It’s starting to feel like the gaming landscape, specifically the indie arena, is becoming like the programming market of the mid 2000s. When students were entering university at the turn of the century, they were surrounded by dot com startups and Silicon Valley magicians that printed money just by knowing C++ and Java. They eagerly tore through four years of college expecting to have the gates just open for them on the other side, but hadn’t considered there might be other folk with the exact same plan. When graduation day came, it was a frigging fiasco with how many people were lined up for the exact same job. In the end, a lot of would-be wizards ended up finding jobs in careers that were nothing like what they planned, all because of saturation. And I feel nothing is more true in this comparison than the marketplace for games that rely on crafting as their key mechanic.
Portal Knight does a lot right, and I want to say that right out the gate. Despite the fact that they rely heavily on crafting, several boxes get ticked that make me interested in the game. For one, they actually bothered to create a storyline that people get invested in right away. A land divided by dark forces, splintered continents only connected by portals, your quest to unite the islands once more; it’s all good, and I appreciate it. It only gets better when I start in on my character creation and find that I’m not just staring at a vague, blocky face, but a fairly animated and varied landscape of colors, styles and facial features. Portal Knight allows for some great choices without getting incredibly hung up on small details. For the key audience (kids who like Minecraft but want just a bit more), it’s the perfect balance of choice and forced template.
And the world of Portal Knight is large without necessarily being too large. You get the choice to decide if you want large or small islands, and “small” was the perfect size in terms of material gathering, exploration and enemy encounters. Within just a few minutes, I felt comfortable with the controls and the scope of what was happening, and I was able to go out and explore the first, limited island that had been generated for me. The game even does a great job of laying out a pseudo tutorial/achievements system that gives you experience for each of the basic tasks you master, from simple walking to crafting your first serious items. Portal Knights ushers players in the right direction without holding their hands and making everything far too easy. Even though there are always new things to find and craft (to a point), the game never feels like it abandons the player completely, which can be great for a younger audience.
Portal Knight also does the multiplayer aspect a good deal of justice. Enemies are certainly stronger when you show up in larger groups, but you don’t end up getting swamped with an infinite number of mobs to try and compensate for actually having a cohesive party. In fact, far from my normal recommendation, I say that Portal Knight shines best when you get into a ground raid or mission together, especially when attempting to take on one of the semi-secret boss characters that exist in the realm. There’s a lot here that’s evocative of mob raids that you might do in classic MMO situations. Good communication through 3rd party apps (Discord shoutout) combined with four competent players on a good island result in several hours of fun in a single go, with no real entry barrier other than having the game and trusting in your skills in the game itself.
The problems start to come when you continue playing the game by yourself. Portal Knight relies a lot on its crafting mechanic to maintain interest, and you need, NEED to care about crafting in order to keep the game going. Because your character moves exceptionally slow, and the weapons, although they have a great variety, never feel particularly flashy. You’ll sometimes take a long time to wander around in one location to determine the best way to get to point B, and you need to flip a coin as to whether you can walk the long way around or try to dig your way through. I think the development team saw what the Portals could do in terms of “Warping” between areas and figured that would cover the majority of movement, but the walking speed, as strange as it sounds, was a killer to me. Not to mention, and I’m sorry to say this, but I really don’t enjoy crafting, and that’s not Portal Knights fault. I just thought there would be a greater focus on the RPG aspect and not as much on the, well, crafting.
The end result is that Portal Knight falls into what I can only describe as a middling territory. On the one hand, it balances out a lot of things (graphics, approachability, novelty) to make the game a great entry point for new players. On the other hand, some of the core ideas (combat, crafting) are either too little or too great and make the game sag at points. I still enjoyed the game overall, and think that, for children less interested in the blocky appeal of Minecraft, Portal Knights is the right approach: actual gameplay and story combined with the “do it yourself” mentality. But, for older players who are looking to match one or the other in terms of extreme (crafting vs RPG), they’ll be left disappointed and frustrated. I recommend grabbing Portal Knights for the winter holidays to play with your nephews after Christmas dinner, and maybe showing them a thing or two about how we swing swords ‘round these islands. The interaction alone will be worth the price of admission.
REVIEW CODE: A complimentary Nintendo Switch code was provided to Bonus Stage for this review. Please send all review code enquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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