Golem Gates is one of those rare games that manages to do far more with its set up than should be possible. Chucking around initialisms like CCG and RTS together would often set alarm bells ringing as they hint at an unadulterated mess of systems, but here they come together to form a cohesive strategy success story that sees you becoming a card-carrying adventurer in a sci-fi opera.
I don’t often start with soundtracks in reviews, not because they’re unimportant – perish the thought – but it was the first thing that unerringly captured my attention in Golem Gates. There’s no extensive cutscenes, no expansive dialogue, or in fact much of anything to welcome you into the game, but the music made me think of M83’s incredible Oblivion soundtrack while basking in the glow of Blade Runner’s opening shots.
Dalvin Kang has managed to make music a storytelling device, and frankly the game could have given me little beyond that and I’d have been ready and willing to accept where and when I was. It’s beautiful, and I’ve sat in the menu for the past thirty minutes listening to it on a loop.
Ok, enough hyperbole. Golem Gates does give you more than that narratively, but it remains fairly minimalist. The story mode casts you as The Harbinger, a powerful being on the side of the light who’s set to work to destroy the Golem Gates; large brooding structures whose purpose is only to destroy everything around them.
Here’s where all of those acronyms start to come in. The core CCG element is the deck of unit cards that you enter into combat with. You have a steadily refilling action bar that you can then use to bring cards into play, with smaller, less powerful units costing less than the powerful hulking ones. This gives you an immediate strategic choice between firing multiple low cost units into battle against holding out to bring in something more imposing.
You’re granted a standardised starter deck to begin with, but as you make your way through the story you’ll unlock newer, more powerful cards and you can begin to tailor things to your own playstyle. It takes a while to build up enough cards to make it feel worthwhile, but once you have them it’s the kind of thing that strategy fans will love to tinker with and make their own.
Dropping those units into play then flips the central gameplay into classic RTS territory as you point your futuristic forces in the direction you want and send them off across the map to smash those Golem Gates. You will of course encounter enemies along the way, and while brute force won’t always win the day – there are various units like fireballs and poison traps that’ll make short work of your troops if they’re all clumped together – a great part of what you’ll be doing is simply overpowering your foes.
That’s been a compelling part of RTS gameplay since the very beginning, and the card deck and action timer taking on the role of resource collection and upgrade trees simply serves to streamline the experience down to its core elements, which is great now that the game has come to console. The question will likely be whether you buy into the fiction and the gameplay and you’ll have to think about just what it is that you enjoy about strategy gaming. Personally I love leading waves of units across a map and crashing them against enemy units until they’re ground into dust, but that might just be me.
On a big screen it all makes decent sense, even if some of the unit descriptions and stats could do with being a touch bigger, and there’s a distinct lack of anti-aliasing on Nintendo’s cheeky little fella. It’s not exactly an attractive game, but it definitely does the trick. Having seen footage of the PC version, there have been some serious cuts made. Playing on the Switch’s screen meanwhile brings its own benefits; there’s a bump in size to some of the UI elements and text, though there’s a further drop in resolution to keep it all running smoothly.
There’s a good amount of content for you to plough your time into here, and besides the increasingly tough fifteen story missions there’s a batch of time sensitive Trials to work your way through that stick you into a set scenario. There’s also online modes for up to four players, but sadly there currently isn’t anyone playing for us to check it out.