STAFF REVIEW of Frost (Xbox One)

Tuesday, August 28, 2018.
by Adam Dileva

Frost Box art I usually really enjoy card based deck building games. Something about the strategic element of thinking numerous moves ahead, or how to plan accordingly, generally comes naturally to me. There’s always going to be a random-like element to a card game for the most part, even with a game like Solitaire, where you have no idea what the next face down card that you will put in your hand will be, and how you must adapt. But what do you do when the odds are so unfairly stacked against you that it’s seemingly impossible to win most of the time? That’s where Frost comes in, a card based title that boasts a narrative reasoning behind its premise.

A frozen world is being engulfed by an approaching deadly winter storm, and your group must flee in search of refuge. Where you live is the only safe place you’re aware of, but the storm is constantly approaching behind you, and the journey won’t be an easy one. You’ll cross paths with many dangers, not only limited to wolves and other people, but managing your resources and hunger also.

So how does Frost implement this narrative into a deck building game? In some ways, very cleverly, but in terms of the execution, very frustratingly. The Frost is indicated by a counter in the top left of the screen, and at the end of every turn, the dial either counts downwards (closer), or upwards if you’ve managed to move forward on your journey. You’re going to need a certain set of cards to clear each step of the journey though, and with the Frost constantly within reach, and a seemingly unfair set of winning conditions, you’ll become quite frustrated before ever reaching the refuge for the first time.

Most cards games are simple in premise, so they are easy to pick up and play, but they require time and practice to master. Frost requires time and practice, but it is absolutely not a simple game to pick up and play; that is, if you actually want to win. You’ll need to think very strategically, not just to win, but to even stay ahead of the Frost that is a constant reminder of your impending doom. You’ll need to clear twenty or so areas to make it to the refuge, but you’ll soon see why this is incredibly more challenging than it first appears to be.

You’ll be given a preset deck of cards in the beginning, with food, wood, survivors and despair cards. These are your resources, and while small, must be managed essentially perfectly, and need to hope that the randomness doesn’t play against you too harshly, though it will. To clear an area and move ahead, you’ll need to ‘feed’ the area card the resources is desires, such as a certain amount of survivors, wood or food, by handing in these cards. There are also idea cards where you can trade a certain amount of one resource for another, or more appropriately, a chance at another, so long term strategic thinking is an absolute must. This won’t become apparent either in your first few dozen games until things start to make sense, even after completing the tutorial.

The Frost is constantly moving towards you, and at the end of every turn, it will either get closer or further way, depending on if you cleared the area or not. If you fulfilled that area’s required resources and choose to move ahead, the Frost counter, which maxes at eight moves, will move upwards, indicating you’re further away from the Frost. If you don’t have the resource cards to fulfill the requirements for the area and exhausted the cards in a hand, the Frost counter ticks down, killing you once it reaches zero. You’re going to waste a lot of turns on moves where it seems you’re unable to win, and in some cases, is actually impossible to do so.

Moving your cursor around and menu management is a pain. You navigate by clicking up and over rather than using a free range cursor. So when you want to click on a card at the top of the screen, you need to constantly press up and over. It’s not very user friendly, and the menus are even more frustrating, as you’ll need to navigate to the “X” to close the menu instead of simply pressing “B” for back.

Some actions have hotkeys linked to buttons, like End Turn is Right Trigger, and Move Ahead (when you clear an area) is Right Bumper, but there’s another design flaw here. When I clear an area I want to move ahead to the next, thus bumping up the Frost Counter and progressing. The problem is both options are there for you, including 'End Turn', which makes your frost counter tick down closer to death. I can’t even count the amount of times I’ve accidentally hit Right Trigger to end my turn instead of Right Bumper to proceed. There really should be no reason End Turn should be an option if I’ve fulfilled the area requirements, or at least warn the player, as I’ve lost a handful of games due to this.

You’ll start off with access to only basic cards in the beginning, but the more you play, the more you’ll unlock. At first I thought it was a great idea to play as much as possible to unlock all the different cards, hoping it would make finding the refuge much easier. In fact, it did the complete opposite. You see, cards you’ve unlocked will randomly be thrown into your game, even if you’re a beginner playing on Easy mode.

For example, I unlocked a higher tier enemy card that required three spears to kill (if I don’t want to take health damage), and because decks are built randomly, I was lucky enough to have this card given to me in the first area. You don’t start with spear cards to ‘fight back’ enemies in your opening hand, as you need to trade resources for those, so I started off on a losing battle because I have this card unlocked permanently in my deck now. There are a few dozen cards to unlock, but like I said, the game becomes more difficult as you unlock them, which to me seems like backwards design.

At the top of the play field you’ll see Idea Cards pop up each turn. These are where you can exchange resources for others. If you’re completely out of wood, hopefully you’ll see an Idea Card where you can trade a food and survivors for some wood. This is where the resource management comes into play. You always have a counter of your resources in your deck, though it’s randomized what cards you’re given per hand of five, including the junk despair cards that are simply unusable.

You won’t progress far if you don’t start trading these resources for others, so you have to not only think very strategically, but hope that the randomness is on your side for once. Happen to get a handful of despair cards that you are unable to do anything with? You’re going to have to waste a turn, thus ticking down the Frost counter, to just refresh the cards in your current hand. It’s a constant battle of watching the Frost counter, hoping you have the right resources and trying to battle any enemy cards that get placed as well. To say it’s a continuous and unfair battle is an understatement.

If you’re short on the right resources needed to progress, you can also send out your survivors in your hand to scavenge, hopefully bringing back exactly what you’re looking for. They can bring back food, wood, other survivors, worthless despair cards, or even die, so it’s a gamble of how badly you want to risk sending them. Lose the required survivors and the game will tell you it’s basically unwinnable, causing you to lose and start anew once again.

So, not only do you have to satisfy the current area’s resource requirements to move on, you’ll also be given a random event in every area as well. With any luck it’s a simple trade opportunity, like an idea card, but now and then you’ll come across wolves or enemies that will attack you. At first, wolves are manageable, once you figure out to trade for the spears AND hope you get that card in your hand before moving on, but eventually you’ll have to battle harder enemies. Some will take two or three spears to kill, and others will even attack you at every turn, not just at the end of moving on from the area if not defeated.

If you don’t kill the enemy you’ll take damage when you move onto the next area. You only begin with four health, so you can either take the damage yourself or sacrifice one of your survivor cards in your hand, if you’re lucky enough to draw one that is. When you unlock the higher tier cards, there will be ways to replenish health if needed, but these are usually quite costly, and again, simply another resource you’re going to have to balance and manage.

Once you’ve finally got luck on your side, and you manage to finally make it to the refuge, there’s no grand scene that plays out or anything that feels rewarding. It took me a dozen or two games to get my first ‘win’, but when you do finally do so, Custom and Endless modes will unlock. Custom Games allow you to build any game with certain win parameters and Endless Games is self-explanatory. You’ll also unlock Scenarios as you play, with each one having its own twist to the game, such as not having to worry about Frost, or having some special abilities available. These are entertaining for a change of pace, and offer some varied gameplay.

For a game that’s very minimalistic with hand drawn art, it’s odd that there are some performance issues, even on an Xbox One X. Certain motions, like dealing your hand a new card, or changing areas, tend to lag out a bit, only worsened if you’re trying to hit the buttons needed before the game is ready to do so. This is by no means a deal breaker, but something worth noting.

The biggest frustration for me though was its difficulty. Even on Easy Mode, you’re going to lose dozens of times before you just happen to get a decent loadout of cards that tend to go your way. You’re constantly pressured to move ahead and progress, but are given minimal resources to do so, which in turn takes you longer to do.

Great games are supposed to ease you into the experience, to build your confidence and strategy building skills before hitting a steep difficulty curve. Frost does nearly the opposite, simply throwing you in, causing you to lose a lot of games before getting close to the refuge and losing again because of a bad hand. Frost is unforgiving, and worse yet, seemingly more based on luck than skill, which is a shame, as it has a ton of potential otherwise.

Overall: 4.5 / 10
Gameplay: 3.0 / 10
Visuals: 5.0 / 10
Sound: 5.0 / 10


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