[REVIEW] Portal Knights (Switch)

Portal Knights becomes one step closer to turning Minecraft's block into a wheel.

Minecraft garnered a vast audience due to its tools for crafting immense worlds. The construction and deconstruction of essentially every piece in the world being made up of different materials thanks to its cubed-style blocky gameplay allowed for players to craft to their heart’s content. It became so successful that even publisher & developer giant Square Enix played their hand with the Dragon Quest Builders series. Publisher 505 Games and developer Keen, the indie studio behind Portal Knights, give a solid effort in creating a competent experience that focuses more on player customization, RPG elements, archetype builds and giving players varied environments to explore being somewhat like 505 Games’ well-received Terraria crossed with any of the popular dungeon crawlers. It falls short on a few of its implementations, but at its core an addiction is to be found the further you dig.

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The game opens with brief context about the story explaining how “The Fractured” tore the world into many islands in the sky which you’ll soon be exploring linked by portals and the reasoning for the number of enemies you’ll face. Structures with rune-like engraving on them serve as the background imagery while this is going on, but then soon you’ll start your adventure offline, online up to 4 players, or local split-screen with another player, but not before you create your character and world.

World map. Easily set a place as your preferred home and fast travel. You can also receive details about the island such as materials and enemies. There are also timed events.

Portal Knights doesn’t have the player go through one big open world. Instead, there’s dozens of smaller, yet dense lands to explore. Players are given a choice of choosing between having a small or large world to be created. While the difference in the two sizes aren’t dramatic compared to just one massive world, going for small can be a bit claustrophobic in the early parts. Lands do become even larger the further you are into the game, however. For people who love to explore, choosing the large option is the optimal experience. All the worlds you’ll be adventuring through are randomly generated with the exception of essential characters and dungeons needed to progress.

Character creation is sufficient. Aside from being able to change your overall skin tone, customizing your character is only limited to the neck up, although there are enough customizing your personal Knight. A decent selection of eye shape, eye color, type of mouth, hair color, hair style and facial hair are all accessible to both male & female. All human characters in the game pretty much resemble kids, so the addition of facial hair makes them seem like they are wearable props. It’s quite “fitting” seeing as the game has a costume vibe to it. There are plenty of fantasy related outfits as well as modernized apparel to be found. Choosing the type of ears is much limited, however. There are a couple of earring choices and even a bigger version of the standard ears, which I assume serves as this game’s elven ears, but they’re a bit monkey-ish where I would have preferred them to be pointy. It’s probably a decision made to remain faithful to its rounded chibi-like character design, but as long as we’re playing dress-up with beards, why not? Also, I think the character moves around too much during this process. Hey. Stop that. Of course, how the game plays is more about the role you choose rather than how rad your purple spiky mohawk is. Between three classes being Warrior, Ranger and Mage, players will have a different experience with each.

Pretty basic starting gear, but it gets the job done for finding more.

Warriors specialize in melee combat with a variety of bladed, blunt and silly weapons. They can also use Shout to boost party morale and weaken enemies. Rangers deal long range damage with bows & crossbows and are also able to throw bombs, be it on enemies or blocks. Mages inflict elemental damage with a swing of their staff, whether near or far. Having spent time with all three classes I was pleased with what they offered differently. While many of the common items, whether consumable or purely on the crafting front, are shared between them, there are armor and weapons that may only be equipped meant for their class. Warriors will be suited in different heavy armor types and not be able to wear any of the robes a Mage would, for example. There are no switching classes for your one character, but luckily you can create up to 5 characters and 3 worlds without resetting any progress. This means that when a friend (or even yourself) creates a new character, they can play through your current world with everything you’ve unlocked so far. If you wanted to play a new character, but keep the progress and just grind on more difficult enemies to level up then you can do so. While being able to switch between the different classes with the same character would have been nice, it would interfere with how the leveling system behaves. Seeing stats increasing and feeling the growth of your character is always rewarding. There’s just a bit of distribution issues when it comes to applying upgrade points to your character that makes half of what you see in the leveling menu completely useless.

In every menu, a flashing star icon will indicate what’s new. It’s a helpful feature for menu navigation in general.

First, the good news. Almost every action nets you experience points from mining for gems, destroying barrels & boxes to defeating enemies until enough experience points makes you gain a level. For every level gained you are granted 3 Attribute Points to distribute where you want your character to become more proficient. There’s also a Talents menu where every 5 levels (level 5, level 10, etc) awards you a new perk only designed to be unlocked and chosen as it is given to you. Pretty standard RPG stuff here. The bad news? You’ll never need to improve some of these attributes as they are tied to classes. Let me break it down.

Out of the 6 attributes shown in the above image, all three classes will only need to upgrade 3 or 4 of them. A menu displaying stats for you to upgrade, which you can even if it doesn’t benefit you in the slightest, is a bizarre design choice. The Strength attribute only applies to Warriors. The Dexterity attribute only applies to Rangers. The Intelligence attribute only applies to Mages. All three makes attacks more powerful for each class respectively. As you can see, 2 of the listed attributes will be completely avoided while playing as any class. It would have been a better choice to naturally gain health per level instead of having to manually apply attribute points on Constitution. The Wisdom attribute effects how much Mana you have. While all classes can use Mana to increase the effect of healing spells, for example, Warriors and Rangers will most likely not bother with upgrading it, especially not until late in the game. The Agility attribute is overall movement speed. Players begin the game rather slow, but bump that number up a few notches and you’ll feel the difference soon.

Talents aren’t wildly imaginative, but they are still useful to have.

From Day to Knight

There’s a lot of variation for all the different locations. It’s lovely.

Players initially begin in “Squire’s Knoll” (not pictured), a standard green grass and blue sky tip-of-the-mill starting area usually seen in most games. Here, a helpful tutorial system will guide you to understand the basics. There are a few sign posts scattered around with information, but the on-screen prompts are the objectives which will first have players get familiar with the controls and craft their first items, including weapons and armor. Immediately, players will see the lush vegetation and bright colors before them. How the player chooses to view it all is exactly their choice. At any time, players may switch between third-person and first-person perspectives with a press of the right analog stick. Both styles work well and even react dynamically. Players can remain in first-person yet have it automatically switch to third-person when a battle starts. A targeting lock-on system is performed with the left shoulder button, but may also happen automatically when either players or enemies make their first strike. Ideally, there are options to have either/or depending on what works best for you. I generally keep my lock-on system happen automatically, but never switch to third-person unless I manually decide it. These options are good to seek out for anyone playing in first-person as the automatic switch to third-person may happen when you simply won’t want it to.

A day/night cycle that takes place will also look different depending on where you are.

As the game’s title implies, your knight must be involved with portals in some way. Players won’t visit new lands unless they travel through portals. You’ll be instructed to craft portal blocks to place into portal gates in order to move forward. Some lands may have more than one portal gate which will lead to different locations. Portal blocks can be crafted anywhere as long as you have the correct amount of shards pertaining to that portal’s color. At first, you’ll need a couple of blue shards to create one block for portals that need 6 blocks. Later you’ll see variations in color and amount of shards needed for different portals so where you get your resources does matter. And there are plenty of different materials & ingredients to stock up with in order to craft potions, furniture, weapons, armor, and even crafting stations themselves which can be upgraded to open up more possibilities. Of course, what’s a land to explore if not for crawling through dungeons for that extra loot?

Hehehe, you’re comin’ home with me.

Enemies in dungeons await.

Whether you are in the mines or in temples, you can take apart all the goodies just as well as you can put them back together again. You like that door? Destroy it until it falls apart as a retrievable pick-up. Want that statue or fireplace? Go for it. As with the world, dungeons are also randomly generated. You’ll sometimes come across rooms with the same layout as you’re going through one dungeon, but they all have a specific way of being designed from start to finish. Dungeons also become more involved and varied as you advance from island to island. The enemies you face both in the world and in dungeons vary in size, speed and abilities. Many enemies will attack you relentlessly while others won’t even flinch from your attacks due to their stone body. Some are aerial attackers while others use elemental powers in different ways. By far the best battles are with bosses, though it’s a shame that there’s only 3 of them. Bosses receive their exclusive portals to their own arena so they naturally aren’t to be found elsewhere.

A loot box that pays YOU!….in-game.

At the end of every dungeon, you should be rewarded with loot. You will often find a chest full of goodies. These contain experience points and a number of materials. You may even be rewarded new recipes. Weapons, armor, potions, furniture, blocks, and more all get their own recipes. A lot of the joy comes from finding new recipes in order for you to craft something you may not have known existed. Some dungeons may contain more than 1 chest to find and not all dungeons will have a chest at its dead end. You may even find furniture worth scavenging. Of course, making your way through dark dungeons is best not to do it alone, right? Perhaps all your real life friends are busy, but that’s okay because you have a man’s best friend instead. Though they are not exclusive to dungeons, it is the best place to find a companion the game calls Pets. You can usually find animals locked in cages where destroying it will set them free as a pick-up that enters your inventory. In order to have these cuties follow you around, all you need to do is simply equip them. They neither give or receive damage; just simply novelty. They do have their own animations and sound which can add a little extra on your adventure. Hoppy frogs, rats, cats & dogs just to name a few. You may also sell them if you’re that kind of person.

Hootie owls.

Filling in a blue portal. Where does it take us?

A huge chunk of the game is about acquiring materials and crafting everything you can while giving back to the land you took it from. Many of the materials go through a creation process that produces different results. For instance, we can find cotton bushes in the world, where destroyed will give you cotton. A number of cotton pieces can then be crafted into a cotton cloth, which can then be crafted into basic clothing. Additionally, seeds that drop from vegetation may also be planted where more of that item will grow in real time. Dirt blocks are good for creating a pathway across a bottomless pit (as are any blocks, really). Stone blocks are used to create basic sharpening stones, which are essential to have. Sharpening stones are fairly easy to come by and you’ll end up with more than you probably need (wait, are you destroying everything?!). Stone blocks and wood gathered from trees actually craft your first tool for easily obtaining these exact items. Your first item for digging and mining is a stone hammer; an essential time saver of getting the hard stuff! As with most of the items, upgraded versions are more efficient, such as the pickax, for example.

Characters you meet along the way may have a quest for you with a reward waiting.

NPC’s usually have something for you to do. A lot of the tasks are fairly simple, but you may not be able to complete them right away as you don’t have the proper skills or items they’re looking for. The voice over and the world’s language is something you should hear for yourself. Some people may be annoyed with it while others may find it cute. This is definitely a kid-friendly game. Parents playing with their children have nothing to worry about in its character design and difficulty. In fact, playing alongside your children just building structures and houses is sure to give you both enjoyment. The game is still deep enough with RPG mechanics and items to collect. It’s no problem taking down enemies that may seem to give the younger ones some trouble.

My hootie owl just knows what’s up.

Be sure to have those sharpening stones readied because you’ll be using them frequently. Using your weapon and pickax reduces their durability shown in a meter within their icon. They never break and can still be used, but the damage dealt is drastically reduced. With shiny gems that look like big candy, it’s hard to resist. Basically, the more valuable the material you’re digging up, the more swings it takes. There are some things the game expects you to find out on your own. For this, it’s a good idea to press Y on items when you’re in your inventory in order to see what actions are possible. For instance, there is an island merchant who will sell you vacant lands which only serve as your playground. They come in different regional themes. Upon purchasing a license, it remains in your inventory as a piece of paper. One may think they need to present it to someone or store it somewhere while they find their new land they purchased, though it’s meant to be consumed, like recipes found in the world. When activating your decree, you will teleport directly to the new land. If you bought several pieces of land, this can be a bit of a drag as the load times for any of the islands you visit can take up to 1 full minute. I did notice load times were cut in half when going with a small world, but I still preferred having the world at large. There are no additional load times after that so I suppose it’s not that bad.

All kinds of regions are to be found, from seasonal snow to volcanic.

Easily one of the best features of Portal Knights are all of its different islands. Every place looks unique as well as have their own materials and items. Though there are islands that may share the same elements, they are different enough. The game kindly introduces you to new themes through subtle transitioning. For instance, you may be in a completely dry desert with cacti, but the next island will introduce more water in the form of an oasis. Then the palm trees come in. The island following that will keep those trees and the next thing you know you’re in somewhere that looks like a Mayan jungle. To save on memory usage, grass and flowers in the distance don’t necessarily pop up until the closer you are to them. The way they are handled is smart, though. They don’t just pop in out of nowhere or even fade in. Everything slowly comes up as if it’s growing in real time. I mean, I think this is a technical trick. The fact that I must question it proves it’s not a big deal. All of this is backed by the ambiance of nature and the soundtrack. The music has an adventurous tone. It does have a fairy tale vibe to it that I found myself appreciating for what it does. The “chink” sound of mining gems and fanfare that plays when leveling up get the job done. Nothing too amazing in the sound department, but it’s far from bad. Also, when playing in third-person, shadows in the distance disappear, but reappear when in first-person. Not a huge deal, but the higher texture and shadow quality has a much farther distance in first-person.

The crafting menu looks intimidating at first, but after a few uses it becomes easy to navigate.

1 bottle of water + 2 berries = Minor Healing Potion that restores 130 health.

What was I looking for again?

There are some bummers here. Whether you’re browsing through your own inventory or in a trade menu with another character, there is no categorical item management. It’s even worse when bartering because your inventory turns into a vertical list you need to scroll through. Items are placed anywhere on that list. Since items have a cap per slot, the same item will start a new stack in another available slot. This means you may have one item at the top of your list and the same item at the very bottom when in trade menus. It’s quite aggravating. I understand there is a lot to sort through, but even just a few sorting options would have been welcomed. Tie this in with the useless attribute system for leveling up as I mentioned earlier and the RPG mechanics feel poorly implemented. That said, hopefully Keen is willing to make some improvements in some way as a future update.

Anyone who never got into Minecraft might find something enjoyable with Portal Knights. There is more structure, customization, variety and fresh ideas to keep things interesting. The game can become addicting and if you have a friend to play with the experience is even more enjoyable. There is no pure creation-only mode, but that shouldn't stop anyone from creating anything they want. The world's are purposefully constructed as well as giving you your own lands to play around in. These kinds of games can be a bit ambitious to pursue when creating them and that may be where some of the implementations such as inventory and leveling up are not thought out very well, but all the things surrounding those are pretty good.
The Stellar
  • Addicting gameplay.
  • Varied locations keep things fresh.
  • Lots of crafting and treasure to find.
  • Fun for everyone.
The Lesser
  • Item management needs more structure.
  • Character leveling untapped.
  • Could use 3 more boss fights.
Pretty Good
Gameplay - 8
Visual - 8
Audio - 8
Value - 8.5

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