I am a huge fan of the Civilization series, with Civilization V being my all-time favorite strategy game. As such, I was very excited to get into At the Gates, a new 4X strategy game by Civilization V‘s lead designer, Jon Shafer. I found that the game has some pretty unique features for the genre, but is plagued by several issues of its own.

Pros:

Cool profession system. Instead of opting for a more traditional research and technology tree, At the Gates has a profession system. This system works by making each individual job something that needs to be researched, allowing a player’s units (called clans) to take up that particular job once done. The professions themselves are split up by discipline and researched in individual trees, the catch being that clans can jump between jobs as the match progresses.

However, clans can also have a specialized discipline that levels up with time, making it easier for them to pick up a new job from the same discipline in the future. On top of that, clans can have personality traits that further affect their possible job choices. As such, it is much more dynamic compared to the technology trees usually seen in games like this. I found myself planning out which jobs to research based on the clans available to me, swapping clans to and from jobs to suit the settlement’s needs, and working on each clan’s discipline level all at the same time. It took a bit of getting used to, but I ended up enjoying the game’s unique approach here.

Infinite tooltips. Tooltips are very important to me when picking up a new strategy game like this, so I was glad to see that they played such a big role here in At the Gates. Not only is everything littered with tooltips, but the player can actually open additional tooltips within these tooltips. The effect keeps on stacking too and does not appear to have a limit, so you could effectively have a string of twenty or so additional tooltips all originating from just one. This makes learning the game an immensely easier process, as the tooltips can pretty much answer any question you have. Outside of the tooltips, the game does provide a help menu if needed, but I pretty much figured out how to play from just these tooltips.

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Unlockable factions. This is definitely a more minor pro, but I really appreciated the fact that the game did not have every faction unlocked right at the beginning. Instead, the player has to either form an alliance with or conquer said faction in order to unlock them. It not only was an effective way of introducing each faction, but it provides players with an incentive to actually interact with the game world beyond the game’s two victory conditions. I can see some having issues with this feature, but I thought it was a great addition.

Nice and dynamic art. At the Gates has a pretty striking art style, one not usually seen in the genre. Part of this is due to the game’s use of a watercolor map, but it also helps that the art is pretty dynamic. For example, when the season changes, the map changes with it. When a tile gets rained on near a river, it gets flooded. When a structure is destroyed, its remains stay behind. All of this is represented on the map in a very artful way, making for a rather active game world. I quite liked this unique blend of watercolor art with a changing environment, it was unlike any strategy game I have ever played before.

Cons:

Lackluster game camera. One thing I noticed right off the bat with At the Gates was its lack of a minimap, something usually seen in 4X games like this. I can definitely do without a minimap (although I would much prefer to have one), but the real issue here being that it severely limits how much control I have over the game’s camera.

For example, when moving between units on the map, the game does not jump the camera to these units, instead it slowly scrolls the camera over to their position, oftentimes taking several seconds to do so. I get that this may sound like a trivial complaint, but as the match progresses and the map becomes larger, it just becomes much more of an annoyance, especially if you have multiple explorers scattered throughout the map. I eventually reached the point where I spent much of the turn waiting for the camera to bounce me between my different explorers in order to give them commands, as there is no auto-explore option (something else the game really needs). If the game had a minimap, or at least allowed instantaneous jumping between units, then this would not be so much a problem. As it stands though, it is quite the annoyance.

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Quality of life issues. For a 4X strategy game, At the Gates does pretty poorly in the quality of life department. The game not only has some glaring omissions for the genre (such as the minimap), but also has a variety of minor issues that really just keep building up, detracting from the overall experience.

One such issue is the game’s complete lack of a unit overview screen. In a game where the player has forty or fifty different clans scattered about, it becomes very easy to lose track of just where everyone is and what they are doing. As such, I was very disappointed to see that there was no easy way to list my clans and where they were. In fact, the only way to check up on clans outside of the main settlement was to actually find them on the map first. A simple menu to list all of my clans, including those outside of the main settlement, would work wonders here.

Another minor issue is the lack of notification when a unit is captured or killed. I would oftentimes send a unit somewhere and come back several turns later only to realize that they are no longer there, usually because they were captured by bandits along the way. As a match progresses, this becomes more of a problem, as there are far more clans to keep track of. Again, a simple notification along the side of the screen would solve the problem.

This next issue at least has a bit of an excuse, it has to due with deleting clans, or rather, the inability to do so. When new clans arrive, they oftentimes can come with negative personality traits, so being able to delete them would defeat the purpose of having such traits in the game. While that is understandable, it unfortunately comes with a rather annoying side-effect. There were instances where my explorers on the other side of the map would come across an abandoned farm, fortress, etc. and find another clan within. This clan would end up joining me and I would then be forced to have them trek the 20-30 turns all the way back to my home base before I could make use of them. On top of that, the clan in question could take up a valuable population slot early in the game, as you can only have so many clans at once. As such, the inability to disband clans like this can prove to be quite a problem, even if its an intended feature. If there was some way to tell if a ruins tile contained a clan, then this would not be a problem, but that would also ruin the surprise associated with such tiles.

These are just three examples of the game’s numerous quality of life issues. There are many others, but these three stood out to me. Fortunately, many of these could be fixed with simple patches, but in the game’s current state, they can be quite troublesome.

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Lifeless AI. In all of my hours of playing At the Gates, I can count the number of encounters I’ve had with other leaders on one hand. Outside of greeting each as I discovered them on the map, they hardly had any impact on my games at all. I never had war declared on me, being denounced did not appear to have any effect, and even the alliances I formed did not amount to anything. Maybe I just got stuck with some passive AI in my games, but it felt like the only real threat to my survival was food shortages and bandits. Granted, one of the game’s victory conditions is to eventually declare war on Rome, but the journey up to that point is pretty uneventful with regards to AI encounters.

Extremely barebones options. For a full-fledged PC release, At the Gates is very limited when it comes to configuration. In fact, the only options present in-game are volume sliders and a mute button. The rest of the game’s options are currently limited to an external XML file, but even there it is still lacking. For example, the only graphical options in that external file are resolution and window options, the latter of which can sometimes cause the game to crash, hence their exclusion from the in-game menu. On top of that, the game also lacks difficulty settings, gameplay options, and even control bindings. I can do without the other two, but control bindings are a must for any modern PC game release. The external settings at least allow extensive UI customization, but it could really use improvement in other areas. It should also be available to change in-game, but the developer has stated that this will come eventually, so at least we have that to look forward to.

No in-game soundtrack. One of my favorite things about playing strategy games like this is listening to their soundtracks. Unfortunately, At the Gates does not have such a soundtrack. In fact, the only music to the game is its title theme and a few event themes. While these themes are good, the lack of music while in-game was rather disappointing. Instead, the game opts for constant background ambience, which is definitely better than nothing, but becomes very boring with time, enough so to warrant me playing my own music on top of it. This may not be a problem for many, but as someone that really enjoys video game soundtracks, I was kinda let down.

Game crashes. The game’s one major technical issue would have to be its constant crashing. It seemed like half the time I tried to start up a new game or load an auto-save while in-game, it would just quit out on me. In fact, I was able to easily reproduce the problem within seconds of opening the game. Fortunately, this crashing does not occur when in a match, only when loading into a game, so at least no data is lost. I contacted the developer over this issue, so it will probably be fixed with time, but it is a pretty major technical problem as it stands.

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While the art style, UI, and gameplay here are definitely good for the genre, the game simply has too many issues to warrant a recommendation in its current state. The lackluster game camera, frequent game crashes, lifeless AI, and numerous missing quality of life features really put a damper on the experience. I have been in contact with the game’s developer over some of these issues and was told that they are being worked on for future patches, so I would definitely recommend waiting until the game has been polished up a bit more.

Score: 4.5/10

You can buy Jon Shafer’s At the Gates on Steam here.

I was provided a review copy of the game in order to write this review. Read more about how I do my game reviews here.

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