From here on out, we’re going to see the pace of game releases pick up speed. Slay the Spire is just over a year out from early access at this point, and there’s already something in the water among western devs taking inspiration from card game classics. Frost, released for PC on July 5th, 2016, comes to us by way of French developer Jérôme Bodin’s studio Le Studio des Ténèbres, and wears its influences on its Steam page: “Dominion, Ascension, etc”. Its narrative hook is tied very heavily to its gameplay systems, something quite special this early on among the games we’ve seen.
Premise and Gameplay
A deadly storm that reduces all in its wake to dust torments a band of wanderers who seek the ‘Refuge’, a place of safety where the storm, which they call the ‘Frost’, will not be able to reach them. It’s that simple. It works, too. We know next to nothing about our characters except their suffering. You can read as much or as little into it as you wish.
The gameplay of Frost is a little difficult to explain in writing without coming across like a tutorial. In brief: you draw a hand of resources every turn: food, material, and survivors. These can be played to either traverse a region and move onto the next ‘stage’, or they can be played to gain items or alternate resources if you didn’t already draw enough to finish the stage. Survivor cards, for example, can be gambled in the hopes they will hunt and come back with food or materials, which you may need more of to get through the current region. If you don’t have the cards you need in your initial hand, you can rest for a day and draw a new hand, but this brings the looming danger of the Frost nearer, which must be constantly outrun. The goal is to get to the Refuge before running out of resources, getting killed by dangers along the way, or indeed, freezing to death.
Combat isn’t a key focus of the game in the way we’ve seen it in previous entries here. Certain stages will pit you against a wolf, cannibals, or another threat that you can craft weapons to deal with. However, it is often equally viable to just refuse to fight and take the damage if you don’t want to waste the time or cards. These encounters can threaten your run, but not as imposingly as the Frost itself. Functionally, the Frost is just a time limit on the number of times you can draw new hands before a Game Over, but it always puts a slight pit in your stomach when you throw away your cards for a new hand, watch the Frost approach, and still don’t get the cards you were hoping for. This makes me curious about what came first in Frost’s development, its narrative hook or its gameplay mechanics. I can see it having taken shape having been led by either one.
You can ‘beat’ Frost very quickly. I won a run on my second try within 35 minutes of installing it, including the 5-10 minutes I spent with its tutorial. (Reminder: I am not good at video games.) I did this without engaging with or really understanding its deeper mechanics, such as the fact that most cards have secondary functions if another card is sacrificed when playing them. However, it’s worth sticking with for a good number of hours after this point, because you unlock more entertaining modes and classes that modify the challenge. Frost’s equivalent of character classes are ‘scenarios’, which are runs with alternative win conditions or different decks. The Leader, for example, immediately loses the run if anything happens to the survivor cards that represent his family, so you can’t risk sending them off to gather resources or literally throw them to the wolves to save yourself. The Meditator doesn’t have to worry about the Frost catching up, but has to survive for 50 stages, roughly 2.5 times the length of a regular run. Once completed, the scenario characters become playable in the game’s ‘main’ mode, which can be adjusted for different difficulties and play features as desired.
There’s a lot of information to consider every time a new round begins. The required cards to beat the round, the items you can craft, and the features or encounters in the current area are all random. Fundamentally, Frost is a game of transactions: if you don’t have the cards you need to progress in your hand, how quickly and effectively can you get rid of them for cards you do need? You can fairly quickly reach a zoned-out state of play where you’re not really ‘reading’ the cards, more just glancing over the icons for their costs and making snap judgements about if you need them or not. I think this is the feeling I always look for in a good deck-builder; the moment when the abstractions of the gameplay fall away and you can feel the flow of its systems working effortlessly. It feels like being able to decipher the code in the Matrix for fun, or something.
Despite this, it did strike me that I rarely came across any new non-starting card during a run that felt like a true gamechanger. Whatever struggles your chosen class face in the early to midgame will likely be the same struggles they’ll face by the endgame, assuming you’ve found a way to mitigate them. It is nice that almost every card you start with maintains a degree of usefulness (except Fatigue cards that just clutter up your hand), but it also means the thrill of finding a card that sounds really useful if you can combine it with other things is missing. Because every card feels fairly disposable, the deck lacks that push-pull satisfaction as it get built. Instead of being good at dealing with one type or threat well or potentially being weak to another, your deck is always either adequate or subpar, and it’s very hard to get a losing deck back on track once it starts going pear-shaped. Given the theme, though, perhaps this is part of the design?
My only real gripe is that one major thing seems dependent on randomisation that really shouldn’t be: unlocking more features. Unless I’m missing something, I believe the only way to unlock new scenarios is to obtain all the unlockable cards for the scenarios you already have. These are earned randomly when completing runs. Sometimes they are earned even if you fail a run. Sometimes you won’t earn anything when finishing a run, and there is no indication of how far along you are until your next unlockable, not that earning them seems like linear progress anyway. An ‘XP to next unlockable’ or redeemable point system between runs would have eliminated this arbitrary frustration. Again, given the game’s tone, perhaps such systems would feel thematically inappropriate. I would argue that unless it’s intended as an art piece before any other concern, a game that sacrifices playability for the preservation of atmosphere may have its priorities mixed up, but with Frost I have no conclusive evidence this is really the case, anyway.
The game’s About page on Steam describes itself as having “sloppy but graceful unique artwork”, which is pretty spot-on. Almost all the character and card art is rendered in heavy navy linework, with colour only being used to highlight certain facial features and soft grey shadow work doing the rest. I love it when an indie game is able to invest everything it has into honing a particular tone, and Frost nails its own: this place is really cold and dangerous, and you will die if you don’t act. It’s figuratively cold besides feeling literally cold, too. The game is very matter-of-fact about the grim reality its travellers sometimes face, such as playing the Cannibalism card. You lose a survivor and receive two food cards that work like any other, but instead of the usual picture of fruit on the cards, they are represented by slabs of slightly bloodied meat to remind you of what you had to do to get it. Probably the most affecting bit of art design is how the Frost affects the field of play the closer it draws near. When you only have one turn left to survive, black lines start flashing and fragmenting the field of play, with an undercurrent of white noise starting up in the background, perhaps to simulate the terror of oncoming frostbite. Your eyes may not thank you for staring at so much white for extended periods of time, but it builds a good atmosphere. There is very little music, most of it somber chanting and what sounds like horns so distant you’re only hearing the echo of them from far away. Like the visuals, the sound design is intentionally sparse and all the stronger for it.
Frost is one of the earliest examples of a roguelike deck-builder that seems to have put as much care put into the tone it wants to convey as it has put into its gameplay systems. Unlockables could be a little less opaque, and the singular, dark setting alongside a lack of card diversity means that it probably isn’t a deck-builder you’re going to come back to for the world or its systems. That said, the speed with which you will likely get a handle on its mechanics is extremely satisfying, and even a little time spent with Frost is likely to stick in your memory.
As mentioned earlier, few cards in Frost are significantly powerful in all instances. Cards increase and drop in value round to round depending on which ones you need or what you can trade them for.