Here's a little bit of history for you: back in the year 1883 the volcano Krakatoa erupted, and spewed millions of tonnes of ash and molten rock into the atmosphere. There was so much of the stuff up there that sunlight actually struggled to reach the planet's surface and global temperatures cooled dramatically. It got pretty hairy for a while but eventually the skies cleared and life went back to normal. Well, except for everyone who lived next door to Krakatoa. They got lava'd.
Anyway, in the world of Frostpunk - an alternate-history post-apocalyptic strategy game - Earth never recovered from the event, and temperatures around the globe kept falling. Minus twenty degrees Celsius is about when people in the North East of England first consider sleeves, but the people of 1886 London have an even more outrageous solution in mind to combat the cold. A bunch of them migrate north to build a new city around a huge furnace, and you're in charge of making things run smoothly. That means you'll be allocating resources, deciding where buildings need to go, regulating the temperature in the city, and hopefully - maybe - surviving.
Frostpunk doesn't do a tremendous job of explaining all of its systems to you, and your first attempt at the main scenario will likely end in cataclysmic, humiliating failure. Once you get the hang of it, the central crux of the game is ingenious in its simplicity yet fiendishly unforgiving. Essentially, you need to build a city that can produce enough coal to keep the fire burning, and how much coal that'll be is dictated by how cold it is. You can keep an eye on the weather to see when temperatures will drop next, and you need to have infrastructure in place to make sure your city is sustainable when they do.
There are other resources in play that you'll have to manage, too, like wood, steel, and of course, food, but coal is the lifeblood of the city, and if you suddenly have to double the power of your generator to ensure that your people don't freeze to death, then you'd better have twice as much coal coming in or it'll soon be curtains. There's an incredible tension to the game as you watch your stockpiles dwindle and you don't know whether you'll make it through the night.
The people of New London will frequently stick their noses into your business, offering advice, making demands, or giving news updates. "Oooh we want houses," they'll cry. What's wrong with just sleeping on the floor? "Oooh we don't like sawdust mixed in with our soup," they'll moan. Well, you've eaten the last of the peas. "Oooh we don't want to have our legs chopped off just because we've got gangrene." Well, what do you want, Karen? Do you want to die or shall we just hacksaw these off and get back to building our city? Honestly, we're not building a holiday camp here. Heavy is the head that wears the crown, etc.
How the people feel about your era of rule can be summed up with two handy stats represented as bars at the bottom of the screen: hope, and discontent. If some refugees turn up at your town wanting a place to stay, allowing them to join may cause discontent to rise as the people fear that there's not enough resources to go around. This can be countered with the right propaganda, or with police patrols keeping the streets calm. Hope rises and falls as you'd expect: news that a gargantuan storm is on the horizon causes hope in the people to collapse, while surviving said storm will give it back to the public and then some.
Sometimes you'll have to take a calculated risk. Maybe you can see that you're in for some rough weather and that you won't have enough food to survive, so forcing staff at your hothouse to work for 24 hours straight will obviously annoy them, but it's for the greater good. Taking too many risks like this could be problematic for you, though. If discontent is too high, or hope is too low, your tenure as the ruler of New London can come to an ignominious end long before you have the chance to freeze to death with the rest of your subjects.
The main storyline is quite compelling, and over the course of ten hours or so you'll face numerous challenges, from both the elements as well as the politics of running a city on the brink. The game is tough, and it took us numerous attempts to see it through. The end of the campaign features an incredibly tense fight for survival, and when we finally won - in true, last minute, nail-biting fashion - it was glorious. We were up cheering and everything.
Of course, it's not all plain sailing. Chief among the problems with Frostpunk is that it crashes with alarming regularity. By default the game doesn't feature auto-saving, and we found out just how how painful that can be four hours into it when we got blue-screened and had to start the whole thing again. Admittedly, our city was on its last legs and people were freezing to death in droves so it's not like we were seconds away from victory, but it's still annoying. We spent over twenty hours with the game all told, and during that time period it crashed probably a dozen or so times.
Once you're finished with the main campaign you can play it again to try and do better now that you know what you'll be up against, or take on one of the three bonus missions. These are around half as long as the campaign, and they're all of a high a quality, taking place on different maps with different objectives.
After all of that there's an endless mode which lets you tinker with options like how many resources will be available to you and how friendly your people will be, and then you name your city and see how long you can survive. We got John Town to an impressive 102 days, which took half a dozen hours or so.
At its best, Frostpunk provides a tense, nail-biting experience like few others in the genre. It's not about building an empire, or creating a beautiful cityscape, but simply doing what you need to do to guide your people through what at first seems like insurmountable adversity. There's a few niggling issues, but the feeling you get from surviving the campaign is one of utter, unbridled joy, and it's that feeling more than any other why we have absolutely no qualms about recommending Frostpunk to you.