One should never mistake complexity for depth. Jon Shafer - lead designer on Civilization V - started his barbarian survival game as a Kickstarter way back in 2013 but the messy end result was sadly not worth the wait.
The concept of At the Gates is intriguing, a small team creating an uncompromising indie strategy title about the fall of Rome. But instead of donning a tablecloth, you'd be wearing the animal skins of the barbarian tribes around the once illustrious nation. And the designer of arguably one of the best Civ games at the helm, the title was poised to become one of those cult classics like King of Dragon Pass. Alas, it was not meant to be. The reportedly super-small team, extended development time and Mr. Shafer's departure to Paradox might have been partly to blame, but there's something fundamentally off about how the game is designed.
The players start with a small encampment surrounded by various terrain types, resource deposits and more or less angry neighbours. Instead of "building" units, the tribe grows with clans joining your cause. Each clan is basically a unit template you can train for various jobs such as woodcutting or hunting. As you gain more fame and knowledge, advanced job types become available mostly to boost your production or improve your military. The first playthrough is inevitably going to be a messy one, as the user interface does its very best to hide as much information as possible behind an extensive tooltip-inside-tooltips system.
The main UI is rather spartan and even more so for a game of this type. Tooltips are great for getting additional information on a game element, but awful when you must constantly hover over this and that, alternating between two different info boxes you'd want to see side-by-side. One good example of bad UI design is the "New Clan has joined" screen, where you can see the clan's name, avatar and quote. The clan has two "traits" with both good and bad effects, but these effects are hidden behind the tooltips even though the screen has oodles of empty space. The same issues creep up everywhere from clan professions to food situation and so forth. The end result is a jumble of tooltips making the game feel a lot more complex than it actually is. At the Gates is no Paradox grand strategy, but the delivery of important information makes it feel as confusing to a new player.
Once you learn the ropes and know that a reaper collects plants and a gatherer collects berries, the game reveals another problem. For someone who enjoyed the slow start of Surviving Mars, At the Gates feels uneventful and frankly, a bit dull. Other tribes settle occasionally here and there, and the player's limited diplomatic options leave little room for strategic alliances or general backstabbery. In the first 150 turns (many, many hours of gaming), not a single opponent attacked us once. The turns came and went sending clans to collect more food, wood, stone and other resources, researching new professions and tweaking the production bonuses. Food never ran out even during the frigid winters when most production is swallowed up by snow. Gold was also plentiful, and the merchant caravans provided everything the tribe needed but couldn't produce. In summary, nothing much happened, and nothing challenged the tribe's slow expansion until boredom set in.
There are good ideas in here too: different clans might not get along with each other, so cooping up in the settlement might drive them against the wall and at each other. Traits mean some clans are just plain better than others or do well if you find them a good profession to excel at. The change of seasons means the tribe can't rest on its laurels but must stock up for the winters and concentrate on other jobs while waiting for the snow to melt. Or you can risk it and explore the lands beyond the water by walking over it when it freezes. The settlement you start isn't a city and therefore easy to relocate to a better area you haven't strip-mined yet. There are lots of little sparks of ingenuity here and there, reminding of what could have been if the project had been handled a bit better. Now the confusing UI, dull "tech tree" comprised of mostly production bonuses, and the general uneventfulness drags everything down to a point where it's very hard to care enough to keep on playing for those good bits. The low-tech water colour-esque art style is nice enough to look at and provides At the Gates' units and world map a unique look compared to other hex-based strategy titles.
The final product might have been pushed out in a hurry just for the sake of being done with it, but that's pure speculation. The first patch is supposed to add a tutorial and other stuff, but without a serious UI overhaul and retooling some of its core mechanics it's hard to see At the Gates soaring to new heights compared to this launch version we reviewed.