Horizon’s Gate Review: Deep Tactics, Shallow Sea

Horizons Gate is an open-world turn-based tactics game available on Steam and Itch.io. Joseph Pugh conducted this review.

Overview

For many years I had a personal issue where I could not resist comparing every turn-based tactical game to the original Final Fantasy Tactics on the PlayStation One. It made them unenjoyable. Not because they were bad games, but because they weren’t Final Fantasy Tactics and that is what I wanted.

Thankfully, I got over this issue long before I started reviewing video games and now turn-based tactical games are one of my favorite genres. Horizon’s Gate takes me back to that game though. It is clearly inspired by Final Fantasy Tactics and is one of the first games that invoked within me the same feelings that made me fall in love with the genre.

You will sail the open world to seek out adventure.

It’s turn-based combat and multifaceted fluid class system are directly in spirit with Final Fantasy Tactics in a well done and respectful way. Yet that is all they share in common. Much of the games remaining DNA shares similarities to Unchartered Waters, Sid Meiers Pirates, and Mount & Blade.

You sail the world in a ship or fleet of ships, exploring, trading and fighting on land and sea at your own leisure. Ally with a nation or go it alone. Trade goods or pirate other vessels. The choice is yours.

The turn-based combat is very reminiscent of Final Fantasy Tactics

One could imagine how such a potent mixture of flavorful design could result in blissful pleasure or explosive diarrhea depending on how the concoction was prepared. Don’t panic, let go of that toilet paper! Horizon’s Gate is nothing so dramatic. Yet its high notes hit like a sirens song, and its low ones are like nails on a chalkboard.

Gameplay

After you create your character from one of several original races, you enter a short story based tutorial segment. From there, the world is your oyster. You’re given an endgame goal and you pretty much do as you please until you feel like you are ready to take it on. The overworld is filled with ports belonging to one of several nations. Each one varies in layout, available stores, and goods. You can also find wild groves and dungeons to explore.

As you accumulate gold, you can buy and outfit new ships and hire a crew to sail them. Alternatively, you can board enemy vessels and commandeer their ships. You can stick with one ship or amass a fleet. You can buy and forge new gear to outfit each character with and every single crew member can gain experience points to spend on abilities in a massive tree of classes.

If you join a nation you will earn reputation with that nation through a variety of actions that can earn you some boons. What you do and how is largely up to you. You are free to explore the world at your own pace. The amount of freedom and lack of direction is a little daunting but it’s something I really enjoy in video games.

Horizon’s Gate features 34 classes you can mix and match with.

Horizon’s Gates’s biggest strength, however, is its deep tactical combat and class system. There are a ton of classes and each character earns experience in whatever main class is assigned to them. You can spend these points on active and passive abilities and stat boosts. You unlock new classes once you hit certain experience thresholds in the previous class and some advanced ones require you to seek out trainers in the world.

A character can be assigned a secondary class where they get to keep the active abilities you already unlocked with that class. This allows you to splice it with another main class. Combine this with the fact you can also slot three passive abilities and outfit each crew member in whatever kind of equipment you see fit and you have a mind-boggling amount of depth in character customization choice.

If you have ever played Final Fantasy Tactics, this feels like visiting home after a far too long time away. Oh and there’s an apple pie in the window and a half-dressed celebrity of your choice is in your bed.

The combat holds up just as well when applying those character growth decisions. Combat is turn-based and alternates between characters based on their speed. Each character can move and perform an action on their turn. They can attack, use abilities, cast spells and more. In some cases, the environment itself can play a part with hazards on the field that you can use to your advantage.

Ships can be customized with weaponry as well.

Between the classes, you have a wide range of abilities you can use but your equipment also matters. You can utilize bombs for example but even the basic weapons are unique. A spear can attack two creatures in a line, while a flail can attack creatures diagonally from your character. Some abilities push and move characters around the battlefield. Powerful spells have to charge up. The interface is detailed and makes it easy to understand the mechanics.

Sea battles aren’t quite as deep as the ground combat but they are still solid. You have to take into account factors such as wind, where your ships are facing and the angles of attack. Ships don’t turn quickly and the cannons must face the right angles to be useful. You can board or be boarded mid-battle and the game will swap to the ground-based combat and back again in a very fluid manner.

As a whole, the combat moves pretty quickly without getting bogged down and without sacrificing any kind of depth. In short, it’s spectacular and the game presents you with a very customizable set of difficulty sliders so you can adjust the experience to your liking.

During a sea battle, you can board enemy vessels and they can board you.

Interestingly, some abilities can be used outside of combat. Such as growing vines to climb a wall. In one instance I encountered a broken bridge and placed down a plank. I was several boards short of finishing it when I noticed my rogue had a jump range. By switching to him I was able to clear the gap with the board I already placed. It feels really cool to discover instances like this, but they are exceptionally rare and the whole concept is a little underutilized.

The Sea Be Shallow

The depth of the combat and class system sadly does not extend to the rest of the mechanics of the game. Exploration is one of the game’s key concepts but the fact of the matter is there aren’t a terribly lot of interesting locations to find and much of your time is spent sailing between ports.

The glorious combat is oddly a little sparse. Most combats outside of sea battles are handcrafted and do not re-spawn. I adore the combat of the game but often felt like I was some hideous abomination chasing a fleeting crush that wanted nothing to do with me. This leads to some less than desirable meta-game decisions. Randomly generated battles aren’t the right choice for every game, but it seems to be a glaring omission here.

You can hire a bunch of crew and each one can be leveled up and customized. Yet you will want to more or less stick with your main five as you don’t want to spread out the experience from the limited amount of combats. That isn’t the kind of meta-game decisions you want to be forced to make in a game about freedom.

Angles are important in ship combat.

Now, you can seek out sea battles as much as you wish. The XP gain is very slow though unless you board the enemy. The problem is that it can be repetitive and boarding has a strange timer attached to it. After a limited number of turns, the boarding ends and the sea battle resumes. You will, at times need to board the same vessel multiple times to wear down the crew and take over the vessel.

It makes sea battles less enjoyable than they could be and thematically makes no sense as your crew seems to run away and go back to their own ship after a set amount of time.

What you can buy is solely limited to the amount of money you have and if you can find the thing you want to buy. You can make money in any number of ways, one of which is trading. The trading mechanic is the shallowest part of the game. You simply buy goods at one port and sell them at another. This always makes you a profit and it simply increases the farther away the second port is from the first.

You will visit many ports in the game.

In theory, you could simply move back and forth and accumulate infinite wealth, simply trading boredom for the gold you require to outfit your crew in the highest tier gear and to buy the biggest ships. The lack of balance is a smaller issue than the fact that it’s simply uninteresting to do.

Verdict

Horizon’s Gate takes pieces of some of my favorite games, genres, and concepts and does an admirable job of making them work. They aren’t completely coherent however and it bears some ugly flaws.

The idea is there and it’s sound, it just needed more polish and a bit more content. The combat is phenomenal, the class system is deep and even the sea battles are interesting. Horizon’s Gate just left me staring at an over-world screen too often, trying to chase the fun I knew it was hiding.

The combat is great, Horizon’s Gate just needs more of it.

I still think the game is worth the price, the good is too great to pass up. The pieces I love, I adore. The missing potential is just frustrating because the game is so attractive.

Exploring an open world with the freedom to do what you please with deep character customization and stellar turn-based combat is a brilliant idea and Horizon’s Gate is still fun in the end. While I have never played them myself, The Developer Rad Codex has two other games set in the same universe and they share a similar combat and class system. Alvora Tactics and Void Spire Tactics. I will certainly be looking into them and so should you!

If you enjoy turn base games, check out my reviews of Mortal Glory and Age Of Wonders: Planetfall

A copy of Horizon’s Gate was provided for Gideon’s Gaming by Rad Codex.

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Pros

  • The incredibly deep class system
  • Original races
  • Stellar turn-based combat
  • Do what you want freedom in an open world
  • Deep difficulty settings present
  • The clean interface makes the mechanics and stats easy to understand

Cons

  • Lots of downtime trying to seek out the fun
  • Timer when boarding ships makes the experience less enjoyable
  • Lack of exploration content
  • Shallow trading system
  • Limited ground combat makes for meta-game decisions.

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