At first, Jon Shafer’s At the Gates is intimidating for players who aren’t heavily invested in 4X games. I asked Anthony, CoG’s Editor In Chief if we had any games for me to review as I started to shake off the rust that had set in during the holidays and was eager to get into the swing of things here at CultureOfGaming.com. He offered me the opportunity to review At the Gates which I had never heard of before but after watching the trailer it piqued my curiosity. While we always encourage our writers and reviewers to tackle what they know, sometimes it helps to get a new perspective by tacking on reviews outside of one’s comfort zone. In 2018 I reviewed Holy Potatoes, A Weapon Shop?! even though I wasn’t familiar with management sims but I found the experience enlightening…even if the game was mediocre. Then again I felt rested after the holiday break and wanted something new to challenge myself with. Hence I wanted to play Jon Shafer’s At the Gates.
Let me back up and mention one crucial aspect, I had never played a 4X game before. I had always heard about Civilization type of games and would always lump them together with other similar looking like Sim City. In the beginning, it was clear to me how deep 4X games can be when I was bombarded with terminology and tactics that I hadn’t encountered in other games before. It was a surprise and gut check moment for me but like the old adage among game devs goes: any game could be someone’s first introduction to a genre. If you are looking for a review on how Jon Shafer’s At the Gates stacks up with other 4X games, you’re going to have to look elsewhere. Other than that, let’s see how At the Gates performs and engages with a newer player to the genre.
Open The Gate!
One of the first things I noticed when playing At the Gates is its deep systems and mountains of text to explain every single aspect from resources, professions, terrain penalties and more. While more experienced fans could easily sum up the basic dos and don’t relatively quickly, it was heartening that this game assumes that the player will need all the help they can get. The developers included every single definition and term in their help section for new players to dig through while categorizing them by actions like first turn suggestions and resource management. Once I brought myself up to speed, I began playing At the Gates and one thing became abundantly clear. This game is charming with a soothing gameplay loop that also challenged me through its procedurally generated maps.
Every play session is different and offers a variety of approaches that are encouraged. The map is always randomly generated but it never gives you a random assortment that will impede your growth. Different resources encourage experimentation as each game you play can last several turns to fully master or lose depending on what’s available to you. Do you have several mines near your settlement? Then start developing the best strategy to maximize your production of ore and turn those resources into weapons and armor. How about exploring the land? Develop seasoned surveyors to help identify your surroundings in case you want to relocate your settlement to a better position. At the Gates allows players to experiment and maximize runs but it never punishes if one approach didn’t work out. Learning to work the land is as important as developing the right kinds of units to maintain and grow your kingdom.
Employ Them All!
Clans are your units that you develop and train in various different roles for your empire. Professions are researched via its own skill tree and depending on the profession chosen, it could take several turns before they become available. Learning who to train also depends on various small factors like each Clan’s unique quirks and traits. You could just assign people to gather and concentrate on getting to advance professions as fast as possible. While that is a perfectly suitable strategy, you ignoring their unique parameters can lead to ruin or missing out on optimal efficiency. Each clan has unique desires that could hinder or strengthen their assigned roles.
Clans can have all kinds of great personal benefits or hindrances that you need to be aware off in order for your kingdom to run smoothly or at least to make sure your clans get along with each. Some are better suited for combat while others may be too high strung to take on social roles such as a bard. I once had a great Clan who was well suited for combat but would feud with other clans. I built the clan up to be a Lancer but had forgotten about the clan’s feuding nature and grouped them up with an Archer unit; they ended fighting and I was demanded to punish each clan by stripping away their roles and thus wasted a ton of upgrades and resources. Levelling your clans is easy but requires a heavy investment of time and resources that you need to keep track of.
Playing Jon Shafer’s At the Gates is challenging but rewarding once you get accustomed to all the systems and keeping track of all your options. Players have only access to one tribe at the beginning of the game but can unlock more by either defeating them during the game or forging an alliance. Each tribe starts with a unique set of rules such as “The Lombarts” who have all resources identified but cannot train clans into foraging professions. Unlocking all the tribes will take some time but that shouldn’t be a problem since this game is both addictive and beautiful to look at. Repeated play sessions offer new experiences on every generated map that is filled with colorful art and astonishing terrain designs that exudes the love from the developers making At the Gates.
One of the key and defining aspects of At the Gates is its art style. This 4X game is drawn in a way that makes every locale welcoming and its art direction stunning. I genuinely had a relaxing time while looking at these magnificent 2D landscapes in between turns and plotting my next move. Key Fedewa is the sole art director for At the Gates and she helps paint a beautifully captivating game that keeps each run feel inviting.
At the Gates is riveting, however, this game does suffer from a few grievances that need to be addressed post-launch to hopefully smooth out the experience for repeated play.
This Gate Needs A Little Oil
Jon Shafer’s At the Gates plays beautiful but it isn’t perfect as there are several problems that I came across during my runs. Within the help section and also various tooltips throughout the game, sometimes there will be text errors that were clearly a coding error. Loading each turn is a bit jarring as the map is generating not only your choices but those of other kingdoms. Occasionally a clan would either disappear or be immobilized despite having the right amount of movement points on passable terrain. Also, the game version that I reviewed didn’t have a tutorial but the game does mention of adding one in a future patch.
While the option to develop advance professions is varied with intriguing paths, the UI for managing your choices of professions could use some work. It is not user-friendly as profession paths look plain and at times difficult to select upgrades associated with any profession. Which is a shame considering the amazing art style that envelops the game only to have generic looking UI menus.
Clan’s can become proficient at their profession and researching upgrades enhances them further. However, the system in place to manage them feels restrictive as they are delegated to the clan’s portrait or within the settlement itself. Small arrows will be placed on the clan’s portrait to signal to the player that an upgrade is available with the appropriate resources. Overall, At the Gates’s UI on the world map is clean which is appreciated but adding another element to manage all your clans on screen would be helpful considering how many clans you can have at the end. All of these problems with the game are minor gripes that will be hopefully ironed out with post-launch updates.
Jon Shafer’s At the Gates is an intricate and beautifully crafted 4X game that still has plenty of room to grow. It offers a gameplay loop that is infinitely replayable and allows players to explore and develop their own unique strategies within the confines of its procedurally generated world. At the Gates is an addicting game that kept me coming back for more. Trying out different strategies based on my availability and resources is fun while also adding layers upon layers of complexity and creativity on how to develop your own kingdom.
- THE GOOD
- Amazing Art Style
- Several Deep Systems
- Tons of Replay Value
- THE BAD
- Plain UI
- Minor Bugs
- No Tutorial At Launch
Jon Shafer’s At the Gates is a great 4X game that is promising and will keep you coming back for more. It’s beautiful, it has deep engaging systems and it’s flexible enough for players to experiment and optimize their playstyle and builds. Hopefully, At the Gates minor flaws can be worked out with post-launch support or by the time the next installment comes along.