between survival and morality. Everyone’s against forced child labour, until sending Tiny Tim down the coal mines could save civilisation.

Good kids get kitchen duty. Bad kids, acid mines

Open the Book of Law

While the resource management side itself poses an interesting challenge, it’s not what makes this game shine. Don’t get me wrong – it’s well-balanced and a delight to engage with. But your wood-juggling talents won’t force you to question whether you’re paving the road to Hell with flimsy justifications. That’s the Book of Law’s job.

This innocent looking tree is the one you’ll climb to save humanity, even while you devalue what that’s worth. Sacrificing the sick? Legalising cage fights? Amputating frostbitten limbs? All these decisions and more are all on you. Not as an abstract “Nobody liked that!” pop-up – you’ll be building the mass graves, the brothels, the prostheses, the care homes, all the infrastructure needed to prop-up your compromise between common decency and mass extinction.

You’ll have to decide where the line is between doing bad things and being a bad person, as well as whether that matters when you’re gambling with the future of our species. Increasingly the world becomes black and white, coal and snow, live or die – and black and white thinking leads you inevitably towards two flavours of fascism.

Faith and Order, Hope and Discontent

Like soft dirt turning to cement in the frost, your stranglehold over the colony hardens every step you take down the path of law. Eventually you’ll find yourself at a crossroads – do you rile up your subjects’ religious fervour with Faith, or pursue Order at all costs to keep the hearth fires lit?

Vanilla or chocolate dictatorship?

Each choice unlocks new buildings to better manage your people. Choose Faith, and you’ll preach piety and togetherness at daily sermons, increasing people’s Hope with field kitchens and houses of healing. Pick Order, and you’ll lower Discontent with watch towers and guard patrols, ensuring the populace stay in line.

I blame Brexit

At first this feels like a white Christmas, with huge bonuses and powerful abilities at your disposal. Then the game starts tightening the screws. Bigger emergencies and thinning resources push you to be ever more authoritarian. You’ll spread propaganda, throw naysayers into prison, and present yourself as the sole arbiter of truth.

And when things get grim, you’ll find your cursor hovering over the capstone ability. That last step that may well take all of humankind over the edge.

Sticking point

Frostpunk’s dark world is incredibly well realised, with every disposable peon given a name and family so you can feel extra guilty when they die in a bread riot. Snow ebbs and flows with the heat of your generator, and shadows sweep across the city as the distant sun disappears behind the rim of the hollow humanity’s hiding in.

As gorgeous as it is, the graphics do give me a headache sometimes. The white flapping canvas and grey metal girders of your buildings blend in with the white snow and grey frozen ground… and while those buildings all serve very distinct purposes, with their own abilities and cooldowns, they certainly do not stand out from each other. Frustrating when you’re trying to add sawdust to the soup, and you can only find the option to kill half the sick. #FirstWorldProblems, amirite?

Meet me at the end of the world

If you can handle the weight of Frostpunk’s grim nature, it offers a lot of longevity. Beyond the Faith and Order trees, there are multiple scenarios and random events that will shake things up even as you grow more comfortable.

At least we saved that orphan!

Frustration drops as your mastery of the game improves, but however comfortable you may feel despair always increases. Temperatures drop, crises develop, people die, resources run out… and if you’re not prepared then that’s the end. The stakes are the highest they can ever be, and it all falls on your shoulders.

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