Jon Shafer’s At the Gates launched on Steam on 23 January 2019. It was developed and published by Conifer Games, which is a game development company owned by Jon Shafer. It is a 4X Strategy Game.
AIR Entertainment obtained a digital copy of the game for review purposes.
Here is trailer for the release:
At the Gates takes us back in history to the fall of the Roman Empire. As Shafer says on his website, the idea was born after listening to the ‘History of Rome’ podcast three times.
And I didn’t even have to know that he did, to know that this was about the fall of the Roman Empire. You start off as the Goths, while other factions become available once you make an allegiance with them in the game. The two prime ways of winning give away the fall of the Roman Empire: either you can just completely destroy them, or you can do what happened in real life. You can be trained in the Roman Army and take them over from within.
Well, at least that’s as much as I remember from back in the days when I used to read about such stuff.
If you think you will be creating a multitude of cities and creating massive armies while taking over Roman towns like in Civilisation, think again. Shafer takes At the Gates further by introducing harmful weather, such as cold winters and scolding summers.
As if that wasn’t enough, the clans that sign up into your army might start feuding among each other. Each clan has certain desires that need to be met for them to be happy, otherwise they will not perform any duties you require of them.
Most of the time it will feel like you are fighting with yourself and your own men to win, rather than any visible enemy.
There is a lovely progression tree, whereby you can study various levels in different professions and disciplines. Study the Agriculture discipline, and you unlock professions like farming, harvesting and gardening.
I have enjoyed trying to grow my Goths in strength and meeting other tribes who are all eager, not only to wipe out the Roman Empire, but also you. Introducing clans with their own stories and desires was a wonderful touch, even if some tribes can be really annoying.
I’m not the first, and I won’t be the last, to say that At the Gates plays out much like Civilisation, with simply a few new tricks. Even the website states over and over that Shafer is the award-winning designer of Civilisation 5.
So much of the gameplay is… similar, not the same. It is turn-based, and every turn you decide what to do in your settlement, with your clans and your studies. You can make alliances or declare war, you have to fend off barbarian attacks, and you have to find resources to survive.
And that’s about as close to Civilisation as you will get. Now for the differences, which really sets At the Gates apart from any other 4X strategy game.
Going back to the Professions, Disciplines and Clans, I boasted about how you can train your clans to take on specific professions. You need someone to cut wood, train woodcutters or loggers and send your clan out to cut down some forests.
And this was an area of disappointment for me. Sure, I loved the idea of disciplines and professions. What I didn’t like was that, if I trained a woodcutter, and then later trained the same clan as a logger, I couldn’t switch them back to woodcutters immediately when needed. As an example. I would have to send the clan back to the settlement to re-train them in something they had already been trained in.
This might seem like an odd thing to be upset about, but once you play the game long enough, it gets to you. You see, farmers can only plant farms if the resource is in your border. If that resource runs out, you need to send that clan out further outside for more resources. Now, you can’t harvest a field of grapes as a farmer… for some reason. You need to go back to being a harvester.
It would have been nice if you could have stacked previous professions, or if the upgrade from woodcutter to logger would have kept the traits of the lower profession. But no, in order to intensify the strategy, it was not built this way. Now you need to ensure that you have clans of each kind, basically of each profession if you want to survive the cold climates and harsh environments.
Another area of discontent early on is when enemies or barbarians attack your harvesters or clans that are not visible on your screen, and you don’t see any of it happen. My screen was loading the next turn, and when I looked I had lost a clan. I looked around and saw two of my clans had gone. Somehow, something or someone had killed them. I will never know which.
One last frustration is wondering why I cannot train more than 1 clan at a time. Surely the others don’t just sit idle in the town while another clan trains. I can understand studying 1 profession at a time in general for your faction, but I would have thought I would be able to train as many clans in a profession at a time as I needed.
But that’s like saying I don’t like how a knight moves in chess and wanting the rules to change. In fact, it increases the complexity of strategy so much that I’ve restarted a few times and tried to reorganise my strategy. But since each map is randomly generated, trying to plan new strategies don’t always pan out. When a new map is opened in front of you, your brain has to start on a clean slate too.
Some of the gameplay could be improved I believe. Having difficulty settings would be great instead of just one mode. There seems to be such a lack of resources generally in the game, that I sometimes wonder if we were meant to complete the game. With the randomising of each map, it feels like I am waiting for the luck of the draw for a good map in order to win, rather than winning by the brilliance of my strategy.
Having said all that, I am still rather a sucker for punishment. This game was meant for the strategist elite. Rather than being pushed into abandoning the game, it forces me to improve myself and find new ways to win.
SOUND AND GRAPHICS
Shafer may be the award winning designer of Civ 5, but do not expect anything of the graphics to resemble it. Instead, Art Director Kay Fedewa opted for watercolour art as the graphical style of the game.
Which is rather stunning. It takes me back to the 90’s when I played Civilisation 2. Somehow, the basic watercolour design makes the game easier to play and look at than the latest Civilisation games. I’ve often commented to gamers that Civ has too much going on on the screen. At the Gates brings us back to the basics, and the watercolour art is beautiful on the eyes.
Another reason bringing the game art back to basics is great is the load time per turn. I can remember cursing as each turn in Civ took so long with all my cities and enemies taking so long to load their turns. The turns in At the Gates are refreshingly fast, and I’m going to put that down to the artstyle and only being permitted one settlement.
I’m going to give the graphics a high mark, not so much for any of the above, although Fedewa’s art direction is lovely. The reason for the high score is due to the environmental changes that happen, and how it takes place. Seasons don’t just change immediately. Winter shows rains and sometimes snow that passes over gradually through several turns. The visual effect of this is really amazing, and deserves a high score for creativity.
There isn’t much to say about sound. There isn’t much of a soundtrack in the background, like some other 4X strategy games have. There is no voice-over acting, and the interactive sounds that arise due to clicking on wood to be chopped or ore to be mined is pretty much average.
Where the sound does receive some kudos is the environmental sounds. Like the sound of a stream trickling, or some birds singing, or when the winter snows move in and the winds are harsh. It is rather peaceful, but I wouldn’t say it is overly remarkable.
At the Gates is absolutely no walk in the park, and it feels like you’re playing chess with a genius who has a Masters in 4X Strategy games. It tests your strategic ability, with limited resources, the environment and internal politics playing a massive role in your success or defeat. The watercolour art direction is really pleasing to the eye, but I do hope to see an improvement in sound in future games. This game is for true 4X strategy veterans and not for the faint of mind.
At the Gates receives 8/10 for an overall score.