If there was ever an antidote to this steaming hot summer we’re having (in the UK at least), it’s a game built purely around the concept of being chased down by an omniscient and pervading cold. The vehicle for that chase is a single player card based strategy game with a surprising amount of depth.
Frost makes a very good first impression aesthetically. A strange cross between The Snowman, which so many of us will know and love from our childhoods, and smash hit mobile title Doodle Jump. An odd comparison perhaps but Frost’s hand drawn, cave painting type attire looks wonderful on the big(ger) screen.
The basis of the game is a simple one, as with all good strategy games. You are a nomadic Pleistoscene-type tribe on an unnamed planet with a storm closing on your location. The storm’s proximity to your clan is writ large in the form of looming countdown clock on screen. Your own group are represented by survivor cards but you can also draw resource cards in the form of food, wood, or less pleasantly, fatigue cards.
To be able to progress to the next stage on your journey, each area requires that you possess a certain number of each of these resource cards. You might need two survivor cards and two food or one wood and four survivors; each location is different. The trouble is, your initial draw is very unlikely to give you what you need.
This is when you turn to your Idea cards. Generated each turn at the top of the screen, they offer you an opportunity to exchange one resource (or sometimes two or three!) for another. Often these are lost, not just from the hand, but the entire deck. In that way, each decision you makes feels vital. Sure, you can exchange some of your food to gain some wood, but what if you come across a region next which requires a lot of food in order to continue your journey?
Similarly, every time you draw a survivor card, you can send them to scavenge. Sometimes they’ll come back with one of the resources you so desperately need. However, they’re just as likely to die in the process or, marginally less seriously, draw you a fatique or terror card. Fatique cards just sit in your deck and, when drawn, take up the space of a valuable resource card, reducing your already limited opportunity to progress. Draw three terror cards in one hand and it’s Game Over!
When you finally do exhaust all the options from the cards in your hand, you can choose to end your turn. This gives you a completely new set of cards to work with, as well as adding an additional Idea card. It’s not all good news though; the storm moves one step closer. Usually starting on eight, if you let this get down to zero, that’s the end of your game too!
Complicating matters further are Frost’s version of Chance cards. Appearing randomly in a new zone or when you end your turn, a card will appear that will give you a little boost if dealt with correctly or hamper your progress if you’re unlucky. To take one example; a wolf appears. Left unchecked it will cause damage to your health when you travel to a new zone. The only way to deal with it is to fashion a weapon from one of your Idea cards. Often you won’t get the chance to create a weapon exactly when you want it so it’s here you’ll have to make a decision between ending your turn to gain the chance at drawing the relevant Idea card whilst allowing the storm to move closer or taking a hit to your very limited health and dealing with the Wolf in the next zone.
It’s often not clear whether you’ve done the right thing for a few turns so every decision feels like a different shade of grey and as the storms draws closer the tension ramps up. Winning a game with the Frost at your door is a great feeling and even though there is some luck to the cards you draw, it always feels like you are the architect of your own destiny, for better or worse.
If you own a set of headphones, Frost is a game which demands to be heard up close and personal. Early turns are like a techno rave between 5 and 6am, all sharp metal on metal sounds and and heavy percussive effects. Then as the storm hangs over you, when the game really piles on the pressure, the soundtrack looms heavy in your ears, reinforcing the sense of danger your tribe face.
I have a couple of quibbles. Frost is crying out for a campaign mode of some description. Once you’ve played the game a few times, many of the turns blend into one, and if you got just a little bit of exposition to give your tribe a bit of character, it would really help give you a reason to keep on playing.
Solo developer Jerome Bodin alongside the team that ported Frost to console, Stage Clear Studios, have made some effort to improve longevity. As you play and win games, different scenarios are unlocked which put you in a game where certain conditions need to be met. The Leader scenario asks you to keep certain survivor resources alive throughout the game. After a while, you begin to think of survivor cards as no better or worse than the other resource cards you collect so this really helps you form an attachment to another part of your tribe.
Unfortunately, it’s in one of the other scenarios that the other of Frost’s issues rears its head. In The Meditator, you’re placed in an extended version of Frost in which the titular storm is no longer a threat. Your task is simply (in theory!) to travel fifty times. Unfortunately, as you approach number thirty or so, the frame rate really takes a hit. The normally extremely responsive UI and controller mapping suddenly becomes sluggish, often requiring multiple button presses to perform one action. Up toward turn 50 and it’s almost unplayable.
It seems a shame to end this review on a negative, given that my experience has been largely positive; so I won’t. Take my advice, once you’ve played a few games, find the switch in the settings menu that turns on Night Mode. It’s a complete UI colour and artifacts switch and, if anything, it suits the soundtrack even more perfectly than the original settings.