I’m generally all about horror games; while the majority of games that can be considered as thematically “horror” oriented tend to fall into the survival horror or adventure genre, not all of them occupy these two genres, and those that don’t tend to pique my interest the most. Sure, there will always be some turkeys in the mix (and believe me, I’ve played plenty) but when something amazing like Condemned or Deadly Premonition comes along, it’s worth the experimentation. So when Frozen State was brought to our attention in its alpha state as an “Early Access” title, I was intrigued. The game seemed to cross-breed elements of overhead action games with The Thing, along with a procedurally generated world that guaranteed a challenge and a somewhat new experience every time, which all seemed like they’d come together to make something truly special. Having spent a few hours with the alpha build of Frozen State, that impression has more or less been accurate, but it ends up that “special” doesn’t mean “good” at this juncture.
I dunno what the hell’s in there, but it’s weird and pissed off, whatever it is.
You start off Frozen State by picking a character to play as, though at this point there is only one to choose from; two more (based on the selection screen) will be available at some point down the road, and each should theoretically have their own strengths and weaknesses that make them worth playing. On picking your character, you’re dropped into your house and given the basic gist of what’s going on: you’re running low on supplies and need to go scavenge in order to survive. Doing so is easier said than done, however; you’re located in the Siberian town of Duga 40 during what appears to be winter, so it’s freezing cold outside and keeping warm or finding warm places to rest is a concern. Further, the town is filled with monstrosities that are essentially reminiscent of the creatures from The Thing, and often appear to be mutated humans, who want you just as dead as the elements. As such, fighting off both the elements and the monsters that have infested the city is a top concern for survival, and this could, in theory, make for an entertaining and terrifying experience.
When you first drop into the game, it gives you a basic rundown of how everything works. The gist is that the game uses a combination of WASD and the mouse for movement, with the WASD keys moving your character where you need them to be and the mouse allowing you to highlight things, aim and rotate the camera as needed. To manage the elements, you’ll have to find shelter fairly regularly, as the cold is absolutely biting in this game, though you can also use campfires if you have the tools to build them to keep yourself warm. Eating and sleeping are also core concerns, and you’ll have to do both regularly if you want to survive, using whatever resources you can find for food and shelter in the hulked out homes and such you come across. It’s in this idea where Frozen State becomes a winner, as the concept of deciding whether to try going into the nearby house that may have a horrible monster that could kill you within it or keep looking for somewhere more likely to be safe at the risk of death is one that has a lot of appeal to it.
Sadly, in the state it’s in, Frozen State doesn’t even come close to making that idea a reality.
My God, what the hell happened here?
The biggest issue against the game, at this point, is the procedural item generation in theory relative to how it works in practice. In theory this isn’t a bad idea; having the game world be random every time you play does a lot to increase replay value, and that’s where a lot of the better Roguelike games on the market employ their challenge, after all. In practice, however, it doesn’t work for Frozen State because there will often be cases where the game doesn’t even give you enough tools to survive the second section of the map in one piece when you start off, which is not a recipe for success in this case. I’ve found that the item generation is completely random; in three separate playthroughs I’ve started with one type of handgun and bullets that work for a completely different kind, for example, which almost ensured my death about fifteen minutes later. Even under ideal conditions you really don’t start out with a lot of useful things, which would probably be less problematic in something like a Roguelike, where strategy is the key to survival, but Frozen State borrows as much of its concepts from Roguelikes as it does from Lost in Blue or The Thing. Because of this cross-breeding of concepts and genres, the elements don’t always work out as intended; in many cases, you’ll find (as I did) that moving forward means triggering multiple enemies you couldn’t even see, all of which can kill you handily, when you have no gear to face them. This often means running and possibly freezing to death if you have no shelter, or facing them and dying.
That said, the development team seems to be receptive to suggestions, and even provided us this early access copy to work with, so to them I say this: while difficulty is good, and we all kind of seem to love Dark Souls these days, there’s something to be said for easing a player into an experience, especially one that can be as unfriendly as Frozen State. Setting the starting equipment so that it’s guaranteed to be useful would help a lot, both in teaching new players how things work and what they really need to survive, and in giving players things they can actually use to survive the first hour or two. Now, the player base the game already has clearly seems to be enjoying the game as-is, and they’re asking for the game to be even harder, so I wouldn’t suggest simply catering to a different base, so much as offering options for people who don’t want to spend an hour dying on the second map repeatedly. The game, as it is, currently caters to the more hardcore player, which (if that’s the only demographic you want to cater to) is fine, but it’s not going to get a lot of traction in its current state. To put it another way, as someone who loves Roguelikes, dungeon crawlers, Monster Hunter and Dark Souls, I can safely say I don’t want to play the game as it is, and that’s probably not a good thing.
We gotta burn the rest of ’em.
Now, clearly Frozen State is in an alpha state at this point, and many of those sorts of concepts may well be on the minds of the developers going forward; they’ve already released an update in the past two days that includes sleeping bags and reduced hunger/thirst meters, for example, so they’re clearly aware that things need work. The core idea is sound, as well, and if the game can get through some tuning and be a bit more accessible while still maintaining the punishment the diehards are craving, it could be a real winner. The $10 price tag isn’t a bad investment to get into the alpha and see what the game has to offer, so anyone who enjoys horror themed games may want to check it out either way. In its current state, though, don’t be surprised if it’s hard to really get into what the game has to offer. We’ll keep an eye on it as it continues to develop, and check back as the game continues to unfold.