“Over the bleached bones and jumbled residues of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words: Too late.”
-Martin Luther King, Jr.
“The following is a contributor post by the One-Winged Mage.”
You’re the harbinger, a powerful being able to wield the power of the Ash to conjure troops, structures and spells. You’re tasked with cleansing the post-apocalyptic Earth free of forces which have been ravaging the landscape for millennia… or so you’re told.
This is the premise of Golem Gates, a real-time strategy game merging elements of a deck-building card battler. Before jumping into any battle, you can customize a deck of cards called glyphs. With these glyphs you can summon a large variety of troops, defensive and offensive structures, techs (spells) and buffs. When entering a battle you begin with only your harbinger in an empty field and a handful of random glyphs in your hand and are given objectives to follow. As your energy meter fills up, you can begin consuming it to summon glyphs and slowly fill up the arena with your army.
This blend of genres makes for an interestingly unique experience (I do realize BattleForge mixed these two genres as well but I’m not familiar with it) especially on consoles. Unlike most RTS games a big part of Golem Gates involves managing your deck instead of managing resources if you don’t spend much time tweaking your deck instead of adopting a more free-form approach. Every time new cards are acquired you can pick and choose which ones to add to your deck and leave the ones you don’t think you’ll need. You can also sometimes remove glyphs to make sure your deck won’t become over-boated. Here lies an important decision you must make.
When your deck runs out of glyphs it must shuffle all of them back for re-use leaving you powerless and unable to do anything for 15 seconds. Your troops and turrets still attack automatically if there are any enemies nearby but you’ve no direct control over anyone and can’t summon any new units so the trade-off becomes whether you want a smaller, focused deck which repeats cards more often but leaves you powerless during frequent reshuffles or whether to have a full deck which reshuffles less but also has a lower chance of acquiring a glyph you need.
The game is challenging when the random glyphs you get on hand are not what you need for a specific moment in a mission and you’re forced to wait or retreat until you have what you need. There were times enemies absolutely obliterated me in a mission. After jumping right back in, success can be foundthe second time around. Other times you can keep failing until you decide to optimize your deck for that specific mission to finally claim victory. The game has you continuously walking a line between luck and strategy which determines the outcome of each mission.
Now let’s talk about the modes. The story is split into three acts with five missions each. It’s not a particularly lengthy story mode but feels like it was a good length for the type of game it is. Then there’s survival mode which is exactly what you’d expect, with the option of playing it co-op online. Then there’s versus mode which provides the typical skirmishes which are the staple of the RTS genre. You can add up to three AI opponents or play online with friends. You can adjust a variety of parameters including AI difficulty, glyph draw rate, starting energy, etc. Unfortunately every single time this player tried to create a game or find an online match in either survival or versus he couldn’t find a single other soul to play with.
Then there’s the trials which are personally my favorite part. This mode consists of over 30 individual challenges which are fast-paced and difficult. Each challenge is unique, focusing on completing a goal. One challenge has you pick up the glyphs scattered around the map instead of drawing them from a deck. Another restricts you to using techs and traps and has units moving forward by themselves making it feel like a tower defense game. These challenges are perfect for a quick play session if you’d rather consume the game in smaller chunks of time.
At first impression the visuals were interesting in the way the game portrays the post-apocalyptic world shrouded in fog and darkness. However, environments remained similar throughout the game so they became repetitive. There are different environments but all are just minor variations on the same, monochromatic playing fields. Among rubble you find statues toppled, half-buried contraptions and other, curious findings. There should be a way of shooting more light and color into backgrounds to better appreciate surroundings but that’s just a nitpick.
Units have intriguing but unvaried designs. Most appear too small to distinguish from one another. While editing your deck you can check any of these units up close – a most welcome feature. The spells, explosions and attacks look visually impressive. Hectic battles look like fireworks. It’s really satisfying sending large numbers of troops to finish off the last structure or enemy.
I didn’t spend too much time in portable mode but what was experienced seems to be on par with how it plays while docked. Units are more difficult to distinguish on the portable screen but action was still easy to follow. There were some lag issues but these were still apparent after switching back to docked.
Your mileage with this game will depend on how much time you spend with the deck building aspect. Each completed mission grants you new glyphs. There’s also a daily updated shop where you can purchase glyphs with in-game currency. You can stick to a single deck, only adding new glyphs which interest you or only use them once to remove them the next mission if you’re not too fond of them. One could easily spend quite a fair amount of time creating different decks for different situations or to suit a personal play style.
Action is fast, chaotic and sometimes unintelligible but still fun. There can be times you send so many units to attack a boss you’ll have no idea if you’re winning or losing until the words “mission accomplished” suddenly appear. This doesn’t mind too much as the chaos was fun to watch but it can be frustrating when you realize only a few of your units are alive and you’re about to lose the battle.
Then there are the frame rate drops which occur somewhat often, especially in later missions. At the beginning of Chapter 7, the slowdown became so bad as to be unplayable. Luckily, stick with it long enough and the frame rate soon becomes much better to where you could actually complete the mission. These issues occur far less often in the other modes since they involve much smaller maps than those found in story mode but it’s still a big issue.
You’re thrown into the chaotic, post-apocalyptic world from the get-go without explanation of who you are or what you’re doing. The story comes in the form of mission briefings before each mission from a glowing orb claiming to be your creator or the briefing will be “interrupted” by an opposing character. Briefings in the second half go into more detail as to how the apocalypse happened and what the power of the ash is. The lore is interesting but the game never really dives into enough details to keep the player engaged in the story. What doesn’t help is playing as the voiceless, nondescript harbinger, who lacks emotion. Luckily, the appeal is the gameplay so these things are of lesser importance.
This is the weakest part. The music is serviceable, providing a moody mix of techno and industrial sounds. The only place the soundtrack really stood out was during boss battles when it picked up tempo. The upbeat tracks do a much better job matching the action happening on-screen, which made the few boss battle missions more exciting and enjoyable.
The voice acting is odd as characters speak in a whisper tone but it does fit the theme of a world deprived of its humanity. The sound effects leave the most to be desired. The projectiles, explosions and unit deaths have little oomph which diminishes the impact of their actions. I’ve joked how some of the attacks sound like the units are splashing water at each other. The are times you wouldn’t know if a character were dead until their body disappears off the map.
Being an RTS on consoles, Golem Gates runs into typical problems of how to properly make the game type function properly without the use of mouse and keyboard. The developers have added some shortcuts which enhance the experience. For example, when having a group of units selected you have to click away to the bottom menu to summon a new unit. When summoned, your previously selected group is automatically re-selected with the new unit. Other shortcuts and automatic systems can be viewed and toggled on/off from the pause menu. It’s highly recommend you do this as the tutorials may not explain everything clearly but even with all these shortcuts, it’s still not the ideal way to play an RTS game. It took me several missions to get used to the controls but by the end you do feel you have a good grasp of the functions.
Plenty of modes, loads of collectibles and multiplayer options… this game does everything right when it comes to adding replay value. Some story missions have secondary objectives which, if completed, also reward glyphs upon victory. The missions are varied and challenging enough to require a second or third attempt. The random element of glyphs keeps players on their toes. There’s an abundance of things here to hold you over long after the story mode has finished. It’s just too bad the online servers are virtually empty.
BattleForge may have introduced the concept of mixing RTS and card-based combat but the servers have long been shut down. There are a few other ones out there which have surfaced since then but none are quite like Golem Gates. Not to mention how consoles typically lack RTS experiences (especially the Switch). The gameplay mixes two uncommon genres which provide quite the unique experience.
My Personal Grade: 8/10
It had been a while since I played an RTS game so I jumped at the chance to play Golem Gates. It didn’t disappoint. The strategy is fierce and fun, especially when you’re forced to keep an eye on different battles happening simultaneously. I’d highly recommend using the pause button as it allows you to look around, carefully plan your next move and even summon glyphs.
While there are many aspects which brought down the experience, this is still greatly enjoyable. There remain plenty of challenges left for me to conquer and glyphs to collect so I’ll be coming back to enjoy this again. My sincere hope is enough gamers discovering this title and taking a chance on it so I have better chances of playing with another human online. If you’re reading this and decide to make the purchase, I’ll be waiting for you!
Aggregated Score: 7.5
The One-Winged Mage, aka Kalas, may have been born with only one wing, but fear not for he has found a wonderful community of friends to share his love of games through Twitter, Instagram and Youtube.
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Categories: Game Review