Portal Knights melds Minecraft’s crafting and survival model with more traditional RPG systems, but is that all it does? Or have we got a game that balances creativity and adventure?
In the past, Terraria managed something close to this, albeit on a two dimensional plane, and last year’s Dragon Quest Builders came close to doing it in three dimensions, but leaned heavier on adventure. Portal Knights attempts to juggle both parts equally.
The premise of Portal Knights sees your custom-made hero travelling between randomly-generated segments of a scattered world via portals, fighting monsters, scavenging resources, and tackling dungeons in the search for treasure. Each new world segment has its own nasties and goodies, and usually another portal to the next location.
There’s a wonderfully bright and cheery feel to Portal Knight’s aesthetic. If Minecraft is akin to Lego, then Portal Knights is closer to Mega Bloks in purely style terms. With bigger blocks and more rounded character models, there’s a pleasingly chunky feel to the worlds of this game whilst ensuring the flora and fauna are more grounded in reality in their design. The shift to night is particularly impressive, with unlit areas becoming almost inky black, while light sources are bright and fierce contrasts to that darkness that serve as valuable waypoints should you get stranded. It’s backed by some lovely, twinkly music that fits the game’s style perfectly. It’s a shame it gets overused though. A bit of variety here in future would be most welcome.
Biomes have a decent variety to them. Some have the autumnal orange and yellow foliage with a low, warm light to the sky, while others are bleak and corrupted. In between that you have snow-capped mountains, swamplands, desert canyons, and more. Each biome’s distinct look often signifies what materials you can expect to extrapolate from them too, making it easier to decide where you should be focusing your attention at any given time.
If there was a complaint to be had about the aesthetic side of Portal Knights, it’d have to be about the UI. It isn’t awful, just poorly handled in the transition from PC to console. A patch has improved its implementation, but it remains awkward and unyielding at times. Coupling that with the simple, yet under-explained crafting, and you end up fiddling in menus a little too often.
The world segments are generally simple enough to explore without much trouble in the daytime, but when nightfall arrives, tougher beasts appear, and the only gloom of night makes it harder to navigate. This is where the crafting and building comes in.
You can make a home in any of the worlds you visit. Often you’ll find partially-destroyed houses, and you can fix these up for a quick fix abode, but the game allows you to destroy and build in the world without exception, so you can landscape an area and build from scratch if you so wish. Either way, you can then fill your home with things useful to your continuing adventure.
A workbench is the first port of call, as it expands your pool of crafting abilities to include basic weapons, items, and armour. From there you’ll be able to craft a furnace, an anvil, and a protective barrier that prevents monster spawns near your home among other things,not to mention upgraded versions of them that open up higher tiers of weaponry, armour and the like. Beyond that you can spruce up your home with items such as carpet, statues and paintings, and make a vegetable garden to cultivate an endless supply of ingredients for potions.
Of course, to do any of this, you’ll need to venture forth and find the resources. As with any survival game, you’ll scout the lands, chopping down trees, digging up stone, sand, dirt, gems et al in order to craft objects, but you can also go dungeoneering to find delicious treasure troves of important items. Essentially, you’ll need to do all of it at some point to really make any progress in the game, but if you just want to take your time and casually mine resources to build a really cool house, then that’s a valid option too. You’ll need to find appropriately colored Portal shards if you wish to venture beyond your initial homeworld, but they are dropped fairly regularly, so you’re never really searching for the shards that much (unless it’s for a boss door as they have different, rarer colors).
The RPG side of Portal Knights is what distances it from the obvious Minecraft comparisons. It gives your crafting a proper sense of purpose. It’s a simplified RPG system with three classes (Mage, Warrior, and Ranger) and streamlined attributes. You can upgrade gear and weapons, but only within similarly small parameters. XP is gained from killing monsters mainly, but it can also be yielded from mining as well.
Combat is aptly hit and miss. There’s credit to be given for the nice and simple ‘lock on, attack, and dodge’ mechanic, but it only works to optimum efficiency in fairly close quarters, and of the three classes, only the Ranger truly feels comfortably in sync with this system. Dodging as the Warrior class proves to be more difficult as you need to get in nice and close to really hurt enemies, and getting out is not a swift process, at least until you upgrade your agility. Meanwhile, the Mage class just feels a touch ineffective at combat compared to the others. Again, once you build them up, they get easier to use, but the system is just flawed enough to prove frustrating a little too often in the earlier portions of the game.
Both the RPG and building sides of Portal Knights become far more enjoyable with the drop in, drop out four-player co-op. Characters carry over their possessions to any world segment they visit, whether it’s theirs or not, so it breeds a nice sense of community because you can help out folk who are struggling with a boss, or unable to find the materials they need. Whether or not this community feel gets used properly obviously depends on the game’s popularity, but it’s great to see the simplicity and accessibility of co-op play is there from day one.
I’ve really enjoyed my time with Portal Knights. It’s a nice balance of creative play and RPG-lite adventuring well-suited to family play, and younger audiences in general. It isn’t quite the finished article, with tweaks to combat and controller mapping needed at the very least to round it out, but for a game fresh off early access, this feels remarkably close to a feature-complete game. Certainly enough to warrant purchasing it.