But at what cost?
Another confession: I had so much anxiety coming into Frostpunk: The Last Autumn that I almost couldn’t play it (but I’m glad I did).
I know it sounds stupid. I know it’s just a game. But Frostpunk was so emotionally exhausting that, after barely surviving the first scenario, A New Home, by the skin of my teeth, I could only ever bring myself to play the Endless Mode on the easiest possible settings.
It’s not that I was bad at the game, mind you — I just mentally could not bear the burden of managing a doomed colony. At least on easy freeplay, I could give my people the best possible life considering the circumstances: saving all survivors, letting automatons do all the work, and allowing children to enjoy what little childhood they had. In the late-game stages, I could pretend the end of the world wasn’t so bad; in fact, if I was allowed to play further, I could see my colony’s bleak present turn into a cold but thriving future — something much more palatable then just prolonging the inevitable icy demise of humanity.
Over and over again, I’d play Frostpunk the same way every time. It’d never get too cold, my people would always have roofs over their heads and food in their bellies. They’d have religion as an option, not forced down their throat, and laws were only in place to protect and serve their interests. If I couldn’t bring back society, I’d at least create a frozen utopia with what limited resources I had.
I’d then zoom down into the streets and watch as people warmed themselves by the generator, gathered in the many town squares, or visited the pub. I checked individual maxed-level homes to make sure everyone had optimal heat, building mini-generators where needed. I pretended they were content with their new life in this godforsaken white wasteland; I don’t know how I could have continued playing otherwise.
I suppose I say all this because my initial excitement in receiving Frostpunk: The Last Autumn was matched with equally-weighted dread when I learned that this DLC was “a hard scenario aimed at advanced players”. Surely the dozens of hours I’ve dumped into Frostpunk made me experienced, but advanced? Hmm.
I suppose I never truly challenged myself in this bleak and brutal society survival sim.
I suppose now was my chance to test my mettle.
Developed and published by the legendary 11 Bit Studios, Frostpunk: The Last Autumn, available on Steam, is already being heralded as the base game’s best expansion yet. As the name denotes, the story takes place just before the icy Armageddon occurs, where players oversee an exceedingly important engineering job at Site 113 in the frigid lands north of the U.K. Rumor has it that severe weather patterns will bring about the end of the world, but you have more pressing matters to attend to, such as hitting construction milestones and keeping worker morale up. Are you up to the task of building a towering generator to warm the masses, or will humanity’s last chance at survival fail due to your ineptitude?
Those who have poured hours into the base game will already be familiar with Frostpunk: The Last Autumn‘s gameplay — establish a base, set up camp, build facilities, assign workers, and collect resources — all while balancing motivation and discontent. There are a few noticeable differences that are immediately clear, such as the obvious lack of snow and, of course, the generator. Over time, however, both of those elements change — hopefully acceptable progress will be made in constructing the generator in time for snowfall, AKA the white harbinger of doom.
In order to make progress on said generator, players will need to strike a careful balance between keeping workers safe, happy, and well-fed while still pushing them to their physical limits. Luckily, the mainland is still lending their support in the form of supplies, labor, and correspondence — providing you can build docks and a telegraph station to communicate with the powers that be back home.
It was this vital connection back home, in my opinion, that truly separated Frostpunk: The Last Autumn from its predecessor for me — at least mentally. In the original, it’s a literal do or die situation; if you don’t succeed in keeping what’s left of humanity happy, the implications are dire. If you fail at Site 113 however, you’re just… fired. Which, hey, is bad, obviously, but considering half the camp is skeptical about the end of the world anyway, it’s easy enough to argue that you can just head home on the next outbound ship or take a one-way trip to another site as a refugee in the beginning of the base game.
That’s at least what I argued as I paused the game and closed it indefinitely when my heart stopped being able to take the stress of playing any further.
Honestly, what Frostpunk: The Last Autumn was to the base game felt like Star Wars: Rogue One in comparison to the rest of the Star Wars franchise, where the ultimate sacrifices of the few lead to the survival of many. I always wondered how survivors seemed to “magically” stumble upon working, running generators in Frostpunk with nary a soul to greet them, but had little time to question it before events started rolling into motion. Time waits for no society, so there was nothing to do but accept that veritable ghosts seemingly built the best chance at a future. In the end, the workforce in Frostpunk: The Last Autumn was successful, obviously, but at what cost?
As I sit here reeling from that special brand of virtual trauma lite™ that 11 Bit Studios is so good at dishing out, I realize that my play style that I was forcing onto my previous Frostpunk survivors was just not going to be the case here. There’s no real sense of permanence, merely setting the stage for what’s yet to come. And since I’m privy to what’s just around the corner, I, more than the people whose backs I’m breaking trying to achieve my goals, have gone to extreme lengths to ensure humanity’s future — staring face to face with decisions I don’t want to make and reaching new lows with every click. Censoring letters from loved ones regarding the health of their children? Shoving cocaine in their faces to meet deadlines? Prioritizing progress over the literal lives of my employees? And for what? To offset the end of the world that, apparently, not all of them even believe will happen?
I became a monster, the weight of the world on my disgusting shoulders.
I’m not sure I’ll ever play another game like Frostpunk, which toes the line so perfectly between treating human lives as resources while legitimately caring about them on a personal level. It’s in my nature to get too involved with the latter, so Frostpunk: The Last Autumn’s unapologetic approach to ensuring I was constantly reminded that I was there to perform a function and nothing more allowed me to detach just enough to get the job done. Of course, in doing so, I lost a little bit of my own humanity, asking too much of others to the point of overwork, drug usage, and death. All in the sake of progress, right?
I had so, so, so much anxiety coming into Frostpunk: The Last Autumn because it’s an exercise in mental endurance that pushes players to their limits…and then past them. Players who have let the base game consume them will find a new challenge waiting for them in this newest expansion — not necessarily in terms of gameplay, as it uses most of the same mechanics, but in moral strength. Reach new lows as you struggle to get the generator going, as the future depends on it. Can you lay the foundation for society’s survival without losing your own humanity? If you enjoyed the base game, you’re more or less obligated to pick up Frostpunk: The Last Autumn and find out for yourself.
Final Verdict: 5/5
Available on: PC (reviewed); Publisher: 11 Bit Studios; Developer: 11 Bit Studios; Players: 1; Released: January 21, 2020; MSRP: $16.99
Editor’s note: This review is based on a retail copy of Frostpunk: The Last Autumn given to HeyPoorPlayer by the publisher.