I’ll let you in on a secret about me: if a game is beautiful to look at, I can guarantee I’ll end up playing it at some point. That quality is what first wrenched my attention from platformers and racing games over to RPGs, which are nearly always gorgeous affairs. And so it was that some beautiful artwork recently caught my attention and took me over to a genre that I’ve never played before.
Title: Frost: Revolution Edition
Genre: Adventure/Strategy/Solo Deckbuilding
Released: July 2016 (Steam), July 2018
Platform(s): PS4 (reviewed), XBox One, Switch, Steam
Note: A great big THANK YOU to Bodin for providing a free download of the game in exchange for an honest review.
In Frost, you play as one of a group of survivors struggling to stay ahead of a never-ending storm, known as the Frost. You have been running from the Frost for as long as you can remember, as did your ancestors before you and as your children will after you. However, you’ve heard of a place called the Refuge where the Frost cannot reach. Maybe, just maybe, if you can make it to the Refuge, you can stop this cycle of running.
As one would imagine in a frozen landscape, everything in Frost is sparse: sounds, colors, resources, even the story. Get to the Refuge before the Frost gets you. That’s the gist of it. However, sparse does not mean bad. Quite the contrary. The characters in the game are simple archetypes: the Leader, the Mediator, the Priest, etc. Pair these with a straightforward, relatable goal, and you have a game in which the player is free to fill in the gaps with their imagination. I know I did (I’m coming for you, Survivalist. It’s personal this time).
Graphics & Sound
Frost‘s deceptively simple hand-drawn aesthetic and skimpy audio repertoire belie how immersive the experience actually can be. The game opens with a tribal musical theme where breathing provides the rhythm, nodding to the characters’ perpetual movement. Then you see some cards, a few characters, a hint of landscape. When the group travels, you hear the crunch of footsteps in snow. When you end your turn, you listen to the satisfying brush and shuffle of a card deck. And always in the background, the roar of the Frost, which gets louder as it gets closer.
I’m coming off some heavy playtime in several truly gorgeous, expansive games (such as Zelda: Breath of the Wild and Hollow Knight). Because of this, I did not expect to be swept away by this sparse game, pretty as it is. Yet a few hours later, I finally turned away from Frost a bit fuzzy-brained, as if having woken abruptly from a dream. Bodin gives you just enough suggestion of a larger world that if your imagination, like mine, loves to take an idea and run with it, then you will definitely appreciate the almost storybook-like quality of this game.
Frost may have a storybook-like quality, but it is more Brothers Grimm than Disney fairy tale. This is a harsh world that asks players to choose the best of several unpleasant options, and half the time, you end up having to choose how you would rather die (Do I want to be eaten by the Grizzly or just wait for the Frost to get me?)
Players start their quest for the Refuge with a deck of 10 cards, from which they draw 5. Among the cards are Survivors (the people composing your nomad group), Food, Materials, and detrimental Fatigue and Terror cards. During each turn, your goal is to meet the conditions listed on the Location card in the center of the screen so that you can Travel on your way.
And Travel you must, because the Frost is 8 turns behind you. For every turn you fail to Travel forward, the Frost creeps up behind you, and the counter subtracts 1. Stay still too long, and your Survivors will perish.
As I mentioned before, I’m new to this genre. I’ve not played Ascension or Thunderstone or any other of the big names in the deckbuilding world, so I was grateful that Frost contains a Tutorial. However, it was just barely helpful. It took me through a few basic mechanics, but then suddenly introduced an Event card: a hungry Wolf. The tutorial informed me there was nothing I could do about the Wolf presently, so I should simply continue Traveling. But each time I did, the Wolf took one of my HP (you start the game with only 4). Eventually I Traveled my way right into a Wolfish grave, and I left the tutorial wondering if the lesson I was meant to learn was that Death is inevitable.
From there, I jumped into Classic mode, which starts you on Easy difficulty. I guess my definition of Easy is quite different than the game’s because I was so lost. Each turn brought a new threat in the form of an Event or a perplexing Idea card or just more of the ever-present Fatigue and Terror. What the heck did it all mean??
But gradually, I figured out what I was meant to be doing via trial and error, and amid all the failures, I found a few successes. I defeated my first Wolf (BOOYAH!), and against all odds, finally clawed my way to the Refuge. It felt like a true feat of survival, and I was ecstatic–until I realized that the game simply ends. There is no happy cutscene showing the Survivors entering the Refuge, celebrating the end of generations’ worth of fear and suffering. Just…nothing. It’s anticlimactic, to say the least.
Expanding Your Deck
Beating Classic mode on Easy unlocks two additional challenges: Scenarios and Custom difficulty in Classic mode. In Scenarios, you play as specific characters, such as the Leader (in which your main objective is to reach the Refuge without losing any Survivors) or the Mediator (a test of endurance). Custom difficulty lets you personalize your game by setting the regions, objectives, difficulty, and the distance to Refuge. It also includes side objectives if you’re looking for optional added challenges. These include such death-defying goals as “Lose 12 HP” or “Spend 6 turns close to the Frost”.
The more times you play, the more cards you will unlock, and these new additions create added possibilities during gameplay. Many of the cards make sense in a survival situation. For example, when you unlock the Shelter card, you can trade two Material cards to build a Shelter, which in turn reduces the Fatigue cards in your hand. Or you can trade a Food card to the Priest in exchange for an additional HP. Others, such as the Idea card featuring Cannibalism (where you turn a Survivor into Food cards), are a bit more horrifying.
You can also unlock helpful Pet cards (Dog, Cat, Falcon, etc.), and each has a special skill ranging from Scouting to reducing Fatigue. In addition, your Pet can be sacrificed in situations where you would otherwise take damage from one of the many threats in the game (Cannibals, Wolves, Grizzlies, and everything else in the world that wants to eat you.). Initially, I thought of my own pet dog and was horrified at this. However, when the time finally came that it was down to me or the Cat, well…sorry, Cat.
So Much Death
Before you even start this game, accept that you will die. A lot. The first several play-thrus feel nothing short of impossible due to your anemic deck. It’s not until you’ve played enough times to start unlocking enough cards that success becomes a fragile possibility. But even when you reach that point, you will still die. A lot.
A large part of Frost‘s gameplay seems to hinge on the luck of the draw. During one particularly frustrating series of attempts, I played Custom mode as the Leader. No matter what I did, I simply could not meet the conditions necessary to Travel. Not even once. I’d draw cards as much as I dared, listening to the Frost grow louder and louder behind me. I’d gamble for resources at Campsites and Gatherings, all for naught. I’d throw Survivors at the Scavenging pile, screaming at them that if at least one didn’t return with a freaking piece of Food, we were all going to die.
Nothing helped. We never even moved a step. The Frost consumed us, right where we started, time and again. Eventually the deck seemed to turn in my favor, and I was able to progress, but all in all, I’d still say I succeeded only maybe 10% of the time. I love a good challenge, but often, Frost goes beyond challenge into pure frustration. Right now, you might be saying that I’m just a deckbuilding noob who can’t even find my way out of the discard pile let alone find my way to Refuge. You might be right. But that doesn’t change the fact that noobs like myself are likely to find similar frustration in facing the Frost.
In the main menu, you have the option to view your Collection. From there, you can see how many cards you’ve unlocked and how many you have left to go. There are a lot. Not only does this motivate you to keep playing simply from a “gotta catch ’em all” mindset, but each one brings an added challenge or advantage to the gameplay. When you consider this, plus the potential for DLC or online PvP or any other direction Bodin may decide to take his creation, the replay potential for Frost is off the charts, especially for fans of the genre and/or players who can handle colossal amounts of failure.
I’m pleasantly blown away by Frost. It lured me in with its good looks and then kept me there with its addictive gameplay. In my perfect scenario, the game would be a breath more forgiving, but then again, I suppose forgiveness is not in the Frost’s nature.
In a world of Super Smash Bros. and new Spider-Man titles, it’s probably easy to overlook this humble, understated game, but I suggest you give it a gander. Once you figure out how to play, it’s quite fun. And considering its indie price point ($6.99 on Steam, $12.99 on PSN), what have you got to lose? Well, other than your life. Repeatedly. May the cards be ever in your favor.