I hate summer.
Screw it, that bastard orange orb sitting in the sky, shooting solar flares at us like he’s a LMG user with a head-glitch. I can’t wait for winter to petrify this wasteland in a white hue, it’ll teach those pests blasting Swedish House Mafia outside my house a lesson, I can tell you that much. Anyway, video games, Frost, a deck-building roguelike.
This is a title from one Jérôme Bodin, a French developer whose history is hard to pin down. I know that he has been working on Frost since 2010, with it seeing multiple do-overs and gameplay overhauls before settling on the finished product you see before your eyes. That’s pretty much it, as far as I’m aware, but enough dilly-dallying, what’s the game about?
The planet is uninhabitable, ravaged by the Frost, a lethal storm that never stops. Remnants run endlessly around the Earth in order to escape a frozen doom that forever looms behind them, like a hand that’s ready to pull the floor from underneath you at any point. They say there’s a place where the Frost cannot touch it, and that will be your objective: To reach this refuge, and avoid the other horrors that lurk in the snow.
So your goal? The Refuge. How do you get there? Simple, you pool all of your resources and survivors into a little deck, and every turn, you’re allowed to grab five cards, maybe more or less, depending on whether nature likes you at that point in time. However, the Frost is always hot on your heels, and you’ve got a maximum of eight turns to get all your resources before you’re swallowed up in the blizzards. Deposit enough resources in one turn however, and that dial clicks back up a notch, buying you some unbelievably precious time.
You’re not the only one trying to reach the end however. There are others on the trail, some friendly, some hostile, and you have to make sure you have enough resources for them as well, should they need them. If you don’t have them? Well, there’s always the sharp end of the stick to think about, and stuffing that into your enemies can usually solve the problem also. What if the problem is more personal however? A trouble within one’s psychological aspects? Well, that’s a whole ‘nother ball game.
Alright, let’s hit the brakes real quick, because there needs to be a special disclaimer before we get into the nitty-gritty, so here it goes: Frost is the most addicting game I’ve played all year, and that’s saying something. It’s rare that I put so much full attention to a game while I’m playing it, and it’s rarer that I have to uninstall a game, just to stop myself from playing it.
The worst part about all this, is that I have no idea why the game has compelled me to such extents. It’s certainly not perfect; I mean, there are several potholes among this journey, so many that it’s tough to figure out whether they outweigh the positives. So, let’s just air out all of the positives before we get into what really makes this game mess up.
The progression within your one-to-two hour playthroughs is brilliantly designed. You’ll sometimes get the chance to “buy” a new card with your resources, which can either help you optimize your run in as few turns as possible, or upgrade your Survivors. Upgraded Survivors can do anything from grant you more materials, to extra damage against obstacles along the way. The repercussions added to the upgraded card’s benefits are also balanced well, for the most part.
The best part of the game is easily the art style, as confusing as that may be to hear. While it’s true that you will be staring at a white screen for most of the game, the crude nature of the character design and card art strikes a tribal feeling within the game, and actually ties in with the narrative element, which… alright, let me explain, see if you can follow this beat.
There’s a faint Dungeon Master aspect to it all. Play well enough, and the game rewards you with new cards, events, enemies and Scenarios. Scenarios are little slices of narrative which give you an actual character to play with, who have special abilities that can be used in their respective challenges. An example would be the Leader, a father who is looking for The Refuge in order to provide his family with a better life, and in this scenario, if any one of your family members bites the white dust, then boom. Game over.
There’s a lot more Scenarios that are just as freakishly specific as that, but I wanted to use the Leader’s scenario as an example for how the imagination fires up in a game like this. You desperately search for cards that can get this family to safety, and when you’re drying up on materials and food, you ponder the possibly lethal decision of sending one of your family out for resources. It never ends well, is what I’m saying.
It’s odd how weirdly emotional the game gets at times. Sacrifice plays a huge part in almost every move you do, death is always around the corner to tease you by stealing your bastard Fire Priest, just when you need him for the last turn. Another example would be The Guide, where you have to look after four pets until you reach The Refuge, and you have to decide something like choosing your best Survivor to perish, or the Cat. We’ll find another one on the way, but the question is “When?”
So that’s all fine and dandy… BUT–
There’s a darker side to all this, as repeat playthroughs and the sudden addiction brings quite damaging issues. From difficulty to design philosophies, performance to possibilities, it seems like everything but the graphics take a hearty hit towards the quality of this game, and that’s a shame. Let’s get the most negligent complaint out of the way first, which is the performance of the game.
As one of your playthroughs get closer and closer to the finish, your FPS counter will also get closer and closer to zero. With every new region comes new cards to collect and use, and for some reason, this causes the entire game to lock up and dip the frame rate into the single-digit territory. The perks of playing on console, I suppose, but good grief, the amount of times this problem caused me to mess up my run was unreal. Maybe if the game didn’t throw Fatigue cards at me like candy, we wouldn’t be having this issue.
Fatigue cards are the most annoying part of this game, and the problem is that they didn’t need to be. Sometimes, your upgraded Survivors have their cost of great bonuses be that a black card takes space in your deck offering nothing but adding more cards. Sounds fine honestly, but oh. My. Lord. Jérôme set it up so that a Fatigue card enters your deck every other time you search for stuff, it’s frustrating.
“Well, dat’s duh poynt!”, is what you scream at me while you speed past in a 2002 Nissan Skyline GTR R34, and you’d be right for thinking that was the point, but there’s another type of Fatigue card. “Terror” Cards are the exact same thing as normal Fatigue cards, but if you have three Terror Cards in your hand at one time, you succumb to madness, and the game’s over.
That might sound unfair at first, but it’s not, as there are ways to combat it, and it’s extremely rare that Terror Cards will ever bunch up to three. So yes, the Fatigue cards are poorly distributed, save for how often the Terror cards are thrown at your players, and honestly, it’s possible that removing the general Fatigue cards would work better. Now, if only enemies were given the same treatment…
Alright, there’s a difference between a difficulty curve, and a kneecapping at the starting line. A difficulty curve is say, a solitary wolf that doesn’t do a whole lot of damage, but as the journey goes on, maybe one or two more wolves join in. A kneecapping at the starting line is giving me a wall of baddies to fight head on, and then after they’re done using my Survivors as bongos, a grizzly bear wants to rip the legs off of them.
This will usually happen at the beginning of your journey. You’ll be all set, ready to go, only to find out that these hostile hunters can only be repelled by having a chat with them, and you haven’t learnt how to talk yet (That sentence makes sense, even without context). You’ll get damaged, you won’t want to let your Survivors or Pets take the fall right at the beginning, so you keep crippling yourself, and crippling yourself.
Hot-tip: If you end up taking more than two turns to progress to a region with the first five-to-ten regions? Just restart. It’s exceptionally hard trying to keep your stocks and supplies up to speed with what the next area may possibly offer, and the game always seems to know what you need, and gives you the opposite in return. I’m not joking either, I genuinely believe there’s a conspiracy here. Shush.
Yet, despite all these annoying hindrances towards my enjoyment of Frost, there was still something lying, waiting yet begging for me to return, and that’s what I did, for a week non-stop. There’s not a lot that’s inherently flawed with the game, since some of the stuff mentioned above can be quick fixes in patches, but removing an entire card type? Making the environments react based on progression? Sound like some heavy shit, Doc.
In the end, a huge congratulations to Jérôme Bodin for letting this eight-year dream come to life with a bigger audience, and a standing ovation to Digerati for bringing another banger to wider audiences. From The Coma to Bleed, Letter Quest to Uncanny Valley, if you need a quick fix on a specific taste, they seem to have something for everybody nowadays. Harlots.
This review of Frost is based on the Xbox One version of the game.
It's a stupidly absorbing deck-building game. Quality work throughout most of it.
Owner of the largest collection of indie games in the Western Hemisphere, and TimeSplitters’ biggest fanboy.