Free Frostrain Puts Roguelikes on Rails

I have mentioned this before, rather recently actually, but train and railroad-based games are really popular right now. This includes almost every type of train game from realistic simulations like Railway Empire 2 or Rail Route to more casual titles like Station to Station or Railbound. Even horror games are starting to be set on trains these days, as is evident in Shinkansen 0 or the more bizarre Choo-Choo Charles, both of which were recently released for the PC.

And now there’s a new contender that adds a pretty unique roguelike to that fine list. It’s Frostrain by developer Stewdio, and it is available on Steam and happens to be free to play. Now, if you think about it, setting a roguelike on a train is kind of perfect. Trains generally only move forward and once they pass a station, they are not coming back to it for a while. Add in something like a killer ice storm that seals off the landscape behind you, and Frostrain provides a great setting for a roguelike adventure where you will have to live with your decisions, for good or ill.

The plot of Frostrain is obviously heavily influenced by the Snowpiercer graphic novel and television show. All of the elements from that story are present in this game. You have a train engine that must keep constantly moving forward, many factions competing for influence and power, and a conductor (the player in this case) who guides the train but who is also constantly under scrutiny and in danger of losing their job (or maybe their life) should a rebellion take place. The key difference with Frostrain is that there is a definite goal – a hidden paradise that you are desperately trying to get your train to – instead of just always moving forward.

Like with many classic titles, the gameplay in Frostrain is extremely easy to learn, but difficult to master to the point where you are consistently completing successful runs. First you must plot the course that you want the train to follow along the rail line of this frozen world using an overhead map, generally always moving towards the East since a huge, killer blizzard is slowly creeping up from the West behind you. Of particular note are the little stations that you pass along the way because each time you go through one, a bunch of drones arrive and give you a choice of new cars to add to your ever-growing train. The stations that you pass also act as the way that the conductor earns experience. Once the proper number of stations are passed, they gain a level and add to the maximum number of cars allowed on the train.

The key to keeping alive in Frostrain is to put different cars on your train that empower each other and build up synergies. And that is where all the different factions within your train come into play. For example, there is one faction in the title that always likes their cars to be placed near the engine, and you lose happiness for every car that sits between their faction’s assets and the engine, even if those intermittent cars are part of their faction too. However, once you place four cars of that faction on your train, you not only eliminate that drawback, but each one fires off its benefit in happiness contribution twice each time they activate. If you place seven cars from that faction on your train, each one fires off ten times per activation.

Some synergies are not faction specific. One of the critical ones is called Train Power and slowly works to improve your engine’s speed, which is needed to help get through polluted areas with the least amount of happiness lost. Different factions have cars that contribute to Train Power, and it’s perfectly acceptable to combine them to slowly improve your speed, especially early in your run. And in addition to just cross-car synergies, each car can also be improved by stacking identical cars together. The cars can be improved up to five levels, with better benefits given to each increase.

But happiness is the most important thing that you need to generate. That is because your passengers lose a little happiness all the time based on how long they have been on the train (and how long your run is taking). At first, your persnickety passengers only cause you to lose a couple points of happiness every few seconds, but by the late part of Frostrain, you are losing hundreds of points every second and need to build up an efficient train to counter it. If your happiness reaches zero, you are given one warning from your passengers. If you can’t quickly turn things around, then it’s game over.

As roguelikes go, I have to say that Frostrain is pretty difficult, at least until you find a strategy that works well. I lost so many runs when my happiness level zeroed out as I experimented with different builds. Sometimes I would have a good strategy going, only to fail to get any of the cards I needed in order to continue it. The random number generation effect is extremely strong here. Sometimes you simply won’t get the cards you need no matter how skilled you become. The only saving grace is that the runs are pretty short. You can finish a successful run in about 40 minutes, so if you lose before reaching Frostrain’s Promised Land, you have not wasted too much time and hopefully learned a bit about how the title works.

Eventually, I found one strategy that pretty much ensured a successful run most of the time in Frostrain. But I was kind of disappointed that my strategic choices were so limited. I went online and watched several streamers playing, and all of them adopted the exact same strategy as me, which involves using blue cars in conjunction with those that improve engine speed. Nobody seems to have come up with an alternative strategy that consistently works, and while many other strategies looked good at first, most failed in the final section of the game. So, there might need to be some game balancing made to round out Frostrain should it expand further.

I was a little puzzled as to why Frostrain is free to play on Steam because it seems like a complete title, and it does not have any Early Access tags. Apparently, this is a demo, and the developer plans to release a bigger or more feature-packed version of Frostrain at some point in the future. If you enjoy roguelikes at all, then there’s no reason not to give Frostrain a try for some nice, free fun. It’s certainly a unique take on the genre and a fun one at that.

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