Frostpunk wasn’t just a great strategy game that demanded all of your concentration, it was also an interesting journey down the rabbit hole of good intentions. As you attempted to supply enough coal to keep a massive generator running to supply heat to your population the pressure made it all too easy to begin taking desperate measures: recycling corpses, child labour, propaganda and controlled religion are all tools that can be used to keep your society running. It was a game that fascinated me, so much so that I gave it a glowing review and a place in my top games of 2018.
Since its release Frostpunk has gotten quite a few add-ons, including an endless mode. But I’ve not returned to it, because that first time was special. Now, though, what is promised to be the biggest and most complex piece of DLC for the game to date is here, and it acts as a prequel to the main game, introducing new concepts, buildings and laws to play with. Time to come back and demonstrate how much of an evil bastard I’m willing to be, then.
Last time I played Frostpunk I was attempting to keep hundreds of people alive amidst freezing temperatures. It was a brilliant, harrowing strategy game that asked questions like whether or not child labour can be justified when you’re trying to save hundreds of people from freezing to death. It can absolutely be justified, in case you were wondering. Just toss the little bastards down into the coal mines. It’ll be fine.
But in The Last Autumn things have changed. As a prequel it takes place before the cataclysmic weather has hit, and finds you instead controlling a small colony while attempting to build a generator that will hopefully save the remains of humanity when the time comes. Constructing the generator is dangerous work thanks to toxic fumes and workplace hazards, so it’s tempting to become the epitome of health and safety, but that’s not possible: fail to meet the deadlines and you’ll be fired. Fail to look after your people and you’ll be chucked out. You have to walk the fine line in the middle.
That brings us to the Motivation meter which influences pretty much everything you do, since low motivation drops worker efficiency and brings you closer to failure. Unfortunately keeping humans motivated is a tricky business, because small things like poisonous gas, rampant illness, starvation and unsafe working conditions all seem to annoy them. To this end most of the laws in the brand new, chunky Book of Laws are geared toward finding ways to keep everyone pleased. You can offer pleasure houses, hearty meals and chapels to pray in. Or you could just offer up cocaine tablets with meals, guaranteed to do nothing but good. *cough* Meanwhile, the other book focuses on the workplace, giving you ways to improve safety or to force extended work hours.
If you don’t manage to balance everything out then workers will go on strike, halting progress on the generator or in a vital factory. To deal with the issue you need to negotiate by picking from a list of potential solutions, such as offering extra rations or promising to increase safety. Sometimes they’ll simply refuse your terms, and other times you’ll find yourself having to uphold the promises you made. You could simply try to appease them with the day off or a chunk of rations, but that can also lead to much harsher demands.
Your workers will also do horrible, terrible things like demanding that you build a labour union so that they can also put forth their own ideas, which you can then ruthlessly squash if you think that’s for the best.
There are numerous changes to the games mechanics, a brand new tech tree and a selection of fresh, new buildings to plop down into your growing city. Even the way you gather resources has changed, because with the sea no longer frozen over you can build docks in order to get shipments of coal, wood and steel. These resources then get combined in some of the new factories to produce the components needed for the generator.
Even the way your population expands has been altered. In the core game your rangers could find groups struggling to survive the harsh weather, or new batches of folk would simply turn up and strain your already iffy economy to the max. In The Last Autumn though, you get to order people up via telegraph, asking the mainland to ship in engineers and workers so that you can expand. Unlike the core game this means you can properly plan out expansions. but it also means that people become another resource you have to consider. Knowing when to bring in more workers and how many is key to success.
Just like in the regular Frostpunk game there are many events that pop up, typically offering you choices that can have lasting ramifications throughout the game. A worker gets a letter from home containing a particularly saucy picture, for example, and if you opt to leave it be then fights might break out. That’s one of the simpler examples, but before long the choices become more complex and morally grey.
On top of all that there are a few other mechanics that come into play later in the campaign which I’m not going to spoil. Suffice to say they spice up the gameplay even more, and then stress you out. Because that’s ultimately what The Last Autumn is; a bloody stressful time. The developers claimed that this was their hardest scenario yet, and that the medium difficulty would challenge even experienced players. They weren’t lying. The Last Autumn can be brutally difficult, and I don’t mind admitting that it took me a few attempts to beat it. Then I went back and tried new ways of tackling building the generator and failed miserably again.
It’s the fun kind of stress, though, where you stumble like a fool from one disaster to another, staving off failure by a hair’s breadth. The first playthrough is mostly just about learning the ins and outs of the new mechanics so that once you fire up a second run you know roughly what to look out for. With foreknowledge of what’s around the corner you can concentrate on the game’s savagely hard balancing act of resources, motivation and discontent. And when you finally win a game you’re rewarded with a glimpse of the future, an estimate of how many lives your generator could save and what it cost.
What’s interesting is that you play The Last Autumn with the knowledge of what is coming. Having run through the Frostpunk campaign we all know that the end is nigh, that the world is going to freeze and people will die. And so when playing The Last Autumn I found myself using the same “whatever it takes” mentality, pushing people to death for the greater good. But the little virtual people in my city didn’t know what was coming. They were just trying to live a decent life, under the rule of a mad-man who pushed and pushed. For the greater good. They aren’t privy to the future where I’ll be shoving kids down coal mines. Also for the greater good. And just for laughs, but mostly the good thing.
It’s easy to think that Frostpunk is a game that somehow justifies bad things and tyrannical behaviour, but like the core game itself what The Last Autumn does so brilliantly is let you slide into murky depths of good intentions yourself. But you don’t have to. If you’re good enough at juggling the various disasters, managing your resources and keeping your workers happy then you get win the game with minimal dickishness involved. You can be a good guy. But my God, it’s so easy to not be the good guy. It’s so easy to justify censoring mail, issuing propaganda, running extended shifts and completely ignoring workplace safety. I love that. I love getting to the end and wondering if everything I did was worth it.
Outside of the main campaign that The Last Autumn boasts there’s also a brand new Endless Mode scenario titled Builders which takes aspects of The Last Autumn and combines them with the main game. In this mode not only do you have to build the generator but like the core game you need to then use it to heat your city. You get access to a host of buildings from the DLC and the main game, too. Unsurprisingly this mode pummelled me to death and then attempted to feed my bruised and battered corpse to the bears. It’s pretty awesome.
If there’s one thing I’d criticise it’s that Frostpunk still likes to burn your entire computer down. It likes to run your hardware hot and hard. I’d like to see some sort of in-game framerate limiter, though there are obviously many workarounds. In my case I wound up using the game’s resolution options to pick the 50hz option, but even then Frostpunk still ran my Ryzen 1600 and Nvidia GTX 1080ti very, very hot.
In short, The Last Autumn is a superb chunk of DLC for an already outstanding strategy game, and is absolutely worth buying. It is mechanically satisfying and beautifully designed, immensely challenging and still retains that fascinating journey into the hazy concept of morality that made Frostpunk so damn good.
4 out of 5