I’m usually not a fan of card-based games unless they’re card games. Ok, that didn’t make much sense. Let’s try again: I like card games like Hearthstone or Magic the Gathering, Gwent and so on, CCGs, TCGs and deck builders. Those games where the cards are the game. What I’m traditionally not a fan of are those games in other genres that use decks and cards, such as RTS or RPGs using decks, say Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories or Children of the Zodiarcs.

Funnily enough, I kinda like both of those examples, because they’re very good implementations of the cards and deck mechanics in other genres. But it’s something that can go in horrendous directions unless done properly.

So, when I got the information on Golem Gates, a real-time strategy title on Early Access and featuring cards, I had that involuntary groan when I suspect the experience is going to be awful. But as always, I said yes, because despite my misgivings and fears, there might be a jewel of gaming there, and unless I give it its fair shake, I won’t find out.

Love the Arbiter’s look

It’s a good thing I did because Golem Gates is fantastic. Before I get to the explanations and the praise, I will say it has some issues still. The main one being repetitiveness, both in environmental design and mission structure. There’s also a big lack of narrative within the missions, the story progressing as it has always done in traditional RTS titles, between stages.

Every mission looks and feels the same, a post-apocalyptic and dark ruin of civilisation, with wires and cords giving off a red light only offset by your own golden radiance. While I understand the setting, some variation in it would do great, some contrast here and there. This variation in environments is even more important between chapters, where you reach new locales, yet they remain the same.

The darkness around your units NEVER goes away.

Something that doesn’t help is the permanent fog of war you have, with only your units and your arbiter lifting the obscurity. It’s a nice idea but it makes everything feel claustrophobic and means that for the most part you’re just looking at a blank map and a blackened environment. It becomes dull very quickly. I understand the conceptual point, the Arbiter lifts the darkness, but perhaps give those already explored areas a transparent quality, so even if mildly darkened, you can see what’s there.

The second chapter has you descending into an old vault, going deeper and deeper yet it never felt different on a visual level, part of it is the overarching aesthetics and the other the darkness I mentioned above.

Destroying Golem Gates is by far the most common objective in the game, which is ok, if the missions themselves weren’t so repetitive in content. Spice it up a bit!

Mission repetitiveness is a bit more critical. Every mission revolves around either controlling a point or destroying a Golem Gate, the boss replacing the Gates and the end of the chapter. And guess what you do to reach the boss? Control points. Some of these points are generators that expand your energy, which I don’t mind, but some are merely control spots that are clearly just for mission objectives.

I’d love to have some missions of the Arbiter on his own, something with a narrative, not just an objective. After all, the Arbiter is anything but defenceless, he can dish out some serious damage, even if healing units completely ignore him, which sucks.

Missions also have one unfair element: in some maps the enemy forces have sections behind force fields. You can’t take these down and they give them points all over the map where they can summon new units. If you can’t deal with it in a permanent fashion, it just feels cheap

Now that I’m done with the criticism, let’s go with the praise!

Golem Gates - Mulligan
You can swap out your starting cards. It’s so useful!

I didn’t expect I’d like the card mechanics so much. The Arbiter has a deck with unit, structure and ability cards and a refilling energy bar, which slowly expands and regenerates and can be further upgraded by capturing and holding generators. Losing generators means the controlling party also loses a chunk of maximum energy and loses some energy regeneration speed as well.

Your cards don’t summon individual units for the most part, but squads. So, for every card you use you get one to three units, the more powerful the squad, the lower the number of units, which makes sense. When you summon a unit or a structure, the area around them illuminates and dispels the thick fog of war (this also applies to the arbiter). You can only summon units in illuminated areas, with the advantage that you can summon things while your squads are moving or even in the middle of a fight. Your enemies can do that as well of course.

Golem Gates - Start
The Arbiter is alone at the start of every mission.

Battles become a matter of keeping a reserve of cards in your hand you can easily use to your advantage. Maybe you drop a turret or canon right behind your units, so they suddenly have heavy artillery supporting them, or you use your fireballs and fire spread cards to weaken or obliterate the back line of the enemy forces, even their heroes, which might be too much for your units. Or when their powerful devastating units come, you hit them with a power card that stops them from attacking. My favourite cards are one that doubles a unit’s size while doing the same for their attack power and health. I save it for those big powerful units like heroes. And the other is the one that temporarily disables all structures, so no defensive turrets or mines, meaning your guys can go nuts.

Some of the unit AI needs a bit of revising, particularly the Healbot, as it’s only aware of damaged units directly in front of it, so if it’s part of a squad, travelling in the middle of many other units, it can often just sit there doing nothing while its companions are obliterated. I would also love a unit or structure that heals nearby structures.

Golem Gates - Golem
By far the most intense part so far and it was just another “control this point” scenario, but with waves and a time limit.

When you run out of cards, you have to reshuffle, at which point your entire interface becomes unusable. At first, I thought this was an issue but then realised this was another part of the strategy. When do you reshuffle? During a fight? Right after? Or do you hold until you’re certain that enemies won’t strike? Reshuffling becomes part of the flow of battle, and while keeping an empty deck is a risk, fifteen seconds of inactivity can be much worse.

Overall, I really enjoy Golem Gates, even though the story mode doles out the new cards way too slowly. I’m still waiting for cards that allow me to counter my enemy’s utility cards, which they seem to have since they keep countering mine.

I’ll be reviewing the game once I’m done with it and when it’s fully released on the 28th of March. Right now, you can find Golem Gates on Steam Early Access.

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