How often do you feel exactly what the player character is feeling when playing a game? How often is that feeling evoked by the way the mechanics unfold in conjunction with the story, rather than through cutscenes or other scripted narrative moments? If it’s a feeling you’ve been craving, being truly immersed in the emotional experience of a character and as a result feeling like you’re fully inhabiting their role and playing it in a meaningful way, then Frostpunk: On the Edge is certainly worth checking out.
- What is Frostpunk: On the Edge? It’s an expansion for the base game of Frostpunk, a city-building/survival sim in which global cooling has fomented chaos and driven humanity to profound desperation, attempting to eke out an existence in the frozen waste. In On the Edge, the Frostland city of New London has survived the Great Storm, establishing outposts to uncover all manner of supplies and artifacts newly revealed by the devastating weather event. Your role is that of the captain of Outpost 11, and it’s up to you to ensure the survival of your people.
- Reviewed On: PC
- Price: $12.99
- Developer: 11 bit studios
- Publisher: 11 bit studios
- Release Date: August 20, 2020
- Website: https://www.frostpunkgame.com/
The Edge of Glory
One of the most interesting aspects of On the Edge is the juggling act it expects you to maintain. In the base game, it is essentially your task to provide for the needs and whims of society entirely on your own. However, your role as an outpost of New London quickly establishes quite a different gameplay dynamic. You do not (initially) have the power to declare laws, employ hunters to provide yourself with food, and you do not have access to a generator, forcing you to devise alternate heat sources in order to survive. Your job is to extract steel and steam cores from a military complex recently uncovered by the Great Storm, and in return, New London sends you vital food supplies and can pass laws to alleviate your problems.
Consequently, food insecurity is an ever-present problem, and the lopsided power dynamics with New London create a very fraught situation. There’s always something that could be improved, and even when you manage a semi-stable system, there could always be a sharp temperature drop or unexpected conflict on the horizon. This is a continually engaging gameplay loop, forcing you to pay close attention and think ahead, managing survival with effective planning and considered decision-making.
Your inability to function fully autonomously also prompts you to send scouts out into the Frostlands in search of supplies and other, potentially cooperative settlements. These also add to the overall feeling of constant engagement. Just when you’ve had enough of managing coal usage and treating the ill, scouts will arrive at their destination, prompting you to give them orders and see what can be uncovered. Frostpunk: On the Edge is complex and it emphasizes political, social, and environmental conflict over action and violence, but it is rarely boring.
O Captain! My Captain!
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of On the Edge is the interplay between its story and its mechanics. As mentioned above, the power dynamic between New London and Outpost 11 is woefully one-sided. Not only that, but New London cannot be trusted with their disproportionate power. In other games, forces of antagonism can feel very broad and disconnected from the mechanics in all but the most superficial way. Sure, combat is unfolding because the main bad guy is throwing minions at you, but there’s no real interplay between the two events beyond one leading into the other. Not so with New London.
When New London sends your children ahead of schedule, before you’re ready for them, and with apparent signs of neglect and malnourishment, there’s a layered emotional impact. On one hand, there’s the obvious implication that your children have been mistreated, arousing no small ire, while on the other, on top of your other problems — food insecurity, warmth, morale — you now have to provide for a bunch of kids you didn’t think you’d need to worry about until later.
The character is given a reason to care at the same time the player is, making the story and the emotional reactions of the characters feel so much more natural and weighty, and this despite the fact that your character is not identified beyond being a “Captain.” But even without a specific identity to latch onto, Frostpunk: On the Edge’s mechanics and story create a powerful roleplaying experience by orienting you in the character’s situation and then forcing you to resolve dilemmas on their behalf. When the result is making an emotional decision in what is essentially a strategy game (as I did, fed up with the abuses from New London), you know that this expansion has a fascinating contribution to storytelling in video games.
Strategy and Mechanics - 9/10
Storytelling and Atmosphere - 9/10
Audiovisuals - 9/10
Frostpunk: On the Edge is not only a great expansion for a superb city-builder/survival sim, it’s a wonderful interactive narrative experience. Tense and strategic, with an excellent soundtrack and continually engaging mechanics, On the Edge is certainly an impressive piece of DLC.
- Great interplay between story and mechanics
- Ever-engaging gameplay
- Great visuals and soundtrack
- Scouting feels a little barebones
- It would be nice to see more visual distinction among characters — especially ones from different settlements
- Very occasionally drags