Frostpunk is a dark simulation game of hard circumstances, impossible choices, and unforeseen consequences. Do you run your coal mines for 24 hours straight and risk stoking your citizens’ discontent so you can make it through this blizzard without losing too many people to sickness? Do you build a pub to keep your citizens’ spirits up? Do you legalize dueling when their drunken bar fights lead to chaos? These and many other difficult choices await you in Frostpunk.
But there was always one easy choice in Frostpunk: if you found a good place to set up an outpost, you took it. It cost you some manpower, but it meant a steady supply of resources that helped keep your city alive. On top of that, you never had to worry about the happiness of your plucky outpost residents. They happily churned out resources for you, no questions asked. In a complicated, ugly world, it was simple. Right? Not so fast.
The latest Frostpunk DLC, On The Edge, puts you in the shoes of a captain running one of those outposts. You’ve uncovered an army warehouse full of steel and (you later find out) steam cores. Your job is to continually churn out both in exchange for shipments of food from your home city of New London. There’s no central generator, and you need to build separate, small braziers to heat your small encampment. You can’t build hothouses or hunt game, so you’re entirely dependent upon your colonial masters.
You are alone and vulnerable, and when New London starts cutting your food supply, your small outpost rebels and seeks allies in the surrounding Arctic wasteland. On The Edge tells this story of trade, clashing cultures, and (if you’re good) friendship.
But is it any good?
This is the game of Civilization I always wanted to play, but 2K never gave me. I’ve always wanted to focus on the complicated social relationships between nations, and On The Edge scratches an itch I’ve had for almost 10 years. So much of the chaos and strife of human relationships vanish from the ten thousand foot isometric view of most 4x games. Frostpunk zooms in on the human element and is richer for it.
The other outposts you encounter have their own culture, unique histories, and needs, and you are deeply dependent upon one another. What do you do when the hippies who provide you with all your food don’t want to let your people set up medical facilities? What do you do when you find out that the settlement that provides you with wood has murderers and arsonists among them?
The game offers you these choices via dialogue boxes; immediate benefits and consequences are listed, but future repercussions are not. Lie today, and you might get called out on that lie later. Dismiss your neighbors’ concerns and they will be unwilling to aid you in your hour of need.
You can also reach out to these settlements outside of dialogue interactions and can ask them for a gift of resources, including people. Doing so expands favor, and asking for larger boons expends all favor. If you ask for food today, you may not be able to get steel when you desperately need it. Plus, these things don’t instantaneously appear in your stockpiles – they take time to travel. You want to time things right to maximize the benefits of your expended favor.
On top of this, you’re still maintaining your settlement’s Hope and Discontent meters, but on top of that, you’ve got to handle the loyalty of other settlements. At first, your relationship is purely transactional; provide resources, and get resources in return. But if you shepherd their favor well and build up their infrastructure, making them more self-sufficient, they’ll start sending you regular shipments of resources.
On The Edge also introduces the construction team. They are a bit pricey to build and outfit in terms of wood and steel and require 10 people, but you need them to build trading posts and trade routes to your nearby neighbors. They travel similarly to scouts and are sped up by the same upgrades.
Should I play it?
Existing Frostpunk players should jump right on this. I’ve been following the game since its release, and I’m sorry to see that it’s completely done. If you liked what The Last Autumn added, On The Edge will be a welcome addition to your Frostpunk library.
It’s also a good time for new players to hop in. Each major expansion and scenario helped flesh out the world and its lore. If you’ve been collecting the DLC all along, On The Edge is worth the price. On easy (the only difficulty level I have any hope of winning), it takes about 12 hours to complete, but the plot offers some interesting choices that make it worth playing at least twice.
Fans of other city building games will enjoy this. On The Edge reminds me of the early stages of Tropico 4, but instead of running a colony in a tropical paradise, you’re a mid-level British administrator barely surviving in a frozen wasteland. Instead of being funny, it’s an object lesson on the horror of colonialism and a collapsing ecology.
Frostpunk is a hell of a lot darker than any 4x game you’ve ever played, but that’s part of what makes it so good. It isn’t trying to be all things to all people, nor is it attempting to simulate the grand sweep of history and the development of the human race. It’s a highly targeted experience and is better for it.
On The Edge is a painful, beautiful variation on that experience, and worth playing for fans of the series. That being said, it won’t change your mind if you didn’t like the original Frostpunk.
A living world
The “every man for himself” mentality pervades post-apocalyptic media. But that is starting to shift. On The Edge is the final message from the Frostpunk world, and it can be summed up as “stick together.”
In earlier Frostpunk scenarios, you were utterly alone. The game hammered this point home when your scouts discovered the ruins of Winterhome, the abandoned dreadnoughts, and the necropoli broken by hubris and mismanagement. This combined with how the mechanics encourage you to implement increasingly draconian laws to handle your populace, you would think that this was yet another exercise in prepper self-gratification and government suspicion.
On The Edge is the first expansion with a system of trade and interdependence. It encourages you to develop and maintain good relationships with people, not for harmony’s sake alone, but because the survival of the human race depends on it. As the British poet, W. H. Auden would say, “We must love one another or die.”
Even as this expansion’s title implies a desperate, hardscrabble existence, it also implies the proximity (and perhaps inevitability) of change. In On The Edge’s closing sequence, it claims that discord was an even greater enemy than the Great Storm that swept away the old world. Several months into the pandemic age, this message lands with the force of an avalanche.