Golem Gates, the second game from indie developer Laser Guided Games, was originally released in March of 2018 on PC and now makes the jump to Switch with its unique BattleForge-esque twist on the usual RTS formula, adding a deck-building mechanic which see players contend with the random nature of how attack cards are dealt out in order to take on a world torn asunder by demonic machines who are also, happily, hellbent on your destruction.

Players assume the role of the Harbinger; all gold plates and strutting about the battlefield, he’s a no-nonsense kind of character – not much for small talk, with the ability to summon machines to his aid by manipulating Ash, a nanite-generating substance which the evil forces of the game are also using to control the titular Golem Gates, wreaking havoc across a grim, post-apocalyptic landscape. It’s your task, oh great moody one, to shut the Golem Gates down, destroy the enemy leaders and generally purge anything that moves in your general direction.

A brief prologue serves as a tutorial to the action at hand, where you’re dropped onto the map and must first set out to gain control of Nano Generators in order to buff the amount of energy you can produce, which in turn allows you to use more of your cards – or glyphs, as they’re known here. It’s a pretty simple system and easy to get your head around; energy is always being produced by your Harbinger, generators speed up the rate at which this occurs and allow you to create troops, turrets, cast spells and deliver various buffs to your units which you can drop directly into action, rather than the usual RTS setup of having them build at a base then travel across the map to where the action’s at. This gives the game a unique rhythm which is much faster than your standard RTS, but it does also lead to a mindset of dumping as many fighting units as possible into the mix as soon as you have enough energy accumulated to do so – that’s if you have any fighting units in your current rotation of cards, of course, and it’s here that we hit the biggest problem with Golem Gates' unique mash-up of RTS and deck-building genres.

The smallest number of glyphs you can have in your deck is thirty, covering all the standard troop types you’d expect to see as well as various turrets, landmines, fire, poison attacks, heals and the very exciting hero cards – special character glyphs with extra abilities. With the way in which your glyphs are doled out in a randomly shuffled way, you can never really be 100 percent sure if you’re going to get the ones you need to suit the situation you find yourself in. We had numerous occasions where we lost long and tight battles due to the fact no useful fighting units were dropping in our deck; suffice to say, watching your forces get decimated while your only card options are a handful of useless mines and stat buffs gets old pretty quickly.

We guess an argument could be made that the random nature of the glyphs adds a layer of strategy to proceedings, but in practice, we felt like it diluted the tactical side of the game; usually, with an RTS you’re planning moves well in advance and that’s not something you can really do here. Even when you’ve spent time in the game’s forge carefully considering your deck build, there’s a randomness inherent to the play which we personally found quite frustrating.

Other problems arise in the shape of units that look so similar for the most part that it’s quite hard, especially in the Switch’s handheld mode, to tell them apart – which means when things got hectic in battles we found ourselves just selecting all our units and directing them towards the enemy en-masse, hoping for the best. This problem also extends to using certain AOE attacks such as fireballs; it is extremely easy to totally wipe out your own squads when trying to fire on enemy troops as everything is so clustered together in the heat of battle. We lost count of the number of times we accidentally incinerated large portions of our own forces. Oops.

There are some cool gameplay mechanics to mention, the best of which is that when you run out of glyphs during a match your deck needs to be reshuffled, this leads to control being completely rescinded from the player for a full fifteen seconds while their deck is sorted, leaving any troops you have on the ground vulnerable to enemy attacks without any way for you to interfere. It’s a cool little gameplay wrinkle that adds some real tension and ensures you’re watching how many glyphs you have left to play before you’re taken out of the loop and left to watch the fireworks.

It’s also helpful that you can pause the game and look through the current glyphs you have at your disposal; you can even place available troops on the ground while in pause mode, giving you a little respite from the action to position a turret or ensure the buff you’re trying to apply to a unit isn’t accidentally directed in the wrong place, which it absolutely will be if you try to do it in a panic whilst the game is in motion (see the above sorrowful tale of incinerated troops).

In terms of the story here, it’s strange in that you’ll play the first chapter of the three on offer without really having any idea what you’re doing or why, with the narrative proper only really kicking into gear in the second chapter; even then it’s not really up to anything special, serving mainly as a basic backdrop to the action. Graphically, Golem Gates is a pretty, albeit very dark game that is confident in its own stylings, with grim post-apocalyptic maps swathed in a blurry, smoky tactical fog of war which you trudge your death metal minions through to the suitably grimy soundtrack by Dalvin Kang.

Mission variety is pretty unspectacular; there’s nothing surprising or innovative here outside of the usual control point capture, wave defence mash-up of objectives. However, a handful of levels where you’re charged with doing things like finding all the parts required to build a giant golem help to switch things up quite nicely.

Golem Gates is generous in terms of content, at least. Not only are there no microtransactions here – all glyphs are earned by playing the game – there’s also a decent selection of game modes. Alongside the eight or so hours of campaign, there are Trials and Survival modes, throwing you into various scenarios where certain glyphs may be banned or souped up, with other gameplay elements adjusted to spice things up a bit. There’s also a seemingly robust online offering with 1v1, 2v2 and 4 player free-for-alls on offer; unfortunately, we were unable to connect to any matches during our time with the game so we can’t judge how well matches play out between two human players – although we suspect the randomness of glyph drops will be even more maddening here than in single player.

There are, finally, a few technical hiccups to point out. Path-finding is finicky on a lot of the maps; troops get stuck trying to barge past one another and it’s a relatively common situation to lose a few units who get permanently confused trying to go around an object and can’t figure out how to re-join the rest of their party. Framerates are, unfortunately, also a bit of a problem when battles get super-heated, especially in later campaign missions where we had some quite bad drops as well as a handful of crashes to the Switch home screen.

Conclusion

Overall, fans of RTS games may get some fun out of Golem Gates, but it’s hard to get around the fact that this mash-up of tactical RTS gameplay with the random nature of the deck-building element of the game leads to a watered-down tactical experience. If you’re happy enough to enjoy it for what it is you’ll get a decent amount of fun out of the various modes on offer, but anyone looking for a serious RTS or deck-building experience would be best sticking to either genre exclusively, rather than taking a chance on this well-meaning but misguided mishmash.