Review – Jon Shafer’s At the Gates
Most people wrote At the Gates off as another failed Kickstarter. Originally announced over six years ago, meant to be released four years ago, it has had more than its fair share of drama. It has undergone multiple redesigns of everything, years with no updates from Jon Shafer, and during his six month stint with Paradox, most assumed it was officially turned into vaporware. Yet just a year and a half after that, it’s finally being released. While I don’t think it’s lived up to seven years of waiting, I think that it’s not only far better than it should be, but with a little more polishing it could have been a modern classic.
From the first turn, At the Gates’ issues are prevalent. Strategy games are the biggest culprits when it comes to unsatisfactory tutorials, and this is no exception. There’s the usual Help Guide with topics for everything (as far as you know), but it’s choppily written and feels disjointed. There’s a pop-up that says there is going to be a more in-depth step-by-step tutorial added on release, but if it’s anything like the guide, it will confuse as much as help.
Still, being tossed into a strategy game and being forced to rely upon trial and error isn’t anything new. Sometimes it’s even more helpful than being told what to do, as you learn why the game works instead of just how it works. Here though, your learning is impeded by bugs, a glitchy UI, and a lack of information from the game. You never know if something is working as intended, and have to trust to blind faith that it is.
For example, there’s a Clan feature that says all experience from a Social Profession is halved. However, you don’t know what Professions are classified as Social. Nor are you told how much experience per action you normally get or how much experience you need to level up. There’s not even a way to check on how much experience you currently have. These are all basic attributes that should be easy to see, not hidden away completely. This is just one possible example among hundreds with terms that aren’t visibly used anywhere else and bonuses based on numbers never given.
This probably seems like a death sentence, a strategy game that fails to give you the information you need to strategist sounds dead in the water. It’s a testament to At the Gates’ strong core gameplay. It still manages to be a fun game in spite of its heavy flaws.
The core gameplay is a mix of roguelike map design, RTS resource management, and Civilization-styled movement/combat/kingdom-building. It works just as well as it sounds too, and creates a more than solid foundation to last many “One more turns”.
Maps are randomly designed, but they don’t feel like it. They feel naturally occurring, with resources, ruins, and potential allies and enemies spread throughout the world. Exploration is made a key part of the game as due to the RTS-styled management systems, all resources are finite. You will need to constantly search out new sources of food to feed your people, minerals to train armies, and other resources to survive not just conventional enemies but the world itself.
Changing seasons and roaming weather patterns affecting the overall gameplay were part of the original Kickstarter plan, and thankfully, they survived until the full release. When you’re in the middle of a harsh winter, short on everything, with your scouts and armies long lost to the cold, you’ll feel a whole new kind of helplessness compared to just being surrounded by a billion 12-stack armies. You can’t fight the seasons, you can only hope to endure then, and if nothing else, At the Gates captures this feeling better than any other game that has ever tried to.
The premise of the game has you seeking to lead your kingdom made up of various Clans to victory by supplanting the deteriorating Roman Empire. There are only two victory conditions: either militarily supplanting them, or replacing them through economic means. Neither of these are easy goals, and the lack of a difficulty setting means you will lose many many games before you manage to learn how to win.
In the meantime, there’s a wide variety of starting clans to choose from to start as, with each beyond the first unlocking after meeting them during a game. Sadly, there’s not a lot of visual distinction between each starting clan, and some starting bonuses are clearly better than others.
For a game with this kind of development, seeing it being released is quite unexpected, and in many cases it would have been better to stay in development limbo forever. For it to be in a fully playable form, and to actually be fun is a near miracle. There are huge flaws for sure, and it still needs several levels of bug fixing and polish, but thanks to its rock-solid core gameplay, Jon Shafer’s At the Gates can still become a game worth waiting seven years for.
The art style is nice and the game isn’t ugly, but it’s not pretty either. It’s very 90’s, with graphics meant to be functional rather than attractive.
It’s rough, buggy, and confusing at times, but underneath it all is a solid foundation. It’s built for newcomers to the genre, or those desiring a smaller scale game, and it does that well.
The music shows up occasionally, but even while playing you’d be hard pressed to notice it. Nor is there any voice acting, and all sound effects follow the same design principle of the graphics. Practicality vs extravagance.
In spite of everything, it’s a fun game. It captures the “One More Turn” feeling very well, and the roguelike elements and sandbox environments are well-implemented.
Final Verdict: 6.5
Jon Shafer’s At the Gates is available now on Steam.
Reviewed on PC.
A copy of Jon Shafer’s At the Gates was provided by the publisher.