Minecraft-inspired games are a dime a dozen nowadays. Even Lego jumped into the foray with their own take for the sandbox adventure genre. Their fervor is not entirely baseless – players love the freedom and creativity that the games offer. Which is why when searching for Portal Knights, there’s a lot of positive testimonials for it.
Portal Knights was developed by Keen Games and published by 505 Games. It originally released on Steam’s Early Access on February 2016 and eventually got a full release on May 2017. Xbox One and PlayStation 4 versions released on the same month, while the Nintendo Switch version arrived on November 2017.
Each player must create a character from a selection of three classes: a sword warrior, a bow ranger, and a staff mage. There are also quite a few options for further customization, such as hair styles, hair colors, eye shapes, and more. Starting clothes are simple in the meantime, but crafting recipes will make sure that you get new garments in no time.
Once character creation is done, the game proceeds to share its backstory. It’s not a great epic by any means, but it’s enough to provide an explanation about the game’s geography. And thanks to a simple yet effective exposition, the game’s setting gets a bit more relatable than its open-ended inspirations.
Portal Knights’ tutorial is presented as a checklist where one task must be completed before presenting the next one. Of course, players have the option to ignore it and learn the game their own way, but that checklist item will stay on the upper left of the screen. But taking the time to actually cross off each item will reveal not only the essentials, but also a few helpful tricks here and there.
Take the first step and the game immediately proves that it’s too adorned for its own good. While generally a strange thing to say (what’s so bad about beauty?), there’s an annoying difficulty in traversing an area while blades of grass obscure your vision. Regardless of whether in first or third person view, the surrounding scenery has too much on its surface to allow for free exploration.
The problem is even worse in first person view where the scenery is really on your face. It’s hard to see that upcoming hole on the ground or that enemy lurking from below when trying to navigate with very limited visibility. It also makes higher platforms and walls a bit harder to reach. Perhaps Portal Knights is recreating the feeling of walking through tall growths in the jungle?
Thankfully, the variety of biomes ensures that the player’s view is never 100 percent compromised. Desert biomes, for example, show that the game can blend visibility and design together. And of course, anyone can go underground to fight more monsters and mine minerals, but don’t be surprised if you spend the majority of your time on the surface. Because there’s always a requirement to open portals in each land, fighting enemies is a must. Collecting portal stone shards is as equally important as leveling up and learning new skills.
Let’s talk about these shards for a moment. The game’s title hints at the importance of these items, and with merit: in order to progress in crafting or exploration, portals must be unlocked. Each area has at least one portal which needs portal stones to activate. You can craft these stones from their respective shards, which you can collect as monster loot.
While one can elect to stay in the beginner’s area and settle there, Portal Knights assumes that your thirst for exploration will guide you towards opening portals. After all, the world’s fragmentation is visible on the map, and the satisfying sight of connecting as many portals as possible is displayed prominently. Aside from story purposes, some materials are exclusive in certain areas, making exploration an unspoken requirement.
At the same time, this seemingly intense focus on opening portals and its relevance to the story makes the sandbox aspect take the back seat. With the long quest of connecting each biome in order to facilitate easy travel, the desire to build gradually disappears. This is strange considering how the game warns players not to make offensive structures. How would anyone have the inspiration to build when nagging checklists and relentless portal opening make themselves known front and center?
If you do find it within yourself to work with Portal Knight’s outspoken crafting system, you’ll be surprised to see that it’s actually robust and well-detailed. Similar to Minecraft, everything can be crafted with the right ingredients. The recipes you can access right from your person is more expansive, giving you the opportunity to stock up before venturing into the wild. These items may be the lowest tier, but they’re better than absolutely nothing.
Each crafting station upgrade gives access to better recipes, which allow you to create better items. Bosses, chests and other sources also have a chance of dropping special item recipes that are otherwise not available normally. The only downside is that if you wish to have access to all of them, you must keep each crafting station level with you or at your base at all times. If you’re thinking that keeping the highest level workshop should take care of all your crafting needs, you’d be mistaken.
It’s also a bit difficult to determine what material you’re mining without the game specifically telling you its identity. Because the game doesn’t have the advantage of interchangeable texture packs, getting used to each block’s appearance will take longer than it should. Fruits and plant-based items also cause confusion because some biomes incorporate greenery in their default design.
Portal Knights is the kind of game that must be played with a specific goal in mind in order to truly enjoy. Both the exploration and crafting system have their own individual strengths but they never really shine together. Their implementation feels as if they were originally two separate ideas, even though it’s clear that they were meant to go side by side. But thanks to its excellent visuals, it’s never tiring to keep discovering new lands (as long as grass don’t get on your face). Perhaps patience is the key to unlocking the fun – you just have to get there first.
Note: 505 Games provided a copy for review purposes.