Review: Portal Knights (PC)

Portal KnightsDeveloperKeen Games
Publisher: 505 Games
Genre: Sandbox
Platforms: PC, PS4, Xbox OneSwitch

Rating: Everyone 10+
Price: $19.99
Many games that start as Early Access never see an official release; others are so plagued by delays that interest wanes, resulting  in little attention even after launch. Portal Knights is a refreshing break from this pattern. It was initially available on Steam’s Early Access program in February 2016, and has now formally launched. The game has seen continuous updates and  many award nominations and acclaim.
Portal Knight‘s publisher, 505 Games, is no stranger to the sandbox adventure genre.  It was responsible for porting the PC sandbox hit, Terraria, to the Xbox360 and PS3. Armed with this experience, Keen Games and 505 Games set out to create a product that combines the sandbox, RPG, and action genres with varying degrees of success.

Content Guide

Spiritual Content: There is no overt spiritual content. However, there are a few references to members of cults and shamans. There is an NPC standing in front of what looks like a sacrificial altar that has bones scattered on it. One of the crafting stations is also called an altar. There is no mention of who or what is the object of devotion at these altars.
Is that a sacrifice or what's left of last night's dinner?

Is that a sacrifice or what’s left of last night’s dinner?

Violence: Action is a big part of the game and there is cartoon-like violence. There is no blood or gore; enemies explode into colored pixels.
Language/Crude Humor: There is no voice acting, and very little in the way of dialogue via NPC conversations. There is not much humor, crude or otherwise.
Sexual Content: None
Drug/Alcohol use: There are no depictions of substance abuse, unless health and mana potions count.
Positive Content: The player helps NPCs in need throughout the game. The player character is a quintessential hero vanquishing evil and bringing peace and order to the world.

Review

I have a confession to make: I am a terrible builder in sandbox games. My architecture is often uninspired and minimalist. As others make grand structures, I can barely cobble together a few wood blocks to house my stuff. However, this has never stopped me from enjoying these types of games. I’ve spent 100+ hours on Starbound and Terraria, and was eagerly anticipating the release of Portal Knights. The game promised to bring together some of my favorite gaming elements: sandbox world-building, RPG and action/adventure. This is an ambitious undertaking and the developers succeeded in some respects, however much of the game’s potential is left unrealized.
Portal Knights allows the player to choose from three classes and customize the hero’s looks. One can choose a warrior, ranger, or mage. The classes align with standard RPG tropes; the warrior is a tough melee fighter, the ranger used ranged weapons and the mage deals damage using elemental magic. The game plays quite differently depending on your choice. A good strategy would be to try each hero for a few levels and get a feel for your preferred play style.
Portal Knights’ game universe consists of a series of islands connected by magic portals. The game has slots for 3 separate universes and the player can play any hero in any existing universe. When creating a new universe, the player can choose the “maximum” size for each island, with options for small, medium and large. Medium and large islands can significantly increase the load time when travelling between islands. The load times are important because a significant amount of time will be spent travelling to and from the home island to unload any excess inventory and craft new items. Large islands can also be very frustrating because there is no minimap, and the player must locate the magic portals before activating and using them. These portals can spawn anywhere on the island; this includes underground caverns which often have no direct access from the surface. Luckily, the developers included a craftable item that allows the player to find the portals on the map, but this can take some time to discover.
Upon starting out in the initial island, the first thing I noticed was how beautiful this game is. The art style immediately reminded me of the Xbox 360 title, Viva Piñata. (don’t judge me) The colors are vibrant and warm. The visuals invite you to explore this unknown world and discover its secrets. The game generates each island using one of the game’s biomes, from lush green to arid desert to frozen tundra and many more. The music is enjoyable and accentuates the visual design quite well; boss fights have epic battle themes while green meadows have a lighter tone.
Bright colors and beautiful landscapes.

Bright colors and beautiful landscapes.

The combat is a deceptively simple but that simplicity masks some hidden depth. The player character can attack, dodge and use abilities. However, combat becomes more complex when taking into account each enemy’s attack patterns and weaknesses; button mashing will not get you very far. The boss fights are larger than life and force you to use your wits. On top of that each boss has an alternate version that is much more powerful and requires different tactics. These alternate bosses live on special islands that can only be reached by crafting a special item whose recipe is dropped by the normal boss.
The combat is fun and button mashing is not your friend.

The combat is fun and button mashing is not your friend.

One of the game’s weakest points is exploration. Each island is randomly generated but they lack individuality; any given island can be swapped for any other of the same biome type. One of the joys of playing Terraria and Starbound was digging underground and discovering the ruins of lost civilizations or hidden outposts in far off places. Unfortunately, Portal Knights fails to recapture that sense of wonder. The path from the first island to the final boss is not strictly linear as there are branching paths and dead-end paths along the way. However, there is almost no incentive to explore those paths. Whatever ingredients or minerals found in those islands are also available in numerous others just like them.
Another weak point is that the world of Portal Knights feels empty. Starbound introduced a central hub that was bustling with activity and contained quest giving NPCs and markets. In contrast, the currency in Portal Knights is all but useless. There are too few NPCs to barter with and they rarely have anything useful. There are also NPCs that give quests, but the quests are unimaginative. The player either gathers X amount of some resource or kills X number of some creature. The only break from the monotony comes from random events that spawn in islands you have already visited, but even these are just more of the same fetch/kill tasks. There is precious little content to break the player away from amassing resources and killing enemies for their experience. This is otherwise known as grinding.
Conquering a tower in a random event is a small distraction from the grind.

Conquering a tower in a random event is a small distraction from the grind.

The multiplayer co-op is an enjoyable feature, and a welcome change from the existential loneliness in Portal Knights. This feature allows players to band together to conquer some of the game’s tougher bosses or coordinate to speed up the building process. Even if you don’t have friends that own the game or are unavailable to play on your schedule, the game allows for local split-screen multiplayer. Nonetheless, there is room for improvement; a matchmaking system would make finding other players to team up with much easier. Another annoyance is that co-op groups must to travel together from island to island. Allowing groups to split up to tackle different challenges, or to allow some to gather resources while others build, would certainly have enhanced the experience.
Portal Knights has almost no story to speak of. There is no exposition apart from the brief prologue at the beginning of the game and brief epilogue at the end. There is no lore to uncover and NPCs have sparse dialogue to share. Because of this, the game lacks an impetus to see the player through to completion. The playthrough can become stagnant after the first boss fight and the game mechanics begin to wear thin. A compelling story would have gone a long way in providing much-needed incentive to motivate the player to power through the level and resource grinding.
The crafting and building mechanisms are passable. Crafting is fun and it is easy to get sucked into mining and hunting for missing ingredients for that next item upgrade. There is a sense of accomplishment in finally crafting the next weapon or completing an armor set. However, the building feels awkward at times because of the rigid camera. Portal Knights would have benefited from a creative/build mode where the player has more freedom to move around and build their envisioned masterpieces (or in my case, a lousy wood shanty).
I should get around to finishing that roof; hope it doesn’t rain.

I should get around to finishing that roof; hope it doesn’t rain.

Portal Knights represented the promise of a renaissance game. One that could integrate different genres into a consistent and enjoyable experience. However, that promise was not kept. Portal Knights is not a bad game;it just fails to achieve the tall order 505/Keen Games set for themselves. If playing the latest sandbox game is your fancy, then pick up Portal Knights. However, if you want a satisfying and cohesive experience that is sufficiently well-polished to hold your interest from beginning to end, you would do well to look elsewhere.

Danny Vargas

I am a devoted husband and a loving father (claims to be validated by my wife and kids). I am a Software Developer by day and an aspiring Philosopher by night...and day. I enjoy analyzing the cross-section between faith and geek culture and, in particular, attending to the unique advantages and challenges being a member of geek fandom present to the pursuit of Christ-likeness and spiritual formation.

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