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Jon Shafer’s At The Gates – Review

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Rome is at the brink of its collapse. It’s now split into two separate kingdoms. Meanwhile, the many barbarian tribes are gaining in power, and building up their forces. All are ready, At The Gates of Rome.

Jon Shafer’s At The Gates is the first game by Civilization V designer Jon Shafer with his new indie studio Conifer Games. Relatively new. At The Gates was announced back in 2012 and seven years on, it is finally released. The 4X strategy game introduces some radical design changes, but by 2019, it’s not as novel anymore. And it has some issues.

Still, this is a solid foundation for a cool take on 4X strategy.

Presentation

At The Gates uses a very simple but striking watercolour artwork. Everything here is 2D but with some gorgeous art. The procedural-generated world looks nice with the art choice. Sound is used very sparsely. There’s the title theme done by Geoff Knorr (Civilization VI), and some dings and sound effects or notifications. But for the most part, it’s deliberately quiet. It’s one of those games that you can listen to podcasts on the side.

One of the bullet point features in this game is the tooltip-in-tooltip feature. Mouse over a unit, a tile or any yellow text and it will pop up a tooltip that describes what you are seeing. And these work for texts inside the tooltip as well. It works brilliantly, surfacing important description in a way far more accessible than the usual wiki sites or built-in wikis like Civilization’s Civilopedia. Even if you keep on opening recursive windows of the same two links the tooltips still work as it should.

But that good aspect of UI is hampering the rest of the package. A lot of the UI looks barebones, and some I personally have issues with, like how slapped together the trade screen feels like.

Gameplay

At The Gates have you play as one of ten barbaric tribes, set in the era of the fall of Rome. Your goal is to build up your tribe to be strong enough to topple the Roman empire, or become Magister Millitum by sending five of your clans to train to become Roman soldiers and eventually be absorbed by them. Essentially, there is a military victory and an economic one.

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However, this is strictly a single-player game, and other tribes are not competing to take over Rome. Rather, it’s a game about you overcoming your own shortcomings, growing stronger over time to take down adversaries on your way to eventual victory. At The Gates is inspired by the fall of Rome back in 400AD Europe, but it’s used as a theme and backdrop for the game rather than a full historic simulation of the time, ala Civilization.

Shafer introduced some major changes to Civilization when he did Civ V and for At The Gates, he is bringing even more ideas to shake up the 4X space. There is now more rougelike influences, which may be weird to hear considering 4X games traditionally uses procedural maps. But there’s more to it.

Playing as barbarian tribes, you cannot found multiple cities. Rather, you can have your settlement move around as you search for new areas with more resources as you inch closer to the two Roman kingdoms. Early in the game, you can only harvest finite amount of food, ore and livestock so you are encouraged to move the settlement to better locations.

Each season barring winter, a caravan will appear so you can trade items. You can specialise your production to only produce certain resources and buy the ones you cannot make.

You also have to deal with the changing seasons. Crops don’t grow in winter so make sure you have enough food supply. Traveling when the snow is thick will use up more supplies- something to consider when moving units as low supply could lead to units taking damage. But as the world gets colder, the harsh marshes and the rivers are now traversable easier with fewer turns required.

These are all neat changes but nothing groundbreaking in the 4X world today.

The mechanic that makes this game more like a rougelike is the clans.

In At Gates, you will be gaining clans as your fame grows over time, each spawning with two random traits. Some good, some bad, some are just something to consider when planning your current production. Clans may not like sitting on the same tile with each other for too long. There are also those that prefer a certain line of job or can’t work certain jobs.

Clans can also get into fights, have desires and mood you have to take care of. You don’t just build a unit, but rather you have to train the clans to be so. It’s a lot to juggle around, especially by the endgame where you are amassing over 30 clans, all with their quirks and features.

My gripe with the clans is that it’s a lot of micromanaging involved and no way to see the bigger picture. It seems like a deliberate choice, but then I kept losing track of some units that apparently was either dead or captured by enemy units. I also could not keep track of clans I captured from neutral or opposing tribes. There’s no notification for those. Also, there is also no overview screen to see all of your clans including those stationed outside your settlement on one screen.

There are other barbarian tribes that you can do diplomacy with, as well as neutral units and bandit camps. Weirdly, diplomacy right now is non-existent, you can only declare war or make an alliance though you cannot work your way to an alliance. The enemy tribes don’t compete with you to take over Rome, but they are also very dormant. They don’t expand their territory as much as you expect, do not repair their pillaged resources

When I go to war with the rival tribes, you cannot wipe them out completely. I can capture their settlement, but I can’t do anything with. Interestingly I can have a unit to enter the settlement but that means… I gifted a unit to them. Warmongering sucks right now, but the only good thing about it is that you get to unlock different clans to play in your next playthrough.

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As for the economic route, all you have to do is secure access to the right high-end resources. The best way to do so is to get enough resources to build permanent buildings that will not degrade over time.

From there, unlocking all the higher tech to get the top end resources to send your clans for Roman Legion training should be easy, yet slow. It takes 25 turns to finish the training (though you can send multiple clans simultaneously) and then you need to send five of them to Rome for another 25. It’s a lot of waiting, and with the docile AI, you can just do nothing and wait until victory is in your hands. Not the most exciting and satisfying way to win.

In short, At The Gates have tons of interesting ideas but its execution leave a lot on the table for much-needed improvement.

Content & Longevity

At The Gates is a slow, plodding game. It is designed that for each turn, you should be making a meaningful decision as to not just click and breeze through them. I applaud the change of pace, but as a result, a full game is a real time sink. So be warned.

I managed to win one game by Turn 564 with an economic victory after giving up on roaming around the map to find where Rome is. For comparison, a normal game of Civilization in normal speed is capped at 500 turns.

There are moments of lull, however. By the mid-game, with no conflict due to the state of the AI and after securing permanent resource buildings, I did nothing but learning new professions and amassing too much money with nothing to spend it on. It only gets interesting when you reach the endgame, which is whenever you feel confident enough to steamroll your competitors.

That said, there is quite a lot of variety on how your playthrough will go. The variation of the procedural maps, how much resources are there and the clans you recieved will have you play differently each time. And the profession tree (tech tree) is open-ended enough to encourage different playstyles.There’s no ideal build order that can fit for any occasion.

Plus, there are 10 different barbarian tribes to play as, each with some wildly different bonuses. Though you have to either defeat them or make an alliance with them in a game before they are unlocked.

Verdict

Jon Shafer’s At The Gates is an interesting 4X strategy game that would have been more impactful if it was released a few years ago. Some of the asymmetric design and rougelike elements are seen done better in other games. It’s not helped that the game certainly lacking in some polish, the interface in particular. And it’s also a very, very slow-paced.

However, considering what happened throughout the course of development, it’s a miracle the game came out. Regardless of the quality, it’s great to see indie devs overcoming their personal struggles.

I would not recommend At The Gates in the current state to newcomers of the 4X genre just yet. But for 4X veterans who love a different take on the genre, this is a welcome change of pace. For RM51, it’s worth taking a look, or put it under your radar while waiting for updates.

At The Gates is close to being great, but the decaying Roman Empire that is the 4X genre has grown stronger by now.


Reviewed on PC based on pre-release version (v.9.9). Review copy provided by the developer

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Jon Shafer's At The Gates

I would not recommend At The Gates in the current state to newcomers of the 4X genre just yet. But for 4X veterans who love a different take on the genre, this is a welcome change of pace. For RM51, it's worth taking a look, or put it under your radar while waiting for updates.

At The Gates is close to being great, but the decaying Roman Empire that is the 4X genre has grown stronger by now.

  • Graphics 7.5
  • Sound 7
  • Gameplay 6.5
  • Content 7