Wow, I’m genuinely surprised that I’m writing this review. After roughly six years, Jon Shafer has finally reached the finish line for his Kickstarted At the Gates.
There were times during that process that I honestly believed this game would never reach a state anywhere close to resembling “complete”. Hell, there were times where I actively campaigned against Jon on Twitter and on his own forums, vocalizing my great displeasure at a game that was seemingly abandoned. Yes, I regret doing that and have apologized to Jon directly.
However, here I am, writing a review of the “release version” of At the Gates and I’m pretty damn happy to be doing so. I didn’t Kickstart At the Gates, but I did buy into it shortly afterward through Jon’s website because I believed in Jon, his pedigree, and his vision for this game.
That being said, I’ve probably had more time with it than most (about 50 hours at the time of this review) and with that much experience, I feel confident in reviewing the game as it stands now. So let’s get to it!
What I Like:
The Rogue-Like, Player Vs. Environment Element: Make no mistake about it, At the Gates is a game about surviving. You’ll lead a minor Germanic tribe that’s practically unable to do anything at the start of the game and eventually shape them (hopefully) to become strong enough to take on the Roman Empire. I mean, sure, they’re on their way out, but the Romans are still a significant force.
Surviving isn’t easy, either. Not only do you have to worry about feeding your clans, but you’ll also need to fend off bandit tribes, other minor Germanic tribes, and uniquely: mother nature.
The game features life-like seasonal changes, which causes the issues you’d expect. The Winter months become increasingly difficult to survive through, as snow hinders movement, supply lines, and most importantly, food production. While rain in the warmer months can actually cause areas to flood and become completely unusable.
Those issues, coupled with the need to constantly feed your tribe through finding and exploiting food resources and to increase their cultural capabilities through finding and exploiting resources such as iron, wood, stone, and more make the game much more difficult than your average 4X. There is a lot to keep track of and a lot that your tribe will need if it’s to succeed in surviving and ultimately overthrowing the Romans.
Map generation can be your friend or your enemy, as the location of those resources matter a great deal. Surprisingly, however, the more difficult starts are just as fun to overcome as the “easier” starts are to take advantage of, but it largely depends on how much you enjoy a challenge.
Suffice to say, you likely won’t be winning your first game, or maybe even your first five, but once you start to learn how to overcome the odds stacked against you, there is a rewarding sense of accomplishment that I really enjoyed. It just may not be for everybody…
The Clans: A huge part of At the Gates’ personality comes through its clan system. You begin the game with 3 clans, each of them unique in their look and trait assignment. Sometimes you’re lucky to welcome a clan that perfectly suits your needs, one that is particularly proficient at gathering (food, bee’s honey, etc) or another that identifies resources in half the time others would take.
While at the same time, you might be met with a sullen clan that’s prone to feuding with other clans that share the same tile as they do, which only causes problems down the line. Worse yet, that same sullen clan might be incredibly good at producing tools, so you have to consider their marked usefulness in making tools with their likelihood in creating issues with other clans.
These situations often force the player to consider various aspects of your clans’ personalities that very few other games do. If you’re familiar with Crusader Kings 2 or King of Dragon Pass, then you’ll understand a bit about how this system works (but it’s not quite as deep as either of those games).
It’s usually fun – or at least interesting – to problem solve in this way. When the eventual feuds DO occur, you’re forced to take sides or watch both clans become disgruntled and inefficient. In taking sides, you punish one of the clans, which causes a semi-permanent decrease in their mood and proficiency and its strips them of their profession and progression. Meanwhile, the opposite clan is made happy, thus increasing their proficiency and loyalty.
It’s a balancing act that provokes thought and consideration and I like it.
The Profession System: While initially a bit overwhelming, especially going into this game blindly, the profession system is a unique take on the traditional research tree. At the beginning of the game, you’ll have only a few very broad paths to choose from, but eventually, you’ll be forced to choose from a variety of professions that will provide an increased capability to your tribe.
Your choices will largely depend on what your given focus is at any moment, but you’ll also need to consider how those choices will affect your tribe in 10, 20, or 30 turns. Do you research the archer in order to defend yourself against those encroaching bandits or take that farmer upgrade to increase food output before you starve?
Either way you’re probably wrong, but both will eventually benefit your fledgling empire. It’s in these professions and progression through them that your tribe becomes a group capable of eventually building stone structures that never degrade or Men-At-Arms that will swiftly take out all but the strongest of bandits.
It takes balance, knowledge, and a bit of luck, but it’s incredibly satisfying to make it to the end-game as a rather powerful pseudo-medieval kingdom that is ready to take on the Romans once and for all.
The Economy: Paired with the profession system, the economy, and its structure really form an interesting game where almost every turn matters. Hell, an early tool-tip reminds you not to let your clans sit idly, as it’s incredibly important to train them and begin manufacturing, foraging, digging, or collecting something.
Because you’ll need to collect wood to build structures, that will allow you to collect iron, that will allow you to build tools and weapons, that will allow you to upgrade your units and much more. You’ll also need that stone so that your stone cutters can create stone blocks and your farmers can finally create permanent plantations, instead of the transient wood structures that degrade over time.
It’s a system of supply and its use that really keeps the game engaging. When you finally get a mine on that stone resource or you get a mine on that salt deposit, you feel a sense of accomplishment and excitement for your new capabilities.
It’s a system rarely seen in 4X games and one reminiscent of one of my favorite 4X games of all time, Colonization (1994). I wish more 4X games had this amount of detail in their resource/economy and supply chain systems.
The Art Style: Admittedly, there are some minor inconsistencies with the art (almost like some of it was done by someone else, but it’s hard to notice usually), but the art is a great stylistic choice for this game (or any game), as the watercolor-like aesthetic is timeless in a lot of ways. A game like Endless Legend, while beautiful, won’t really age as well as a game with a hand-drawn look to it like At the Gates.
Hell, the game has looked pretty much the same for the past 5 years or so and still looks good today, so that supports my point, methinks.
There’s not much else to say here other than I’m glad that Conifer Games chose this art direction and I hope to see the minor inconsistencies shored up and brought up to the way the rest of the game looks (they’re hard to find, but they’re there).
What I Don’t Like
Lack of Diplomacy: I’ve never actually played a 4X game with less diplomatic options than At the Gates. That’s not because 4X games with less diplomatic options don’t exist, but rather it’s that I don’t enjoy 4X games with little or non-existent diplomatic discourse (aside from a couple notable exceptions).
The fact that I’ve enjoyed myself with At the Gates despite the barebones diplomatic mechanics is a testament to the rest of the game, but I can’t help but frequently consider how much better this game would be with some diplomacy professions, some diplomatic tension, or even just some basic diplomatic options at all.
Instead, you’re left with very little to do other than say hello, offer a tribute, and declare war. That’s the extent of diplomatic affairs among all the other Germanic tribes and the all-important Romans. What’s worse, in my humble opinion, is that some pretty deep and exciting diplomatic ideas were expressed by Jon in one of his Kickstarter updates, but were never implemented.
It’s a let down, for sure, but it doesn’t get in the way of enjoying the game for the most part. I have no doubts in my mind, however, that the game would be markedly better with a rich diplomatic system, so it basically needs to happen one way or another.
Signs of a Rushed Production: Mind you, I get that this game took SEVEN years to develop, but Jon took quite a long hiatus during that time frame. He’s talked about it at length here in a blog post, but nevertheless, there was a long period of time where the game simply wasn’t being worked on.
When he finally came back to it, he has clearly done a lot to get this game ready for release. However, there are many aspects of the game that have obviously not been completed or were left as a shell of what they could be in the hopes of just releasing the game as soon as possible.
Take, for instance, the religion system. There are no tooltips about what any of them do or change about your tribe. Or the diplomacy system that I spoke about above. Or quality-of-life features like a clans manager. There are still some minor UI quibbles, with minor UI bugs and some normal programming bugs, too.
There are just a lot of little things that make it pretty clear to me that the game wasn’t given the amount of time it deserved to be fully polished. Jon needed more time, I think.
Or how about the fact that the AI is basically non-existent…
Yeah, let’s talk about that.
The AI: I understand that the basic structure of this game is meant to mostly be about surviving the harsh wilds and learning how to balance progression with simply being able to exist, but the AI for both the other Germanic tribes and the Roman Empire is basically brain-dead.
The other tribes do not expand. They do not compete for the same resources that you do. They simply exist for you to eventually declare war on (because allying them currently is literally impossible) and overwhelm with superior armies.
The Romans declared war on me, too, in the same game pictured above. They never moved their armies on me, though. They would have likely crushed me, but instead, I was given plenty of time to build Men-at-Arms and keep my northern border defended from their potential invasion (hint: it never happened).
What eventually happened is that I was able to start picking off the Romans with very little in the way of retaliation. The once-mighty Romans felt like they had no idea how to defend themselves or their land. Sure, they had some very powerful units that required a great deal of manpower to overcome, but it became a numbers game, not a tactics or strategy game.
I would love to see the other AI members spread out, fight for the same resources that I’m after, and to basically add to the drama of what the Player Vs. Environment (PvE) tension already delivers.
It’s a rather unfortunate situation that detracts from an otherwise pretty damn good game. I’ll say this again, as it bears repeating: it speaks to the rest of the game that these moderately significant weaknesses don’t keep At the Gates from being fun.
At the Gates’ rogue-like element of only unlocking other tribes once you’ve conquered them or convinced them to ally with you keeps me coming back. The map generation and my desire to overcome the particular odds presented by each of those maps keeps me coming back. The supply chain and economy system keep me coming back. Those clans and their unique personalities and character traits keep me coming back.
When it’s all said and done, though, the biggest disappointment I feel right now is knowing how great this game could have been with more time, maybe a bigger budget, and maybe a slightly bigger team. It can still become the classic that it has the potential to be, but it’s not quite the classic that I wanted it to be. Yet.
It does break new ground with its PvE gameplay and its rogue-like elements. It is an entirely unique experience in the 4X world. But it’s just shy of being a game that I can unequivocally recommend because of the state that it’s in right now. Despite that, it’s a game that I can recommend to most, especially those that yearn for something new in the 4X realm and especially to those of you that remember and enjoyed the classic Colonization, as it has a lot of similarities to that gem.
I hope Jon sees this one through to the next finish line because At the Gates could sit firmly on my “4X Game Leaderboard” if it gets the right attention. I want it to be on that list so badly…