Sometimes, you just need a mouse and keyboard.
The real-time strategy genre has always struggled to find a home on consoles. It is a gameplay format that is uniquely suited to a mouse and keyboard. Such is the case for Golem Gates, whose RTS-meets-deck-building gameplay is hampered by controller limitations and performance.
Golem Gates is an RTS in which you’ll build up an army and work to defeat your enemy and control the map before they can do the same to you. Where more traditional RTS experiences would have you constructing a base and harvesting resources, Golem Gates opts for a deck building structure instead. The bottom of the screen displays your cards. These cards include units, traps, turrets, special attacks, and more. They’re slowly drawn from your deck in a random order. Each one also requires a specific number of points to spawn, which slowly replenish over time. Controlling specific areas on the map can speed up and expand your pool of points, allowing for more and better unit production. Controlling and defending these areas is therefore integral to victory. You can only play your cards within the line of sight of another unit; thus, these territories can also serve as backup spawn points should your advancing army be destroyed. This whole system works excellently and is very well balanced. Controlling the majority of the spawn points does not guarantee victory, and I saw matches turn in my favor and against me on multiple occasions. At the end of each successful match, you’re awarded random cards. These cards can be added into your deck, which is fully customizable by the player. You can also save multiple decks allowing for different strategies for different situations.
Where these expertly-designed systems run into trouble is in your ability to manipulate them. Control is equal parts unwieldy and slow. You control a cursor with one stick while being able to pan the camera with the other. I found, even when using a higher move speed, that getting around the map just takes too long. The shoulder buttons can also be used to zip to specific control points, but I was never able to get a feel for what order this feature would choose to rotate through the points in, making it disorienting. When one of my positions was attacked far from where I was currently looking, I always found myself stumbling over losing more units than seemed necessary due to my confusion. On the bright side, when playing portably you can simply drag a box around units to select them. This works much better than the on-screen selection options, which make unit manipulation a bit of an all or nothing affair. As a veteran of StarCraft 64, I find myself more than capable of adapting to console RTS controls, but Golem Gates has another issue that wasn’t as easily overcome.
Golem Gates is visually demanding. Its art style is one built around harsh, dynamic lighting and detailed characters. While the Switch puts in a solid effort to deliver this vision in full, it quickly runs out of steam as the screen becomes more crowded. By the end of most matches, I have enough units on screen that spawning new ones will often cause them to appear with missing textures, resulting in odd gray blobs running around the screen. Frame rate is also a major issue for Golem Gates. Spawn in enough units and you’ll see the frame rate start to chug. During one mission in the first chapter, I managed to have so many units on screen that the frame rate dropped into the single digits. This also introduced significant input lag into the controls. Luckily, it was an instance where all I had to do was defend a point so my army only needed to be situated in the right spot and left to fight, but other instances are much more intrusive.
While I’ve only played the Switch version, I have to imagine that the original PC release of Golem Gates would be a lot of fun. All of the actual game design is fantastic and very addictive. Unfortunately, this is another instance of a great RTS game not translating well to a traditional controller. Add to that the performance issues on Switch and the console release becomes an even harder sell. Were it not for a truly delightful core gameplay loop, Golem Gates would be an easy pass. As it is, there is a compelling experience to be found, but it’s buried deep.