Frostpunk: The Last Autumn impressions – You have nothing to lose but your chains (and frostbitten limbs)!

The Last Autumn is the latest scenario DLC for Frostpunk, the sub-arctic city management simulator from Polish developer 11-Bit Studios. In Frostpunk, the world’s fallen into an eternal winter, and you have to run a city full of survivors huddling around a coal-burning generator for warmth.

The new DLC is a prequel to the main game, wherein you race against time to build that generator out of a literal hole in the ground, with eternal winter barreling at you . It’s a very different perspective, but no less brutal. So don’t think the presence of rolling green hills means that this is Frostpunk on easy mode.

Autumn is the season of fear

Unlike the original Frostpunk, it’s a toasty 10 degrees Celsius for much of The Last Autumn. The deadly, endless winter hasn’t arrived quite yet. Thus, the rules that govern your settlement are a bit different from the core game’s assumptions and rules.

The Hope meter has been replaced with a Motivation meter. If you can keep it in the top 25%, workers are more efficient, and if it falls into the bottom 25%, workers are far less efficient.

Your Adaptation law tree is replaced with Administration, which has similar options to the original tree, but it lacks some of the more extreme options, while adding some new ones like House of Pleasure and Cocaine Pills. Yes, Frostpunk players, this expansion allows you to add hookers and blow to your game. But, since this is Frostpunk, and not GTA, you get to deal with the fallout from venereal disease and cocaine addiction. Have fun with that. 

When the scenario starts, your expedition is an extension of the British Empire. Supplies roll in off of docks with startling regularity. In fact, that’s your main source of wood, steel, and coal throughout much of the game. You can even order workers, engineers, and steam cores!

Raw food can be harvested by finding sources of food via expeditions, and sending it back to your settlement (no more just building hunting lodges). You can also set up a fishing dock as well, but doing so takes away one of your four valuable dock slots that you need to ship in vital building resources.

However, these free resources are offset by the fact that you have to pour everything into building the generator. And you can’t just make it out of raw steel, coal, and wood. The Last Autumn includes new factory buildings that allow you to transform raw materials into manufactured goods needed to build the generator. You need a lot of these manufactured goods and you need them fast. Once you have the parts, you can start construction, and this is a monumental task, requiring 30-50 workers to maximize the speed of the work.

Like all buildings in Frostpunk, you can extend hours in these factories and in the generator work site itself, but doing so will negatively impact the buildings’ safety conditions. Oh, and did I mention that toxic gas is leaking out of the giant hole in the ground, making your factories even more dangerous? Unsafe factories can injure, maim, and kill your workers, and if conditions are exceptionally poor, workers will go on strike.

Labor unions and strike breaking

Labor struggle is centralized in The Last Autumn. You don’t have winter’s deadly chill bearing down on you, but due to that fact, workers are willing to agitate for their rights. This means that work will stop when you can least afford it. All of your key buildings have a strike risk, which is influenced by the length of the hours, the danger of the conditions, and the general attitude of your population. If you push your workers too hard, for too long, they will strike.

The first time this happens, the game bifurcates. You can side with the workers or the engineers, and the choice you make determines how Labour, your second tree of laws, progresses.

If you side with the workers, they form a union and make demands. This starts out as a way to keep discontent down and work going, but the tree’s apex culminates in Terror, which looks like a cross between a Soviet pogrom and the darkest days of the French Revolution. If you side with the engineers, they start out as a team of factory supervisors ensuring efficiency, and end up as a paramilitary force of secret police and vicious strike breakers.

Engineers in TLA are also a sort of petit bourgeois. Unlike in the core game, where they can be forced to do almost any job, TLA engineers will only work in workshops, infirmaries, medical posts, and (weirdly) public houses. If you favor engineers during the first strike, they also become secret police and strike breakers, but workers won’t turn against their own and staff these buildings.

In the original Frostpunk, there wasn’t much of a division between the two classes. This division of labor is brilliant, and really drives home the tension between the two groups. Each group’s respective Labour trees further exacerbate the separation. Engineers can get their own improved housing, which increases their motivation, or, if you favor workers, you can force engineers to do any job.

Admittedly, I’m not great at this game, but after two tries down two different paths, I haven’t been able to pull it off, even on easy mode. This is a tough scenario and it’s great for a player looking for a challenge. You can also run through the entire scenario in about seven or so hours of intense playing (if you use fast forward at night) which means that you can play through multiple times fairly quickly and see a lot of the content.

The scenario is well-crafted and breathes a lot of life into the game. Frostpunk is almost two years old, but 11-Bit Studios continues to find ways to breathe new life into its chilly premise. I think it might be interesting to add the factory and strike mechanics to a future scenario wherein Frostpunk players attempt to take back the world by building multiple generators and expanding their city past the boundaries of its original site. I mean hey, as we’ve seen in real life, burning a crap ton of coal is a great way to heat up the planet!

Political context

I have some misgivings about the presentation of organized labor in TLA. Organized labor is portrayed as a pest that stops you at critical moments. It’s an obstacle to be circumvented or put down. As the player, you know that if this generator doesn’t get done, people will die. In TLA, labor organization gets in the way of you saving lives.

The way each Labour tree mirrors the other feels like a design contention that organized labor is morally equivalent to strike breaking paramilitary forces like the Pinkertons, and that bothers me. I get that this law tree bifurcation is meant to mirror the Order versus Faith trees of the original game, but contending that unions are equivalent to strike breakers feels morally fraught in 2020. Hired thugs are not, and never will be, morally equivalent to working people standing up for their rights. Given that the video game industry is on the verge of unionization, this feels like a bit of a smear job.

You could defend this by saying that 11-Bit Studios has always taken a really dark view of human nature as a whole. Frostpunk is the kind of game that lets you feed citizens with soup made of their deceased neighbors, and this is a continuation of that.

But unions gave us the eight hour day, an end to child labor, safer working conditions, and better (though not yet equivalent) pay for women, while strikebreaking hasn’t done anything but maximize profits for shareholders and bosses. In real life, strikebreakers aren’t called in to help ensure that a life-saving project gets completed.

You could argue that the engineers and workers only go as far as you let them, but that ignores the fact that the mechanics of the scenario are designed to push you as hard and as far as possible, to encourage you to consider devilish solutions to horrible problems. I tried to avoid the ugliest, highest tiers of each Labour tree, and failed both times.

However, you could also argue that Frostpunk has always contended that absolutely everything depends on a functional environment and a working society. Everything else is window dressing when the planet breaks down. The problem is extremity – in climate and philosophy – and that is what pushes people toward evil. And that might just be the argument I go with because TLA is very good, and I want to keep playing it without feeling too guilty.

Spoiler note / trigger warning: TLA has a storyline event wherein a male overseer sexually abuses a female worker, and the player is given the choice to side with the overseer or the worker.