I’ve sunk way more hours into Frozenheim’s campaigns than I intended to. My brain spent that time torn between a nostalgic joy for simpler, less-stressful times and bouts of frustration at the sedate pacing relative to modern real-time strategy games. Frozenheim – if you wanted a quick and reductive overview – is a modern-looking, Norse-themed Age of Empires-esque experience, with more involved base building and unit production. Not identical, in that there are no novel gameplay mechanics, but it shares the slow-paced and tightly-scripted mission structure controlled by the map layout. It features missions that can claim hours of your life if you’re a cautious and methodical player. Missions that allow you to comfortably fortify your position and push forward at your own pace. It’s also good – if you’ve got the temperament, the time, and that nostalgic hook.
The overarching story is told through five campaigns, each covering the trials and tribulations of a new Jarl in Frozenheim’s fictional Norse world. The first functions as a lengthy tutorial – despite the presence of a discrete tutorial mission – before subsequent campaigns ramp up the difficulty and ditch the hand-holding. Each campaign may not offer up many missions, but each is a multi-objective affair that makes full use of the map and can easily take upwards of an hour to complete. Unfortunately, the storytelling is fairly underwhelming, despite featuring internal power struggles, clan warfare, and more mythical elements. The flashy opening cinematic introduces the Frozenheim setting but from then on – until you hit the ending cinematic – you’re stuck with rudimentary in-game cutscenes, straight out of the early 2000s, with competent but uninspired narration.
Now Frozenheim’s developers, Paranoid Interactive, describe their game as “a serene Norse colony sim with real-time combat and rich settlement management mechanics”. It’s simultaneously apt and misleading. “Serene”, yes, in so far as you often control the pacing in campaign missions. Your settlement is rarely besieged in earnest and, once you’ve established a palisade and a few watch towers, you’re almost guaranteed victory if you build up and tech up your forces before moving out. A “colony sim”, not so much. There are no missions that allow you to avoid engaging with real-time combat entirely. As for having “rich settlement management mechanics”, they’re definitely there – despite the criticism you’ll find in forums and some reviews – but they’re streamlined in comparison to other titles and don’t dominate the experience outside of the early game.
In Frozenheim, most missions start with establishing a new settlement and first impressions are very similar to Age of Empires or any number of classic RTS. You construct houses to increase your population cap and resource-gathering buildings for the basics like food, wood, and stone. However, there’s no ethereal resource pile you add to or draw from, so any outposts away from your primary settlement draw on their local population and resource pool. To expand and access new technologies, you need to upgrade your Jarl’s homestead – which means increasing your population’s average contentment levels. This is achieved by ensuring social buildings are clustered to overlap their radius of influence – but you need to take into account the limited build radius and plan accordingly.
That’s just the basics of Frozenheim. Seasonality changes population growth rates and food production, so fishing and hunting remain essential for sustaining food in winter when your farms, orchids, and mills don’t operate. Any combat units, aside from the basic scout, requires a supply and production chain for clothes and steel, but these production buildings need to be monitored to avoid burning through basic resources you might need elsewhere. When you throw in several tiers of clan-specific upgrades (which offer passive buffs, new buildings, and specialised units), the ability to plunder bandit camps and caves, donate supplies to neutral factions for rewards, and trade supplies in markets or with traders, growing your settlement is an involved and engaging task, but never unmanageably so.
The real-time combat is strategic enough, though a mixed army and overwhelming numbers do the job 90% of the time – just watch out for friendly fire if you’re a fan of archers. When low on numbers, there’s the opportunity for some basic stealth using forests, hit-and-run tactics to remove resource- or unit-producing buildings, and exploiting the AI – all made easier by the ability to pause or speed up gameplay at any time (which is useful when setting up your settlement too). Given the setting, many maps have water bodies you can use to ferry troops around the back of enemy camps. However, ships carry so few units – and have no crew of their own – so it’s an arduous approach I rarely used unless the map left me no other choice.
Despite the ability to build siege weapons and upgrade your basic units – think axemen all-rounders, defensive shield-bearers, and deadly archers – all units destroy wooden buildings quickly with flaming torches, making homestead rushes a viable strategy. When your units engage in combat, each has a special ability on a cooldown to give them an edge in 1-vs-1 combat or bolster their support skills. Outside of conventional warfare, capturing runestones provides access to Frozenheim‘s more fantastical elements, with passive blessings and offensive abilities provided by devotion to the many gods of Asgard.
From a purely single-player perspective, the biggest problem with Frozenheim’s campaign is the simplistic enemy AI that makes it easy to identify and fortify attack routes or circumvent enemy patrol paths to hit their vital structures. It’ll be a divisive choice but the map layout is clearly artificial, designed with defendable chokepoints or linear paths to objectives with roadblocks along the way. For some, it’ll be soothingly nostalgic and a throwback to times with less complex scripting. For others, it means there are few dynamic moments to keep you on your toes and most missions play out as an elaborate player-vs-AI skirmish map.
Frozenheim consistently looks and sounds great, even if the setting doesn’t change much between the five campaigns. Units and buildings are intricately detailed to an absurd degree for an RTS, while every activity – think resource gathering, carting around building supplies, or crafting in workshops – plays out in real-time, ensuring your settlement feels bustling and alive. Attacks on settlements look great as flaming torches fly through the air to set buildings aflame and smoke billows into the sky. The environment, and especially the foliage, is equally stunning. The changing seasons and weather provide a constant cycle of lush green summers, golden autumns, snow and wind-swept winters, and spring thunderstorms. The visual beauty and natural ambience are backed up by a beautiful and atmospheric soundtrack.
It’s not perfect though, and several rough edges could do with a patch or two. For one, despite brisk loading times, Frozenheim exhibits a ton of texture and LoD streaming issues when first loading into a mission or cutscene. The second issue is the limited or missing animations for building construction, destruction, and upgrades (upgraded buildings just pop into existence). The third, and most prominent issue, is floaty movement and combat. Your units often feel disconnected from the map as they smoothly glide over it, while combat looks great up close but there’s little correlation between animations and damage. All that said, you’ll barely notice most of these issues from the typical zoomed-out viewpoint, but that highlights a gameplay-related issue – selecting and issuing commands to groups of intricately-modeled but tiny units. You’ll quickly realize it’s easier to pause and issue orders using the squad icons but this becomes problematic when units are clustered.
Overall, I’d recommend Frozenheim‘s campaigns to fans of classics like Age of Empires or Empire Earth, and maybe those that enjoyed “The Age of Kings” campaigns in Age of Empires 2 – especially at the budget price. Slow and steady growth, defending against predictable incursions, building and upgrading forces, and then steamrolling your foes is the name of the game. If, on the other hand, you were brought up on faster-paced RTS titles like Red Alert and StarCraft, where every moment is a battle to stay on top economically and militarily, you might find Frozenheim too predictable and boring. Ultimately, I’m having fun, but I still can’t decide if parts of the experience are nostalgic or anachronistic.
A review code for Frozenheim was provided to Gameblur by the Publisher.
Frozenheim Campaign (PC) ReviewFrozenheim Campaign (PC) Review
Visuals8/10 Very Good
Audio8/10 Very Good
- The environments, settlements, and combat look and sound great
- Settlement-building and expansion is involved and engaging
- A methodical experience for those that want to control the pace
- Many will find the sedate pacing too boring
- Limited scripting allows you to exploit the AI
- Selecting and commanding clustered units is a pain