Review: Portal Knights

We were first approached about Portal Knights back in May of last year, and as the review team had many other projects on our hand, we declined. It is now January, and we still occasionally get emails asking if we’ve done a review for it. So on this slow news day, let’s finally discover how this game holds up.

It’s Like Minecraft But…

Portal Knights is another in the long line of open-world procedurally-generated games with a focus on digging up the environment, optionally combining it together, and rebuilding it into fantastical structures.

For those who have not yet played Minecraft, Terraria, Starbound, or any of the many other similar games out there, the general goal of the game is to build up a base to keep yourself safe, fill it with crafting stations to make new and better gear, use that new gear to explore further out to find rarer materials to make even better gear, and so on and so forth. A common secondary goal is acquiring rare materials for fashion and design purposes, like being able to construct a marble palace with stained glass windows and golden chandeliers instead of a mud hut.

Right off the bat this game shows off its differences from the mountain of similar games with a character creator that asks you to pick a class for your character between a knight, a mage, or a ranger. Ranger was chosen for this review. Your choice impacts the base stats, gear, and traits you can acquire over the course of the game, adding a flavor to the combat that most similar games don’t see until further into the game.

Shards of Innovation

The basics are taught fairly quickly: You explore the floating island you find yourself on, fight enemies to survive, and gather resources to upgrade your gear and make consumables. The end goal for each island is to collect enough portal shards to create six portal blocks, assemble them in a gateway found somewhere on the island, and take the portal to the next island.

This is actually something that I felt the game did well on, as both XP and portal shards have a chance of dropping either from enemies or when mining noteworthy materials. This helps reinforce those behaviors, and makes grinding ingredients feel less like a grind as you’re also working on unlocking the next island and leveling up your class.

Now, that said, the class system hardly feels really worth it. As you level up you can allocate more stats, equip higher level gear, and unlock passive traits. However, all this really affects is the combat side of the game, which is rarely ever the focus of these building games. The traits offer bonuses that are small and situational enough that they don’t actually unlock new options or alter the way one plays, and the stats and gear are mostly just a matter of keeping up with the Joneses, making sure you can survive the monsters of the latest island.

The equipment side has another issue as well: availability of materials. Towards the end of my time with this game I was around level 12 and still using gear that was level 5. All the gear upgrades I could make required iron, which had yet to appear on any of the islands. On top of being frustrating, this doubles as another strike against the class system, as resources tend to be the deciding factor in what gear you have more so than your level.

Speaking of frustrating combat encounters, another issue is the timed events that regularly spawn across your worlds. Every so often one of your worlds will have an event occur which replaces most/all of the creatures with higher level monsters. On top of making exploring that island rather difficult, they also render any existing quests on the island unable to be completed until resolved and offer just a cosmetic pet as a reward.

Soulless Presentation

The game’s aesthetics are just plain terrible. For starters, the music ranges from soulless pastoral themes to nothing at all. The models look unfinished and with an uncanny resemblance to Fisher Price’s Little People toys. Worst of all is the story and dialogue, or rather what little there is. There’s no humor or gravitas or life to anything presented. It reads like someone just drew up the outline for the plot and decided that was good enough.

I try not to make assumptions on the developers here, but this feels less like they were trying to craft an experience and more like a blatant cash grab on the latest fad. Everything is so basic, so safe… and so uninteresting. Procedural generation and player-made content should go alongside and enhance the experience a developer provides, it should not serve as the sole experience itself.

Final Verdict

I’ve reviewed some bad games here and there for the site, but this is the first to commit the most cardinal sin of gaming: I was bored to tears. The game several hours in is fundamentally the same as the game five minutes in, and there’s not even the spectacle of new discovery to entice me onward.

Games like this which thrive on exploration and player creativity NEED that heart and soul to make players care about the worlds they discover and the wonders they create. In any other game this would just be a minor strike against it, but in a game all about making the game world your own, the aesthetics are truly the main focus.

~Final Score: 3/10~

Review copy provided by 505 Games for PS4. Screenshots taken by reviewer.