Calling something an alternative of X like I essentially did in this preview’s headline seems like a backhanded compliment, as if it’s just a clone meant to fill a void instead of something unique and worthy of consideration in its own right. New Cycle is a bit different. Thinking about it separately from Frostpunk is almost impossible, as there’s just so much of 11 Bit’s survival game here. More important, though, having those similarities between the two games in mind makes New Cycle’s subtle difference stand out more and show just how much it’s forging a new path of its own.
Where Frostpunk follows a miserable band of survivors after blizzards and, well, frost engulf the world, New Cycle follows a miserable band of survivors after the sun fries the world. The setups are a mirror image of each other, but most of New Cycle is pretty familiar if you played Frostpunk.
You start with a ragtag band of people who put their trust in you – until you mess up or start exploiting them – and a single village hall. From there, you gather resources, manage everyone’s needs, attract new residents, and expand your puny settlement into a respectable burgh and maybe even a city, if you don’t die first.
Or get struck by lightning. On the eve of my first lumber mill’s grand opening, a sudden storm threw a bolt of lightning at it, set it on fire, and killed the two people working inside. Not a nice time for anyone involved, but we – those of us still alive, anyway – persevered.
Core Engage sprinkled a dash of Age of Empires and Civilization in New Cycle’s progression. Rather than just building better and researching more as you do in Frostpunk, you have to work with limited tools in one era – or Cycle, as they’re called here – until enough time passes that you enter a new cycle. Hence the name. A new cycle brings new tools, more research, and better ways to live, along with more opportunities for success - and failure.
Cycles last one year of in-game time, which is about 45 minutes of real time, so just when you’re starting to get fed up staring at your soup kitchens and nasty little shanty hut neighborhoods, it’s time for something better.
As your job managing this burgeoning settlement becomes more complicated, New Cycle’s unique strengths come into clearer focus. What sets New Cycle apart is how you control more of your society than you do in Frostpunk. That might sound like busywork, but Core Engage tied your extra work in with some pretty interesting features.
Take food distribution, for example. Frostpunk divvies food up among everybody, as it sees all your little workers, thinkers, and builders as equals. New Cycle lets you create social stratification and even encourages it in later cycles, and you can set parameters that favor equality or that give certain classes more. While you could just be a monster and give all your best stuff to the creators and planners, poor choices will haunt you later.
Let them eat cake - or else
Food, along with housing, entertainment, and several other factors, make up a complex matrix that determines how happy your citizens are. Happy people with access to good sanitation work harder and die less frequently, which is always a bonus, but New Cycle carries this network of morale and health further. Sure, you can get by with the bare minimum and enough morale to prevent mass desertion. But those dissatisfactions, the lack of amenities, and the feeling that the good life is out of reach adds up. It’s not just your people who grow to resent you. Others notice as well, and the influx of new residents will suffer as a result, along with your capacity for expansion.
That’s just one of the many moving pieces you have to manage in New Cycle, and it gets pretty challenging in later cycles. What I like best, though, is how you can tweak more than a dozen settings before starting a campaign and tailor the difficulty to your liking. Aside from helping with approachability, it also lets you create new scenarios that keep the familiar routines fresh.
Speaking of familiar routines, New Cycle’s early access version includes a sandbox mode for free tinkering and a few curated challenges that throw you into difficult circumstances without access to some of your usual tools. I didn’t play as much of those as I did the main campaign, but it’s nice knowing these options are there.
All of this is just Core Engage’s foundation, though. New Cycle’s early access plan includes a strong lineup of additions, from advisors and Civilization-like trade agreements to new agriculture systems, more disasters, and challenging maps. New Cycle likely won’t come into its own until some of these changes show up, but even this inaugural version has a lot going for it, with some smart and welcome changes to an already strong formula.
This preview is based on an early access copy of New Cycle on PC. New Cycle's early access period begins on January 18, 2024.