Review: Jon Shafer’s At the Gates

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Review copy provided by developer

Taking a swing at the 4X genre, a field dominated by the likes of Civilization, is a daunting prospect for any developer. I imagine that’s why expectations were so great for Jon Shafer’s attempt, he being one of the primary forces behind Civilization V. But great expectations can lead to great disappointment, and after many hours with At the Gates I can see what it is that has disappointed so many about this promising title. I’m not disappointed, mind you… I’m still chipping away at the strategy, seeking out new resources and new clans to exploit them with. Not everyone is going to be as ready as I am to give its faults a pass, but if you are, there’s a very unique and inviting game to be found here.

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The fifth century saw the famed Roman Empire fracture mightily, and in that dark age you are to rise up to fill the power vacuum it leaves. Your nomadic clans can serve you in many ways, gathering resources, surveying the land, or conquering your foes. The world is not an easy one to master, though, requiring you to seek new resources as familiar ones dwindle and prepare for long and deadly winters. Once your might is great enough, you can move to remove the competition or install yourself as a new protector of the Empire, and claim dominion over what remains.

At the Gates may bear the surface appearance of a Civilization game, but approaching it as one is sure to lead to frustration. You are not building a world-spanning empire here, in fact you only ever get one settlement. You’re playing as nomadic clans like the Goths after all, and that requires a very different style of play. Clans are individual units, trained in specific trades like woodcutting, mining, blacksmithing, and brewing. You send some clans out to resource nodes to gather, while others remain at your settlement to enhance those gathering efforts or refine resources into other ones. All resources in the game are finite, though, so after a few seasons you’ll need to send your clans further afield to make ends meet, or pack up your tents entirely and move to a new region.

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This is the heart of the game, the hunt for resources to turn into other resources to keep your makeshift empire together. You accrue fame every turn automatically which attracts new clans every few turns, and they require food to sustain. From the start you can train reapers and gatherers to collect different plants, hunters to bring back meat, or fishermen if your settlement borders the water. As more clans join and your ranks swell, you can train “settled” professions like bakers and briners to put multipliers on the food you bring in, using other resources like wood and salt. You can turn specific crops like barley or olives into alcohol and oil, special resources used for keeping your clans happy and healthy. And there are similar refinement chains for wood, stone, iron, weapons, parchment, and so on.

The clever part of this is that the tech tree is robust enough to allow you multiple ways to produce just about anything. Stone blocks, for example, are essential to building the game’s rare permanent structures and must be mined and cut from stone deposits. However, you can also go the brickmaking route which allows you to produce stone blocks from wood and coal. Cloth, needed to expand your clan limit, can be collected by trappers from animals, or produced from wool. Then there’s the caravan, a merchant that comes by every dozen or so turns to trade. If you’re producing an abundance of something like tools or booze, it’s easy enough to trade it for items you haven’t even touched the production trees for.

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I’ve spent so much time describing the resource side of the game because it’s essentially the core of the experience. Your primary concern is always going to be producing enough goods for your clans, and then more to trade for whatever else you want, all the way up to buying your way to victory. This is partly by design, and partly because the other aspects of the game are surprisingly lacking. I haven’t touched much on opposing clans or diplomacy because they’re pretty much non-existent. There are other factions and hostile raiders dotting the map but they rarely present any sort of threat, even wandering through your territory without so much as touching vulnerable clans or buildings. My settlement was sacked exactly one time, and it wasn’t even the game over I was expecting, I just had to spend a turn repairing it. Diplomacy is meaningless; you have no trading options or border rights, your rivals change their minds towards you on a whim, and if they ever declare war you’d be lucky to even notice.

The clan system that makes up your units is certainly unique, but can be just as frustrating as fascinating. Each clan has two traits, which affect which professions they favor or avoid, their stats when fighting or producing, and how often they feud or brawl with other clans. That last bit is the real kicker, especially when you have a dozen or more clans settled together in important professions. Clans stuck together for too long tend to feud, meaning you either need to punish one (which strips them of their profession and permanently lowers their mood) or start spending alcohol to keep them happy. Clans can also develop desires, like taking on a specific profession or even getting indoors during the winter, which you’ll want to do anyway because moving units around in the winter is a huge pain in the ass. At first I enjoyed trying to match clans to their whims but the further in I got, the more it just seemed to slow down my plans.

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So that’s the thing, At the Gates ends up being almost more of a management sim than a true 4X. The presentation is solid, with lush hand-drawn graphics and an incredibly useful nested tooltip system. There’s no in-game music though, and while I know it was a conscious decision I find it a poor one for a genre commanded by games known for their soundtracks such as Civilization IV. But it’s emblematic of what you’re getting here, an incomplete take on a familiar formula. The developer has committed to long-term support for the game and addressing some of these concerns, so it may yet grow into the title that fans were expecting. For now, it’s a tough sell with those shortcomings, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t enjoying it. As a Civilization follow-up you’re sure to find this one lacking, but if you’re okay with a more limited historical management sim then At the Gates still offers a unique experience.

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