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At The Gates Review — Looking Back at Civilization



Jon Shafer's At the Gates logo

Jon Shafer is best known as lead designer on the popular Civilization V, which released in 2010. Since then, his attention has been on a game of his own conception: Jon Shafer’s At the Gates.

At the Gates is best described as a turn-based strategy similar to the Civilization series. However, the most notable difference is that At the Gates introduces a more unique world by incorporating rogue-like and unpredictable elements.

At the Gates starts similarly to most games of the same genre. Players begin by choosing a faction to play as; although only one is available to newcomers, a total of 10 are unlockable. The first and only settlement is spawned on a procedurally generated map. The player then dedicates most of their time to managing ‘clans’ within their settlement, assigning them to professions and disciplines and keeping them happy. Each clan comes with two traits, which affect how they act in the world and react if given a certain role that does not suit their personality.

The personalities of the clans can become quite the obstacle, especially if one of their traits claim they are prone to desires. Desires are when a clan wishes to do something else, whether that be to return to the settlement, change professions, or even change disciplines. If a clan gets a desire, it may force the player to constantly switch clan professions in an attempt to keep everyone happy.

The game’s depth lies within its profession and discipline system. At the Gates has six disciplines and within each one is a variety of professions that the player can study and then assign to clans. Often, the player will find themselves reassigning professions to clans, as they discover better and more efficient professions, or, instead if one of the clans desires to stop being the primary food supplier to go do something useless. Managing these desires and professions as well as trying to keep up a sufficient income of food and materials can be quite challenging, but add that to trying to complete the game’s ultimate goal and long sections of the game become a ruthless grind.

The two distinct ways to beat At the Gates are to conquer the capital city of one Roman Empire or become the Magister Militum. Although the goals in At the Gates are easily defined, they are not so easily reached.

At the Gates in no way holds the player’s hand. Sure, the game has an entire encyclopaedia of definitions and explanations, but, even then, the preferred way to learn is through trial and error. Initially, everything can be quite daunting, the player given complete freedom over what they want to study and what roles they would like to give to their new clans. Between the number of options and the rapid approach of in-game winter, players can be left with a sense of ‘what do I do?’ or ‘am I doing this right?’ These questions are usually answered by the player’s explorers starving in the cold and the settlement being left without a stable food source for the remainder of the long winter.

At the Gates begins several turns before winter, giving the player little time to prepare or even grasp the basics. Winter slows the game down, bringing potential assaults and exploration to a halt, either forcing clans to return to the settlement or encamp at their current location to maintain supplies. The landscape becomes coated in snow, making the movement of troops almost impossible. Crops wilt and become unharvestable in the cold, forcing the player to rely on their meat suppliers and food storage. Anyone not properly prepared for their first winter will spend the remainder of the year trying to recover.

Outside winter, the player will likely devote most of their time to gathering supplies, as they are crucial to getting anywhere in the game. Gathering supplies in the early game can be intimidating, especially since several turns must be spent identifying the material or animal before it can be harvested. Having limited clans is really what makes resource management difficult; the player can find it challenging, especially when they do not know what resources they should be dedicating their time to in the early game.

At The Gates photo 1

This limited amount of guidance in the early game is very confronting. The player constantly is left asking, ‘is this what I’m supposed to do?’ Players are left to wonder if they would be better off devoting another clan with another set of personality traits to a task or if they should just make do with what they have. However, once a rhythm is found, the game can actually be quite enjoyable. Nevertheless, this rhythm only lasts so long and, as play continues and the rate at which clans join the settlement slows, the player is sometimes left wondering where to go next. At the Gates has a distant goal, but the path to get there is uncertain. This trait can be part of the charm of strategy games, but might throw some players off.

The early game can be particularly painful for players new to the genre. With very little in terms of direction and explanation, users may be left floundering around for the first few hours. However, the free and directionless beginning might be familiar to those who are accustomed to Civilization and similar titles, making the harsh beginning far easier to seasoned players, though their experience might not save them from the somewhat clunky menus.

The menus can sometimes seem a little clunky and moving between them can be confusing on occasion. A few bugs involving them are noticeable, but not game-breaking: words sometimes seep over the borders of the windows, and hovering over certain words does not always show their definition.

Jon Shafer’s attempt at slow-burn strategy has been mixed with rogue-like elements to give the game an original feel, and, overall, it works. At the Gates’s randomly generated land, clans, and enemies allow for hours of replayability  The clans and personality features give the game an edge against its competitors and forces the player to strategically look at every move they make. At the Gates is a game that strategy lovers will enjoy and holds just enough depth and content to keep players entertained, but it can also be difficult to players new to the genre.

OnlySP Review Score 3 Credit

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Stranger Things 3: The Game Review — Mindflayingly Average



Stranger Things 3: The Game logo

The Stranger Things series has been a big success for Netflix. A love letter to ‘80s pop culture, with a focus on the science fiction and horror movies of the time, the show has been hugely popular, with the latest season screened on over 40 million accounts in its first four days. Accompanying the launch of the television season is Stranger Things 3: The Game. Developed by BonusXP Inc, which previously created Stranger Things: The Game for mobile devices, the game is an isometric brawler which competently retells the story of Stranger Things 3, but has little of its own to say. Mild spoilers for Stranger Things 3 ahead.  

The game opens one year after the events of Stranger Things season two. While trying to contact his camp girlfriend with a high-tech ham radio, Dustin overhears a strange recording spoken in Russian. Determined to figure out what it means, he teams up with Steve and his coworker Robin to try and decode the message. Meanwhile, strange occurrences have been happening around Hawkins, with rats devouring fertiliser and chemicals. Max’s brother Billy is looking decidedly unwell, thickly wrapped in jumpers while he works as a lifeguard. A tingle at the back of Will’s neck tells him the mindflayer’s presence still lingers around the town. As events progress, a group of average kids must save the world from an otherworldly monstrous threat once again.  

Stranger Things 3: The Game takes place in a semi-open world, with more locations unlocked as players progress. The player starts out in control of Mike and Lucas, who wield a bat and slingshot respectively. Two characters are always on screen, with the other person controlled by AI. Local co-op is available and seems to be the intended way to play—the AI for the second player is not very smart. When in single-player mode, the player can switch between the two characters on the fly, and any unlocked characters can be swapped to as well. The other characters unlock over the course of the story, with a total of 12 to choose from. Each character can attack and block and has a unique special move, such as Max’s healing hearts or Jonathan’s stunning camera flash. Special moves cost energy, which can be replenished by drinking New Coke or picked up from defeated enemies. With each character playing so differently, the game would benefit from restricting which characters can be used in each scenario, as finding a favourite combination and sticking to it is far too easy. This lack of restriction also caused some weird story occurrences, like Nancy wandering around the void or Hopper hanging out with Mike while he mopes about breaking up with Eleven.

Exploring Hawkins involves lots of switch puzzles, and using characters’ special abilities, like Dustin hacking into a locked door or Joyce cutting the lock off of a gate with her bolt cutters. The puzzles are generally straightforward, with the Russians inexplicably leaving clues in English for the player to find, but more complicated riddles can be found by wandering off the beaten track. The creepy deserted pizza place has some based on pi, and exploring optional rooms in the Russian base will reward the player with rare crafting items.

Crafting in Stranger Things 3: The Game is poorly implemented. Items can only be made at workbenches, which makes sense for complicated contraptions, but is annoying at other times (for example, having to retreat out of the pool area because Eleven needs to put duct tape on her swimming goggles). When looking in a store, no indication appears on what items are already in the player’s inventory. Apart from plot items, the player can also make trinkets, which improve the party’s statistics. A wide variety of trinkets are available, from improving a single character’s attack to increasing the health of the whole party. Finding the missing items to create a trinket is tricky due to the poor shopping interface, and the sparse placement of workbenches gives the player few chances to actually craft the items. Fortunately, fighting enemies is easy enough that crafting can mostly go ignored.

Combat is simple, for the most part, with the player smashing everything on screen to progress. Hawkins is absolutely infested with rats and Russians, with even the library packed to the brim with bad guys. Though the excessive numbers of similar enemies is normal in the brawling genre, more variety would have been appreciated. The late game Russians become more interesting, with knife throwers, chemical spills, and grenades, but the first three-quarters of the game consists of the same baddies over and over.

An exception to this repetition is the challenging boss battles, which are far tougher than the average gameplay. Bosses will need extra conditions to be met before they can be damaged, like switching lights on, dodging charge attacks, or keeping several baddies away from each other. Some work better than others—for example, one battle relied on keeping two boss creatures apart to prevent them from healing each other, which simply did not work in single player since the AI fighter closely follows the main character. Instead, defeating the boss required exploiting Nancy’s critical hit ability to do enough damage to kill the monsters before they could heal, a strategy that required some luck to succeed. Other boss encounters fared better, with the trial of constantly repairing Hopper’s cottage as slimy creatures crawl through the windows proving tough and intense.  A dodge button would be a useful addition to the movement options, since the bosses run so much faster than the player does. The game is also a bit stingy on providing a place to stock up before a boss battle, which should be included considering the spike in difficulty they represent. Still, these battles are where the game shines brightest, showing creativity and variety that is sorely lacking in other areas.

Stranger Things 3: The Game is faithful to a fault, feeling like a very detailed recap of the season. A few sidequests tell their own story, like doing chores for the creepy Granny Perkins or exploring the abandoned electronics store, but for the most part, the player will be re-enacting scenes from the television series, with a bit of extra rat murder and crafting thrown in. Clinging so closely means the story has nowhere exciting to go since the player has presumably already watched the season. If the player has not seen the show, that would be even worse, as it is a non-scary adaptation of a horror show that completely loses the tone. The occasional dialogue choice is thrown in, but the response makes no difference either way. Adding in some choices alongside possibilities of events going differently would make things far more engaging. 

A highlight of Stranger Things 3: The Game is the art direction, with some beautiful 16-bit recreations of the cast and environments. With the exception of Jonathan, who looks like his pointy-chinned cousin, the sprites are a good resemblance of the cast. The monsters are appropriately fleshy and gross, with the final boss, in particular, looking foreboding. Environments can get a bit repetitive, with one sprite for all the beds, one for all the cupboards, etcetera. Sprite laying issues do occur on occasion—the ashtrays all hover in front of the characters, for example. The chiptune recreation of the show’s music, however, is spot on, and converting the title theme into a Zelda-like solved puzzle jingle is impressive indeed.    

Stranger Things 3: The Game gameplay

Stranger Things 3: The Game is only for really big fans of the show. Even then, the title is hard to recommend since it is an inferior version of the television season. While the gameplay is not bad, it is too repetitive to be enjoyable on its own. The game would perhaps be best played just before season four comes out, as a novel way of recapping the previous season.   

OnlySP Review Score 2 Pass

Reviewed on PC. Also available on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, iOS and Android devices.

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