Cards. Who doesn’t love them? Either you play with a standard deck that has roughly a million games centered around it, or you play trading card games, which have roughly a million rules and mechanics centered around them. The almost-predictable nature of a deck of cards is both its biggest thrill and greatest risk. Will you be able to navigate the hazards of an unfortunate draw and claim victory, or is your hand a load of garbage because you planned- and played- sub-optimally?
Video games have the opportunity to make this process more engaging, by offering new methods of either viewing the action unfolding, or adding even more mechanics atop things. The result can either be a risk-and-reward-style game like Slay the Spire, where each choice is a methodical weighing of all options, or it can be something a bit more complex and active, like Golem Gates. Real time strategy and deck building may offer an element of unexpected tactical competition, but that’s only if you can grasp the idea of these elements coexisting. Does this game open new avenues for deck-building, or does it trip and fall over right out of the gate? Read on and find out.
Golem Gates is a game about summoning support units, spells, and structures in order to achieve field superiority with regard to each chapter or game mode’s specific objective. As a harbinger, your job is to clank around the battlefield at a slow pace or hide in an area that’s safe enough while your construct minions do all the work. There are a number of different kinds of units, but they can all be summoned as long as they are in your “queue,” or hand, of spells, and if you’ve got the prerequisite amount of energy.
That’s right, Golem Gates is a deck-building game, so you’ve got to have a hand. And a deck, too, which is comprised with a standard smattering of spell types at first, but diversifies a bit as you unlock a variety of rewards through the campaign and challenge modes. The game attempts to ease players in with a hands-on tutorial, showing them the ropes of summoning, cycling through units, and gaining field advantage. It’s a great deal to take in, though, and it isn’t helped by the game’s tiny boxes of text. Save for the tutorial boxes, the default text is extremely small, meaning you may not be able to make out a familiar unit name or spell effect. For the most part, you’ll need to study your deck and know its cards pretty intimately in order to maximize their potential. Even with this random element, the game is still real-time strategy, and things will move faster than a card game turn.
Mana is an energy source, and when starting out on their own, Harbingers can’t offer a whole lot of juice for their armies. That’s why you’ll need to capture reactors in order to boost your maximum output. Even with a boost, you’ll need to play strategically- your deck layout and the amount of energy units cost are important, especially since there’s an extremely sizable cooldown that goes into effect if you run out of cards in your deck, forcing a reshuffle.
The Harbinger may be an easy fail-state target, but at least he’s mobile, which means the only way to lose is to leave him undefended, or to split up your resources a bit too much. Likewise, it can summon scouts to survey the battlefield until they’re out of energy, which is an extremely valuable ability. The Harbinger can summon in any area within their field of vision, which is shared with their units. This means that strategy can be crafted on the fly, somewhat. There are some scenarios you will be unprepared for, however, which is why the game filters strategic options through the completion of missions in order for you to further diversify and/or focus your deck down to the elements needed to survive.
For the most part, everything is mapped decently to the Switch controls, and cycling through units, positioning on the battlefield, and moving your camera work as well as can be expected. The default camera panning is a bit slow, but it’s not game-breaking. I do wish the game had some sort of quick-snap function to the Harbinger, though that might be careful telegraphing on how close and protected you should keep them to the rest of your units.
Aesthetics and Narrative
The excuse for how you, as a Harbinger, are able to summon units endlessly is neat enough- you’re conjuring these creatures from a nanite swarm known as the Ash, and you’re out to destroy Golem Gates because… well, they’re Golem Gates, and they’re churning out hostile forces themselves. Although the narrative doesn’t offer a great deal of twists and turns, it serves as a suitable introduction to your purpose and the way gameplay is going to flow. Seeing as the campaign is only one facet of the whole package, a simplistic story isn’t damning in any way.
One of the strongest aspects of the game is its presentation, pounding players with synth music that captures the throbbing march of war so that you’re always just on the edge. The character models are also quite impressive, as well- for a game that is played from an isometric perspective, it’s almost a shame that its highly-detailed robotic forces are only viewable in the customization phase before combat, as each one has impressive detailing and neat robotic structuring.
Each unit’s specific functions are well-defined through their aesthetics, whether it’s dual-wielding melee grunts, a more frail, ranged medic, or an impressive siege machine. This goes hand-in-hand with some great effects on spells as well, conjuring some impressive flames, explosions, and disintegration animations. It’s a bit of a shame, then, that summoning usually has a group of units stacked in a line in a translucent yellowish hue that makes their details a bit difficult to make out- again, familiarizing yourself with you deck is key, because before a unit is summoned, you’re not going to be able to make out whether or not it’s the right selection.
Similarly, because units are so detailed, their busy designs may also get in the way of identifying individuals. That may also be an issue during battle. Unit pathing isn’t really the best, and often a horde of units devolves into a mosh pit of flailing arms and projectiles without the ability to control them with a great deal of finesse. There’s still a variety of locales and unit types to explore over the course of the game, but again, some serious homework needs to be done in order to have a good grasp on your surroundings.
Impressions and Conclusion
As a casual strategy role-playing fan and a full-on trading card game enthusiast, I went into Golem Gates with some idea of what to expect. I was still pleasantly surprised by the density of content, however- Golem Gates has campaign, challenge, survival, and competitive modes, the latter two having co-operative functions. For a game of its size and price, it truly does all that it can to sell you on its concept, offering multiple custom deck slots for quick selection and experimentation, and a variety of puzzles in which to test your skills.
But does it stick the landing? I’m not sure. There’s a healthy number of challenges that set up the groundwork for some clever strategies bolstered by the freedom that the game’s “line of sight” summoning offers. It’s a terribly unique concept that could appeal to real time strategy players and trading card game players alike, but it lacks a bit of the finesse of both. These genres are often separate because real time strategy requires quick thinking within the routine-established paradigms, while trading card-based games often allow the user a bit of freedom to stop and think about what they’re going to do.
I’ve used the phrase “studying” a number of times throughout this review, and if you wish to play Golem Gates effectively, you’re certainly going to need to do just that- while the variety in its card types is a bit lower than other trading card-based video games, you’re still going to want to be acutely aware of how much energy certain units cost for each stage of the game. It’s not the easiest game to introduce to another person, even if they’re familiar with one of its two conceptual halves. If you are willing to go the distance and sink some time into a very unique experience, there truly is nothing else like Golem Gates out there- for better or for worse. One thing is for sure though, if you take the dive on this title, you’ll be invited to partake in an extensive package that will either excite or exhaust you.