Frost is many things, for something so deceptively simple. It’s melancholy and bleak, an effective representation of a cycle of survival spiralling ever closer to hopelessness. It’s also just a few simple card-based mechanics in a screen filled with negative space, a whiteness that at times feels like it’s closing in like the ever-encroaching threat of an icy demise.
In Frost‘s world, the only hope of surviving a malevolent advancing wall of snow and ice is to make it to the Refuge, an almost mythical safe haven for those who can outrun the freeze. Frost does its best to represent the distant hope of the Refuge and the starkness that is the approaching Frost: every screen is carefully crafted to be as white and as empty as possible, and against that background are contrasted simple, blockish elements which make up the interactive elements of gameplay.
Visually, it’s quite a striking effect. Frost is nothing if not distinctive (you’d never mistake it for anything else), and it’s extremely committed to maintaining its consistent, thematically-appropriate aesthetic. It’s sparing, making great use of negative space, and each of its icons and graphics is distinctive, making it easy to see the state of play at a glance. I’m not totally sold on all of the graphics, with human faces in particular looking a little… odd at times, albeit still in a very consistently Frost-like way, but some of the little touches are really nice.
The audio, too, is sparse and haunting. There’s very little in the way of music, in the usual sense, and I think that’s to Frost‘s benefit: a more traditional ditty plonking away in the background would take away from the ambience and harshness that every element of the game tries so hard to create. Instead, there are swishing, cold winds and eerie drones fading gently in and out: less is more in Frost‘s design philosophy, and I think it works for the most part. There’s a mood evoked by every element, with nothing feeling out of place.
Well, except for the occasional loud sound effect that feels really jarring against the otherwise near-silent backdrop, but they’re few and far between.
The gameplay, too, feels consistent with the overall feel of Frost. At its heart, Frost is a deckbuilding card game requiring the player to manage resources and make what they hope will turn out to be the least terrible decisions (for no decision in the frostbitten world is going to be completely ‘good’): as the leader of a wandering tribe of nomads with an eight-day head start on the impending Frost, you must guide your people through the regions of this icy world, trying to outrun the Frost and reach the safety of the Refuge.
You’ll start with a small deck of resources including a negligible count of materials and foodstuffs plus a few survivors (members of your tribe). Each turn presents you with a demand for payment: you might have to present two ‘food’, two ‘material’, and three ‘survivor’ cards, for example. Upon meeting the cost, you get to take one step away from the Frost and towards the Refuge.
You’re unlikely to have everything you need in your hand at the start of each turn, but (fortunately, else it would be a terribly dull concept) there are ways to increase the resources available to you, or through variously obscure strategies find ways to trade one resource for another, or for more. ‘Idea’ and ‘Event’ cards allow you to swap one thing for another: a pickaxe, for example, might cost one material card to purchase, and another to activate once in-hand, but yield two food cards. There are also Ideas which allow you to draw a number of cards from your deck, which doesn’t increase the number you have available overall but does give you access to more of your resources in the same turn. Managing your stock of available resources to ensure that you have enough of each type of card to cover all situations is the real brain-tester in Frost, requiring a bit of long-term learning and thinking about how to balance your deck through short-term reactions and adaptations. Besides using cards on Ideas or Events, you can make use of survivor cards to ‘scavenge’ for food or materials, although they might just as easily bring back another survivor (effectively a net gain/loss of zero) or a ‘fatigue’ card – or worse, ‘terror’. Fatigue is a useless resource which clutters your hand, making it less likely that you’ll have the resources you need, and terror is a souped-up version of the same thing with the delightful added benefit of being an instant game over if you have three in hand at once.
Finally, you can also opt to take your turn without meeting the cost requirement. This swaps out the cards in your hand for another set freshly drawn from your deck, but beware; each time you end a turn without travelling, the Frost closes in. You’ll start each game with an eight-step lead on the Frost, and gain a day on it each time you travel (only up to the maximum of eight), but this number is much more likely to creep towards zero than it is to climb back up again.
This is the core of the gameplay cycle in each round of Frost: manage your resources to make your way through each area of the game’s bleak world, outrunning the chasing Frost in order to reach the Refuge before being caught and succumbing to the cold.
There are complications, of course. Events might allow you to gain useful resources, but they can also be dangerous: wolves or cannibals might block the way between one area and the next, requiring the player to source a solution (a weapon, generally) to remove the problem before progressing. This can be costly, and so it’s not always feasible to find a suitable weapon without allowing the Frost to catch up; heading through danger without dealing with it first will hurt, as you’ll either have to sacrifice one of your survivor cards (or some other special cards that can be used in their place) or take a hit point loss to the tribe’s leader. Needless to say, losing all your hit points is another immediate way to lose the game.
Still, most of the many rounds of Frost I played ended in death by frozen wasteland.
Losses are to be expected, though, given the tone of the game. Frost is one of those games that’s played not as one continuous experience but as many short rounds, and I must have played a dozen or more rounds of ‘Easy’ mode before actually winning one. Every so often I’d gain some benefit from a loss to be used in the next game – a new Idea card to draw upon, for example – but every time I’d learn something new about how to approach surviving just a little longer, keeping my tribe alive.
The standard game mode’s objective is simply to reach the Refuge, or else die trying, but as you progress you’ll also unlock different scenarios with slightly different modes of play. There’s one in which you must ensure that none of your family are killed on the way to the Refuge, for example, which ups the desperation already inherent in Frost‘s mechanics by restricting the risks you feel able to take with your survivor cards (since using your nameless tribe members to scavenge is usually a key part of gameplay, but in this mode sending your family on hunts risks their lives, and thus the game). I really like these modes, actually; they add an extra layer to the storytelling that can happen through emergent gameplay when mechanics interact in ways you might not have foreseen.
I think Frost picks a mood, a white deathly silence, to communicate, and each of its elements coheres with that strongly. At its best it can be intense and even a little gruelling, as you desperately try to accumulate just one more of a particular type of resource before being overwhelmed, and you can get immersed in the cyclical loop of struggling to stay ahead of the storm. It feels as if Frost would be very well-suited to portable play on the Switch or on mobile; I have read from one source that Frost was in fact originally a mobile game now ported to consoles (I played on PS4), and while I haven’t been able to corroborate that – although there is another game of the same name on mobile – I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that it was at least designed with mobile interaction in mind. Graphics are large, easily interpreted at a distance, and the gameplay all takes place on a single screen (well, one and a half if you count the small area containing your deck and discard pile, which you can scroll down to take a peek at) and could be easily controlled with a single finger.
In fact, I reckon Frost would work really nicely as an actual physical tabletop game. Some of its rules are probably more easily implemented with the benefit of behind-the-scenes programming doing some of the work that a player would have to manually work out, but I think I’ve played card games with a similar vibe: more of a setting than a narrative, simple enough gameplay involving use and management of card types, fairly short rounds, and the unlockable scenarios feel like expansions that could be easily added to the base game purely with a few tweaks to the rules, or perhaps a couple of special extra cards.
If you’ve enjoyed card-based games in the past, or deckbuilders, or really anything survival-ish where the tone is much more ‘try not to die for as long as possible, but inevitably die at some point’ than ‘everything will be OK eventually’, then Frost is worth a gander. It’s thoroughly engaging at turns, and even when the repetition of ‘struggle-succeed-struggle-fail’ gets a little tedious it feels like a thematically appropriate sort of tediousness. If nothing else, Frost is extremely committed to its tone and themes, and I’ll always appreciate a game that does that.
REVIEW CODE: A complimentary Playstation 4 code was provided to Bonus Stage for this review. Please send all review code enquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Gameplay - 7/10
Graphics - 7/10
Sound - 5/10
Replay Value - 8/10
User Review( votes)
Frost is melancholy and bleak, a deckbuilder for those who want to feel all the pain and terror of surviving a deadly winter.