Frostpunk: On the Edge review – pressure from a different perspective
To me, Frostpunk is a game about pressure, it provides the context for everything you do. What you build depends on where you’re being stretched thinnest. Are you running out of coal? Research and improve your coal production. Are you out of food? Do the same for food. Has the temperature dropped and you need better insulation? You’d better hurry up because it definitely isn’t getting any warmer. It never lets up. When you think you’ve solved one problem, Frostpunk provides another two, and every time it does, it dangles a horrid solution in front of you.
Do you want to pass a law enabling child labour? I know you wouldn’t normally but look at the situation you’re in: children could collect coal, is that really so bad? How about cooking the odd corpse? No one needs to know and you don’t have any food. Gradually you find yourself down a road you never thought you would be until you’re suddenly staring dictatorial rule in the face. Then again, would it really be so bad?
Frostpunk was thrilling, but in On the Edge, the game’s just-released second expansion, things work slightly differently. The old pressures are still there but they’re rejigged because now, there’s something else to contend with: inter-settlement relationships. You see, you’re not the only people out there. In fact, you’re not even in control of the main settlement, New London, any more. You’re an offshoot of it, an outpost, established around an Army Warehouse (a new kind of building) where you’re to extract materials from it.
This time, you cannot do it alone. You don’t have enough of everything you need to get by. The most pressing concern, and a constant one, will be food, because you have no way to reliably source it. You can send scouts out to try and find some outside of your settlement but you never know if they will, and even if they do, it will be a one-off. So how do you mitigate this?
To begin with, New London has your back. You are people sent by New London, after all, so it’s only right the mothership should feed you. All you’re asked to do in return is extract steel and valuable steam cores from the Army Warehouse and send them the other way, which you do via new Administration and Transport Depot buildings. The former is where you manage relationships and demands, and the latter is where you keep track of ingoing and outgoing supplies. And for a while, everything is peachy. You slowly establish your small settlement and your people will be cheery, your outlook hopeful. Then On the Edge will tighten the screws.
New London drops the friendly act and starts ordering you to send supplies, then it cuts the amount of food supplies it sends in return. Then, it decides it wants your steel and steam cores before it sends back food. Unease amongst your population rises. I mean, you need the resources you’re sending too, and now, you’re barely getting anything in return. It’s not fair. But all of a sudden fortune smiles and you find another outpost offering reliable amounts of food for trade. And that’s when New London wades in to forbid trade with anyone else and how you find yourself at your first crisis point.
This is really where On the Edge begins, with you taking your chances and going it alone, and again, for a while it will seem peachy, with you and your new friend establishing a mutually beneficial relationship. But again, screws will begin to tighten. The temperature will begin to drop, not cataclysmically but down to around -50 degrees centigrade: low enough to cause problems and expose weaknesses in insulation and heating, and to burden your coal production line. People will fall ill, medical centres will be stretched and there will be absences at work.
Then your new friends will begin to make demands of their own, and they will be demands your own people won’t like. What do you do, risk the rise in Discontent at home or risk pissing off your invaluable source of food? Then your wood supplies will run out and you will be faced with the bleak prospect of not being able to produce any at all. The clincher here being: that’s what you were trading for food.
But again, there’s help out there if you can find it. Though like the food-rich outpost, the wood-rich place has demands and a personality of its own, which will stretch you yet further at home. And are these new people as trustworthy as they seem?
Manage them right and these other settlements start to feel like extensions of your own. You can even upgrade them to a point where a proper trade route is established and you automatically receive shipments of supplies every other day, though it comes at a huge investment cost. But just when you think you’re approaching something like stability, despite everything, a time-pressured, potentially game-ending event will emerge and you will be up against it yet again.
And then the temperature will drop.
On the Edge is a reinterpretation of Frostpunk less concerned with the cataclysmic cold and outrageous laws of the main game, and more tightly focused around the idea of juggling your settlement’s needs against those of the others. That might sound kinder but it’s hard – harder, even, than the main game, I reckon. It’s another tense test of your resolve.
And you know what? It’s lovely to be back, watching my poor Victorian people trudging through snow to work endless hours accompanied by melancholic strings and howling winds. Frostpunk remains an exquisitely made game, one which leaves a distinct and lasting impression, and On the Edge is the perfect way to rediscover it.