18th Gate is not a game for the easily bored. It's a fairly basic strategy RPG that has you edging through – yes – 18 dungeons to the magical portal gates at the end, with the caveat that you only have a limited number of turns to escape from each maze. Each turn can be an attack, a spell or a single step to an adjacent hexagonal tile; as such it's very slow-paced, and the challenge is to make the most of the limited movements on offer. There's a lot of failing and a lot of retrying that will appeal to gamers that love a trial or two – but unfortunately there are a few additional restrictions outside of the core concept that aren't quite as much fun.
You take command of three different characters simultaneously: the treasure hunter can shoot enemies from long range, the knight is a dab hand at swordplay and the wizard controls magic as only somebody with a pointy hat can. With this little crew you have to find keys to unlock coloured doors that block your path to the mystical gate, defeat any enemies in your way and, most importantly, survive. Along the way there are items to help you out, such as hammers that increase your attack power and boots that let you make two moves for the price of one, and your characters' power gradually builds through an obligatory experience / levels system. As long as one character makes it to the gate, you win.
It's no walk in the park – 18th Gate is hardcore, difficult in ways both fair and unfair. At any time you can only see the area immediately surrounding one of your characters – unless you use a certain spell or find an item that can temporarily reveal more of the dungeon – and the target destination. Any pathways, items, keys, doors and monsters disappear into the darkness when you're not nearby, which means that you need a good memory or a pad of paper to make your way through some levels. It's a refreshing contrast to games that hold your hand the entire way.
Stage content is randomised too: only your start point, the layout, gate, door and key locations remain the same, so you might either start in a section filled with potions and useful items or be completely swamped in foes and traps from turn one. It keeps things interesting though does seem to bounce between extremes, giving you an easy ride sometimes and putting you through hell on other occasions. You can always 're-roll' a level by restarting it, though this is more awkward than it should be as there's no simple restart option. You can be in a situation that you know is unsurpassable, but to try again you either have to ride it out to your death or quit out and reload your game.
That's one of several flaws that wear down on 18th Gate. It's awfully restrictive; you can't pick what order your characters move in each round — always treasure hunter first, followed by knight then wizard – which limits your strategic options. This is a particular problem since you can't see too far forward; you might end up moving a character in a way that blocks another's path, forcing you to waste a turn on a redundant move just to pass control onto the next character so that they can step aside ready for the next round.
That's because there's no skip / wait command – you have to make some kind of movement or action with every character, which is irritating if you end up in a scenario such as the above. Sometimes you have no option but to flush away a turn, and considering they're already in limited supply that doesn't sit well at all. Once or twice we found ourselves in a situation where we ran out of turns just a few spaces from the goal because we had to use two-thirds of our available movements on two characters that were in the middle of nowhere rather than focusing them all on the character near the gate that actually needed them. In addition we had the odd issue where the game got stuck mid-turn, refusing to accept action inputs, leaving us only able to quit.
There are also some insane leaps of difficulty, though with a game like this that could be considered a positive in some respects. The first six levels introduce the concepts at a considered pace, but once that's out of the way you're thrown in right at the deep end. The random nature of enemy / item generation can offer respite when it's feeling kind, but other times it becomes impenetrable until you've had several attempts and built up your characters a bit. What's frustrating is that enemies rarely outright roll over you and put you out of your misery; they instead wait for you to approach and slowly – but comprehensively — pick you apart. Some don't even attack unless you strike first.
That slow pace does at least jive well with the efforts to balance things out. As you kill things you gain experience – only the character that lands the final blow on a foe gets anything – and levels, which leads to higher attack power and new spells to cast. Provided you don't forfeit a game and actually suffer the humiliation of defeat, all level and experience progress carries over to the next attempt. The intent seems to be that you replay an area over and over to get strong enough to eventually conquer it; you're not actually expected to beat all of these levels in one go. The continual build of experience is a pretty good incentive to keep trying; it's a cheeky little hook that often encourages another go where you usually might have switched off.
It does control well. The touch screen is still a natural home to this style of game, and it's as easy as clicking a glowing hexagon or spell button with the stylus to make a move. There's nothing outstanding on the audio-visual front: there's little character animation but the sprites are clear enough that there's rarely much trouble keeping track of what's going on, and the music isn't bad despite its rather short loops, though the sound effects are dull and weak. Labels for the action buttons would have helped, however – each spell is described in the instruction manual, but they're not explained in-game at all.
18th Gate definitely holds some appeal and may strike a chord with devoted strategy fans, but it's very much an acquired taste. The first hour or so is a bitter experience, and it's only once you've accepted and begrudgingly adapted to its restrictions that it becomes enjoyable in any way. Underneath its flaws there's a half-decent hardcore strategy game, but whether you uncover it is all down to how patient you are.