A lot of people haven’t opened up their hearts to survival games. I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that a many of the games in that genre seem geared towards kids, but that hasn’t stopped me from playing plenty of cartoony titles enjoyed by people of all ages, from Skylanders and LEGO games to Minecraft. Portal Knights had that same allure, but after getting into it on the Switch, I found myself going back to other games that did it better.
Portals are literally the name of the game here, and the biggest gimmick. Your job as an adventurer—teeming with stereotypical items like health potions, swords, and pickaxes—is to defeat enemies, mine loot, and unlock more portals to find more worlds. It’s a cool little linear progression path locked away inside a non-linear sandbox conceit, and the idea is sound.
More of an emphasis is put on RPG progression rather than building, as you’re constantly encouraged to go see new lands and leave your old ones behind (to which you could return if you wanted). Quite simply, you’re at the mercy of RNG (random number generator). Some zones are less fun than others, and sometimes it’s a slog to gather up and craft all the portal stones you’ll need to proceed to the next area.
The random Gods do work out a favourable universe more often than not though, and the key to this are the diverse enemy attack styles. It’s fun to take on a bunch of different types of foes at once, especially after you’ve upgraded to a new fighting style yourself. Choosing an archetype at the start also cements the fact that your character is more than just a generic avatar. It’s not like combat is that deep, mind, it’s just more action-oriented with dodging and a 3D Zelda-esque lock-on feature.
Portal Knight‘s biggest sin is its bland style. I don’t mind so much that it looks uncharacteristic, if it did new and exciting things I can let that slide, but it’s tough to even distinguish items, terrain, and enemies from a gameplay standpoint. It doesn’t have the greatest controls, either. While it’s super easy to swap between items in Minecraft, the menus in Portal Knight feel bloated and sluggish in comparison. The soundtrack and generic sound effects are also just passing through.
There was the opportunity to provide players with a meaningful storyline here to build out their character, but it didn’t happen. While the narrative pops up every so often, it promptly disappears in turn, and as a result I feel even less connected to the world than I did at the start when I entered it all bright-eyed, attempting to save the populace from their fractured lives. The constant need to find and power portals breaks up the freedom of exploration a little too much.
If you do have a significant other, roommate, or child to play with, you’re probably going to get a little more mileage out of Portal Knights. Both online and local multiplayer options are available, and the former is great for connecting every so often to see how the RNG is treating someone. The exact same problems creep up though, and if one person grows tired of the sameness of it all, you’re probably just going to be taking a break.
Portal Knights has some great ideas, but they’re half-heartedly executed. Square Enix already came close to mastering the whole RPG plus creation genre with Dragon Quest Builders (the sequel is already confirmed for Nintendo Switch), and there are plenty of options available in either genre on the Switch already if you’re looking for something to play.