The RTS genre is chock-full of games that are a bit too complicated for their own good. But every once in a while, we get a title that takes the core elements of RTS and wraps them in a neat and simplified package. Frozenheim is one such game.
Despite marketing itself as a city builder and colony sim, Frozenheim is clearly an RTS with a bit of an identity problem. The game takes the jack-of-all-trades approach in an attempt to appeal to a larger audience but ultimately struggles to differentiate itself from the myriad of unimaginative strategy games already available on Steam.
Vikings You’ve Seen Before
Frozenheim plays a lot like a Norse-themed Age of Empires. The Norse theme is both a pro and a con in my opinion. On one hand, this is one of the prettiest Viking games I’ve seen in a while and is a real treat for fans of Norse architecture. There are some fantasy elements here and there but Frozenheim tries to strike a good balance between realism and mythology. I talk more about that aspect in a recent article covering realistic medieval games.
On the other hand, there’s only so much you can do with Vikings and you’ve probably already seen it all before. You don’t have multiple factions to choose from, so once you’ve played through a campaign or a multiplayer match there’s little reason to start a new one. The game is genuinely fun for the first hour or two but everything starts to feel repetitive afterward.
The core gameplay of Frozenheim revolves around base building, resource gathering, combat, and exploration. The city building aspect is minimal, to the point where I would hesitate to put that label on it. You can go crazy and build a massive village (primarily in custom games) if you want to, but there’s no real reason to do that. Most of the time you’ll want to keep your settlement small and easily defendable.
Base building in Frozenheim is pretty solid. You start off with a central building known as the Jarl’s Homestead and gradually expand from there. Unlike a lot of other RTS games, Frozenheim doesn’t have workers that can be controlled directly. Which is a bummer for players who like cheesy strategies like worker rushes. Instead, you lay down the foundation of the structure you want to construct and after a few seconds, a worker will move to that location and start the construction.
Villagers are your most important resource in Frozenheim. Most buildings don’t do anything unless you assign villagers to them, who are converted to workers in the process. Villagers can also be converted into various types of combat units and are needed to operate siege engines. In a pinch, they can be turned into peasant militia units as well. Needless to say, villagers are very important and you’ll need to make sure to keep them happy if you want things to run smoothly.
Frozenheim features a discontent mechanic similar to the ones you can find in grand strategy games. You can increase the happiness of your population by building houses next to each other, placing wells next to the houses, organizing feasts, and a few other things. Conversely, the people’s level of discontent will start to rise if there’s not enough food to go around or if your fallen warriors aren’t properly buried, to name just a couple of examples.
The discontent mechanic is not a bad addition but you’ll rarely even notice it. These sorts of mechanics work best when you have multiple cities with varying levels of happiness that need to be managed. Here, you only have one settlement to worry about so it’s quite easy to keep the discontent level low. Or to quickly lower it when the peasants start getting rowdy.
Is There Even a Story Here?
The game takes a very linear approach to progression. The campaign is split into multiple chapters, each comprised of a handful of missions. In typical RTS fashion, the first chapter is the slowest of the bunch and serves to introduce you to the game’s various mechanics. Unfortunately, it’s a bit too slow. Clearing a mission can take anywhere between 30 minutes to an hour on average and you’ll spend most of that time doing menial tasks. Clearing the first chapter will take you about 3-4 hours.
By the time you finish the first chapter of the campaign, there’s very little reason to keep going. There is an overarching narrative that ties everything together and tries to push you to the next missions, but it’s hard to figure out what’s going on at the best of times. Frozenheim’s storytelling borders on incomprehensible and is easily one of the weakest aspects of the game.
Probably the strangest thing about the narration is how it constantly tries to instill a sense of urgency in the player. The gameplay is clearly meant to be slow-paced and relaxing so the two don’t really gel. There’s also the fact that the narrator often mentions names of characters that don’t actually appear in the game. In fact, there are no characters in the game, so why even bother trying to set up a character-driven story? It’s all very strange.
Just Spam Archers
As far as the combat is concerned, it’s serviceable but don’t expect anything mind-blowing. Frozenheim’s Steam page promises “brutal real-time combat that will put your tactical skills to the test”. Yeah, that’s not really the case. Combat is very simplistic and rarely involves anything more than selecting a handful of units and clicking on an enemy. Most units have special abilities but few are targetable and you can usually win a fight even without using them.
I suspect the developers wanted to go with a rock-paper-scissors approach where units act as hard counters for other units, but the system doesn’t work very well. Archers, in particular, are extremely overpowered and difficult to deal with, to the point where there’s little reason to train other types of units. There are a couple of interesting units you’ll want to train just for the sake of it, however, the most effective way to win any battle is to just make a bunch of archers.
Since there are no factions in Frozenheim you’ll mostly end up fighting the same handful of units you’ll be using yourself. In addition to bandits and rival clans, you’ll also have to fight wild animals while exploring but that’s about it. The most interesting thing about the combat is that you can tame animals to fight by your side. You can also incorporate hero units and siege engines in your warband but they don’t really help make engagements more interesting.
Since we’re talking about combat, I have to mention that Frozenheim doesn’t have an attack-move. You’ll need to manually click an opponent whenever you want to attack, which can be harder than it sounds in a game where everybody has tiny hitboxes. It does help that there are currently a lot of pathfinding issues in the game and the AI isn’t particularly smart either. So again, don’t expect Frozenheim to “put your tactical skills to the test.”
You’re better off playing Total War games if you’re looking for something that involves actual tactics.
Before I wrap up this Frozenheim review I have to talk a bit about the game’s overall atmosphere because it’s quite nice. Frozenheim is a relaxing game with a beautiful soundtrack that somehow doesn’t get boring despite the fact that it consists of relatively few songs. The visuals aren’t too shabby either, especially for an RTS. Frozenheim can look very beautiful under the right conditions and the choice of art style does a fantastic job at selling the Norse fantasy theme.
Having said that, Frozenheim suffers from a lack of variety at the moment, which isn’t a good look for a game that just came out of Early Access. It feels like developer Paranoid Interactive had bigger ambitions for this but they either lacked the resources or the time to fully realize their vision. But I feel like the main problem here is the marketing. Frozenheim’s description sets a lot of expectations that the game isn’t able to live up to.
Although Frozenheim didn’t end up being the type of game I thought it was, I still had a reasonably good time playing it. At the end of the day, this is a small game developed by a small team and they’re only asking $17 for it. I find that to be pretty fair for what you get in return. In addition to a fairly lengthy campaign, you can also play custom games complete with randomly generated maps and multiplayer with up to seven other people. That’s pretty good bang for your buck in my book.
Frozenheim is the type of game that’s best played in small doses. The game feels underdeveloped in a lot of ways but not to the point where it becomes downright boring. You’ll definitely have some fun with this one if you’re looking for a simple and relaxing RTS to play after a hard day at work. Just maybe try not to set your expectations too high before jumping in like I did.