The joys and boredom of having control over people passing the border in Tengsten’s The Imperial Gatekeeper.
The Imperial Gatekeeper is a checkpoint worker simulator, directly inspired by the father of the paperwork-handling genre, Papers, Please! The game places you in a position of power and grants you tools to abuse it, but also obligations you need to fulfill in order to keep it. It is the third game by Tengsten to be released in English, and one that's somewhat less ambitious than their previous works.
The storyline in The Imperial Gatekeeper puts you in the shoes of a decorated war veteran. Not just an average soldier mind you, but a famous hero with a terrifying kill count, a person easily compared to a beast. For your unquestionable merit, the Empire has rewarded you with a lowly position at the traffic administration, tasking you with checking papers of migrants under the watchful eye of a busty department chief who despises war, and sees your blood-soaked accomplishments as reasons for shame.
You won’t be working on the border alone though. At your side are the stern but helpful Chrisia and the laid back Richard. The three of you will have to do your best as your superior pushes you to your limits in order to further her own political career, until you yourselves will be swept into the conspiracy behind the traffic administration.
The greatest merit of The Imperial Gatekeeper’s storyline is its solid structure. The adventure ramps up at a very steady pace, and while its cast is limited, everyone gets their five minutes of relevance. Every character has a unique personality and a twist about them for you to discover, but while everything ties back to the main storyline, it in itself can feel a little lacking in ambition.
Even though there’s a strong political background and regular teases of something larger being at play, there’s no gray moral areas or branching choices to be made. There’s also little else other than the main plot to concern yourself with: there are two optional events in the first chapters of the game, their point being to populate the story with content before the main plotline can get into full swing, after that you’re left only with the fight against your superior — which, while interesting, could have benefited from more variety.
Additional stories would have also provided The Imperial Gatekeeper with opportunities to further explore its world. There's some exposition in the current storyline, enough to get the broad picture, but not enough to fully understand the political tensions that drive the plot. I was left scratching my head when I checked for the presence of the imperial emblem — one shaped like a charging cobra — on the passport of an animal-eared migrant whose lands we presumably invaded in the past, and wondering “are we the baddies?” The game doesn’t address these questions. What you’re doing now as an imperial gatekeeper allows you to keep the country safe, and that’s all that matters to the story in the end.
The process of controlling the border in The Imperial Gatekeeper isn’t just similar to Papers, Please! as much as it was first borrowed, then expanded upon. Each day you select which border you wish to work at, with there being five to unlock. Every border has its own set of documents to check, each more complicated than the last. You get three minutes, or a few hours of the in-game time, to process as many people as you can. The better job you do the more evaluation points you get, and the higher your pay.
This is where the game would ordinarily derive its challenge from, and in fact The Imperial Gatekeeper even has two difficulty modes: normal and easy, though there’s little point to that. You get your salary no matter how badly you perform, making it impossible to lose the game. To make things even easier, as you progress through the game you will unlock the ability to make deals with guardsmen working during your shift, allowing you to break certain rules and mistreat people without any repercussion, so long as you please the guards.
Despite this, there are still reasons to do your best. Firstly, you need to reach milestones in your evaluation score to progress the storyline, and there are some optional goodies to unlock using gold, like the ability to lock the gender of passing migrants, or consumable potions that make it easier to exploit them. These motivations last only as long as the game’s story, and they don’t dispel the fact that you aren’t facing any challenge. As such, your interest in the game should be based solely on how appealing you find its premise and erotic content.
Said content is mainly exploitation, but you do have access to less amoral options. As you play through the game you will be ordered to inspect passersby for weaponry and confiscate it. This will allow you to grope them and order them to undress; however, this may cause them to become irritated and eventually leave. You can circumvent this in a couple of ways, the simplest of which is an offer to pay them for sex, which has a random chance of success depending on how much you offer. Sometimes when you point out a discrepancy in someone’s documents, they may ask you to let them pass anyway and become more tolerant of your behavior, or they may right out offer themselves in exchange for passing. Finally, you could just grope them anyway, and if you make them orgasm before they leave, they will stay for as long as you want them to.
There’s a total of fifteen different character types, each with three or four different costumes and hairstyles, making for enough variety that you won’t feel like you keep servicing the same people, though you will eventually memorize some patterns, like where each type keeps their weapons hidden. The only lacking part here is the limited selection of men, as there are only three male body types: plain, animal-eared, and trap, each with only two costumes. For the purposes of erotic content, men have the same options available to them as women, aside for the obvious difference in genitals. Additionally, during homosexual interactions, the player’s character is limited to being on top.
Aside for the interactions available during work, there are five CG cutscenes to unlock during the story, all of which are optional, but easy to discover. Men get the cold shoulder here as well, as all cutscenes are dedicated to female characters. Each cutscene differs strongly in setting and fetishes, including one about smells, and two scenes featuring coercion.
The art style of the cutscenes is quite decent quality-wise, though it has its quirks. The artworks make good use of dynamic angles and have a feeling of depth to them, but lack a noticeable impression of movement and, at times, have questionable proportions between different body parts. Sprites and graphics during the gameplay section can also be quite pleasing, with good character designs and an interesting divide of play space between an image of the world outside your office, a large central play area for the guests, and a small side area for paperwork and menus. It manages to avoid feeling crowded, while providing just enough insight into the situation to set the mood for each stage.
The artwork is accompanied by a handful of BGM’s from DOVA-SYNDROME. The theme song is a very strong, martial track that manages to set a grand mood, and honestly seemed to be all the game really needed. The few other tracks appear in short bursts during important story events, and serve only to distinguish those moments. Apart from sound effects of ringing the bell to summon the next person in line or putting down a stamp, gameplay inside the stages is instead silent. It’s not much and if you expect rich musical performances from games, then it definitely won’t be enough, but in my own playthrough I didn’t feel it to be lacking.
I didn’t run into any technical issues during my time with The Imperial Gatekeeper, but there are quality issues regarding the game’s translation. I’m not entirely sure if the game was machine translated, as for the most part it reads fine, but will present a poorly written sentence or two every now and then — this is most noticeable in the repeatable dialogue present during gameplay.
My total playtime for The Imperial Gatekeeper clocked-in at a little over six hours. I mostly played in short bursts, finding the gameplay a bit too repetitive for longer sessions. There are a few extra things you can discover after completing the story, like new NPCs showing up at border checks and some extra CGs to unlock. Finishing the game’s story also allows you to access the sandbox mode, where you can customize the exact details of an encounter, which is a nice touch.
I have to admit that I enjoyed playing The Imperial Gatekeeper a bit more than I initially expected. Discovering that the game had no difficulty to speak of turned me away at first, but the story was fun enough to stick with it until the end — even if there’s nothing spectacular about it. It’s not quite good enough to recommend it on its own merits, but if it speaks to some of your fetishes or if you’re just curious about what Papers, Please! would play like as an eroge, it’s worth a shot. If you are interested, my advice is to grab it during a sale, as it’s a rather short, simple experience.
You can buy The Imperial Gatekeeper on DLsite for the promotional price of $8.66 (estimated from ¥924) until 1:00 AM EDT on September 23rd, 2020. At its normal price, the game costs $12.38 (estimated from ¥1,320). You can also find a demo on the store page.
To make sure that the game installs and plays properly, you may have to configure your system to the Japanese locale. DLsite offers a handy guide on how to do so, which is available here.