Games, as a whole, have come a long way when it comes to giving the player real control over how the narrative develops. Gone are the days of the simple binary choices, instead we’re treated to branching dialogue trees and emergent gameplay mechanics that allow us to craft our own narrative experience. Often these choices are tied into the concepts of ethics and morality, giving you choices between good and evil (or somewhere inbetween). It’s rare that story choices will have an impact on the game mechanics themselves though, something which Frostpunk (from the creators of This War of Mine) does exceptionally well. Whilst a scenario based city builder likely isn’t everyone’s cup of tea 11 bit Studio’s latest release stands out as one of 2018’s more intriguing titles to date.
The world has been plunged into a new ice age, freezing the oceans and forcing many to abandon their homes. We’ve known about this for some time however and teams of our best scientists and engineers were sent north to figure out a solution. Their hope lied in the Generators, massive coal burning behemoths capable of generating the heat required to keep a colony alive. However, upon arrival, you find the generator cold and lifeless, the teams you sent months ago nowhere to be found. It seems you, as the captain of this expedition, are all that stands between your colony and a bitterly cold end. Are you up to the task of making the hard decisions to keep your colony alive? Or will you, like the others before you, perish in the unrelenting winter that now grips the world.
For a game with such a bleak and dystopian setting Frostpunk is a gorgeous game, both in terms of the graphics but also in terms of the UI and other 2D design elements. I initially had some performance issues with it which I tracked down to it rendering at 4K resolution by default. I’m not entirely sure what caused this but after adjusting it to a more sane resolution (1080p) everything ran extremely well. There are numerous little touches which really sell the experience, like the differing amount of snowfall on the roofs of buildings or the way snow melts away when you plonk down a new steam hub. The lighting and particle effects are top notch too, making the city at night time a particularly pretty thing to look at. Honestly when I first saw this I wasn’t expecting such a visual marvel so hats off to the devs for that.
Frostpunk is a city building survival game with a bit of a twist: it’s scenario based. Unlike many other city building games, which are typically open ended with win conditions you can achieve at your own pace, Frostpunk sets out a goal for you to accomplish in a set amount of time. Whilst not every playthrough will be identical due to the RNG elements they will always play out the same, allowing you to get better at a particular scenario through multiple playthroughs (or through, you know, Google). For the first scenario, the only one which I completed, this means setting up a colony to survive in an ever increasingly cold environment. You’ll have to provide food, shelter, medicine and heat to everyone in your colony whilst also keeping a close eye on hope and discontent. This by itself would be challenging enough however the random events that occur will mean you’ll have to make some tough decisions about which direction your colony will take and what kind of leader you want to be.
Things start off relatively simple: you just need to keep everyone alive. The steady decline in temperature though will force you to start making some tough decisions early on and this will start to shape your path going forwards. Many of the early decisions are tough choices between doing the “right” thing and something that will greatly help in your colony’s survival. Of course survival isn’t everything and whilst you might be able to easily keep everyone alive you’ll quickly find yourself with an unhopeful lot of malcontents who want nothing more than to overthrow you. Herein likes the core challenge of Frostpunk: carefully balancing each part of the equation to ensure that everyone makes it through yet another day, including yourself.
The random events that you’ll uncover play into this mechanic as well, many of which will lay to waste any carefully laid plans you might have. For instance in my first mildly successful playthrough I did what any human being thinks they’d do in such a situation: I tried to save everyone. This saw my colony’s population double in a very short amount of time, putting an incredible amount of stress on the meagre reserves I had accumulated. This was further compounded by the unavoidable storm event which shut down all my food production and wreaked havoc on my coal production facilities. The end state was dozens of people dying every day due to starvation, cold and trying to save the coal mines from complete collapse. My choice of wanting to do the right thing by everyone ended up dooming them all to die and so began my next playthrough: the one where I prioritised survival of the few over the many.
This playthrough wasn’t without its challenges of course but armed with the knowledge I’d gain from failure I felt much better prepared. Indeed it was interesting to explore different options for solving the same problem like using coal thumpers instead of mines. This allowed me to have them right next to town with good heat coverage, vastly reducing the amount of sick people the mines generated. This also opened up a lot more space for me to build other ancillary services in, making expansion that much cheaper. Of course there were also some other things I did which I hadn’t considered before like building multiple research centers to speed up technological progress. The final path through the storm still wasn’t a cakewalk however, the generator only being able to sustain overdrive for maybe half of the duration (even with all the upgrades) but it was enough that I didn’t end up in the frozen starvation ridden hell I had created before.
Like most games in this genre Frostpunk will lay out a good set of basics for you but from there you’re on your own. The tech trees (including the law ones) offer up multiple ways of solving problems with many of the later ones making up for the questionable choices you may have made earlier on. At first glance some options look better than others, like the buildings that seem to produce more output per person than others, but in practice they might be anything but. Indeed my first playthrough that put tech supremacy over anything else was a dismal failure, forcing me to consider a different approach. In the end it seemed like a steady trek up the tech tree, focusing on upgrading current infrastructure first before pursuing new solutions, ended up being the most viable approach. I’m sure I could get another 2 or more playthroughs out of the first scenario alone by just exploring the number of options available.
The story of Frostpunk, whilst following a kind of set path, is mostly one you’ll craft yourself. Nearly all the choices you make will have a direct impact on how the game plays out, creating a narrative that will be uniquely your own. It’s one of those games which I think will make great discussion pieces for a long time to come as we regale each other with how we overcame each of the challenges the game presented to us. It is, however, an exhausting and bleak narrative which is why I haven’t been back to it after finishing the first scenario. I don’t regret my time with it at all but I’m certainly not foaming at the mouth to get back into it.
Frostpunk is a harsh, unforgiving experience that rewards players who experiment, fail and try again. Its gorgeous art direction brought to us by 11 bit Studios own in house Liquid Engine was a surprise delight, something I certainly wasn’t expecting from a game like this. The game mechanics, which are deeply intertwined with the narrative elements, makes for a confronting affair; challenging you to make decisions that will be difficult to live with. Like many similar games though it’s an exhausting experience, one that will keep drawing you back but is easy to close the lid on once you’ve achieved victory. Frostpunk then goes down as one of my surprise delights for the 2018 gaming year, providing a great bit of distraction between the AAA release storms.
Frostpunk is available on PC right now for $29.99. Total play time was 7 hours with 22% of the achievements unlocked.
I’ve been staring at this page for far too long trying to figure out how to open up this review of The Red Strings Club. Sure I could take the easy route and direct you my review of Gods Will Be Watching, the previous game from Deconstructeam, but that feels disingenuous given how different this title is. I could mention that this is the first 2018 game I’ve played although that really means little in the grand scheme of things (except that I should probably do my Game of the Year post sometime soon). Even the fact that I was drawn to this game just on the mention of “cyberpunk bartending” doesn’t seem like good opening fodder. So instead you get an opening ramble of all of those things combined with my one line summary for this game: it may not do anything new but it is one of the more interesting adventure games I’ve played of late.
You’ll take control of several different characters throughout the game however you’ll mainly be playing as Donovan, the proprietor of The Red Strings Club. On the surface it’s simply a bar with amazing drinks, ones that are said to be tailored to your emotions. Under the surface however Donovan is a powerful information broker, holding secrets on anything and everything that goes on in the city. When a broken down android stumbles into his bar one night he becomes privy to some information that no one outside of an elite group of people inside Supercontinent megacorporation had seen before. This sets off a chain of events which will see Donovan pulling all the little red strings he has tied around his clientele in order to advert the subjugation of all mankind.
The Red Strings Club’s visuals are a blend of more traditional pixel art styles and the more modern high resolution versions of the same. It’s definitely a step up from the art style of Gods Will Be Watching which used the very low resolution style which I think was born more out of the game’s Ludum Dare roots. Under the hood it’s powered by GameMaker which honestly surprised me as games made using that platform typically have a very distinctive look and feel to them. Given that it’s been nearly 3 years since their last release I’d hazard a guess a good chunk of time has was dedicated to getting the artwork right and I’m glad to say it was time well spent.
Unlike its predecessor (which I’m very grateful for as I didn’t want to pray to RNGesus again) The Red Strings Club is more of a traditional adventure game affair. The game is primarily dialogue focused with most of the puzzles based around getting information from someone or influencing them to act in a particular way. The two interesting mechanics that the game brings with it are the bartending and what could be best described as bionic pottery. The former is the main mechanic of the game, allowing you to influence the mood of a person in order to pump them for the right kinds of information. The second is only done right at the start but cements some of the core aspects of the game, changing what options will be available to you. There are a few other mini-games but none that are different from your usual adventure game affair. Overall it’s a pretty stock standard experience which means most of the value comes from how well these things interact with the story.
Initially the bartending mechanics are simple, making it rather easy to figure out which emotion is the “best” one to use (it was usually the one that was hardest to mix up). However as more and more options are added it starts to become a lot more involved and it gets quite a bit harder to both make the drinks and judge which one you need to serve. There’s really no way to utterly fail, it seems there are certain pieces of information you’ll get regardless, but the better you do in these things the easier time you’ll have towards the end. There’s also a couple achievements dedicated to unlocking some special things through this mechanic but I couldn’t figure them out in my playthrough. It’s quite possible that some of my early choices precluded them happening however.
There are a few little annoyances in the 1.0 release of The Red Strings Club that I hope are addressed in future patches. Sometimes bottles won’t pour their contents for you, even if they’re tipped upside down. This appears to be related to how close the bottle is to other bottles, the shaker or the glass and if more than 2 of those kinds of objects are in the way it will refuse to pour. Additionally there seems to be something finicky with the “no spill” mechanic as I completed at least one drink without spilling a drop but did not get the achievement for it. The shaker will also sometimes mix drinks into a single one of their components, forcing you to redo it. None of these are game breaking but they can be a little frustrating. I’m sure these can be easily fixed in the next few updates.
All of these things are simply an aid to the overall narrative which, whilst thoroughly thought provoking, didn’t elicit much of an emotional reaction from me. The game does a great job of revealing information to you in a slow and respectful way, giving you just enough information to figure some things out whilst you have to guess at others. However whilst Donovan is given enough of a build up the rest of the characters don’t receive similar treatment, making it hard to empathise with them when certain events take place. Thinking about it more though the characters might be secondary to the overarching narrative itself which is why they don’t receive as much attention as you’d otherwise expect they would. It feels weird to say that the story is a great thought provoking narrative that has little to no emotional impact as that’s typically the basis upon which such stories will cement themselves in your mind.
Perhaps I just need a little more time to digest it.
The Red Strings club was a great game to open up my 2018 list to. Deconstructeam has evidently gone through a lot of growth over the last couple years, bringing everything that was good from Gods Will Be Watching and leaving everything else behind. At a technical level the game isn’t anything to write home about, feeling like a very traditional pixel art adventure game, but the overall experience feels well above par. This is most likely due to the strong narrative, one that manages to intrigue and provoke a lot of thought whilst, strangely, failing to drive a heavy emotional impact. If you had asked me after I played Gods Will Be Watching would I look forward to the next game from this developer I would’ve told you no but now, having played The Red Strings Club, I’m very keen to see where Deconstructeam goes from here.
The Red Strings Club is available on PC right now for $14.99. Total play time was approximately 3 hours with 37% of the achievements unlocked.