Set in a world that has been broken into floating islands, each connected by portals, Portal Knights has you playing a knight who plunders these islands for resources so you can build an unnecessarily large castle. Somewhere along the way there’s certain to be some world-healing as well, but mostly it’s the huge castle thing.
It’s a block-y sandbox RPG with building elements, like Minecraft crossed with Zelda, or just like Dragon Quest Builders that released back in January of last year. You will be mining, crafting, and building while grinding XP from a variety of enemies, as well as fighting bosses as you progress through the levels.
You start the game by picking one of three classes, customising your appearance, creating a world, then being dropped into it. The first impression you will get is that this is a pretty game. While it’s not that impressive from a technical standpoint, it is colourful, vibrant and there are no jagged edges in sight, all running silky-smooth with no frame rate drops to be seen.
Each island is a unique area to explore that is generated procedurally when loading the level. There’s a selection of biomes including forests, deserts, mountainous regions, and just the general places you might expect in this kind of game. As mentioned, these are floating islands so if you delve too greedily beneath the surfaces you can fall to your death.
The monsters are, again, exactly what you would expect. Monsters in the first level are slimes that bounce at you, birds that swoop at you, skeletons with swords, and some fire skeletons that only appear at night. As you progress through the game you find more interesting things to stab, such as an initially simple looking plant that uproots itself and shoots fire when you get too close. They are distinctly reminiscent of Zelda, each attacking in patterns that you can learn so that you can dispose of them quickly, but the combat system itself leaves a lot to be desired.
Hitting an enemy locks onto them, letting you dodge and attack without losing focus. However, if you want to jump while locked on, you first have to unlock your view, which makes fighting certain enemies quite annoying. Enemies also don’t tend to deal too much damage, so they quickly become less of a challenge and more of a nuisance, with most deaths caused by simply being mobbed by a group at the wrong time, such as when you’re waiting for the cooldown timer on potions. More powerful, interesting enemies and a stronger character sparks a little life in the fighting, but most of the time you are fighting enemies that start at a comparable strength and stay the same level as you get more powerful.
Crafting has its own issues. With only a level two workbench – you must upgrade all crafting stations to unlock new recipes – I have already grown sick of searching through the menu for the items I want to craft. It is sorted into tabs, but under the armour tab there are four pieces of armour for every class and every tier to scroll through while looking for my own and no option to search. The more populated the menu gets the more clustered it feels.
This is also where it becomes clear that the level-based design is at odds with the rest of the game. While levels are more focused with less empty space than in other games, there is still empty space and, crucially, you know it is empty space. In Minecraft, you can pick a direction, walk, and you will find something, whether it’s a huge cave network or a dungeon or some valuable resources. It feels like exploring, whereas Portal Knights only has a small selection of ores and plants in each level, leaving you with no reason to explore. Once you know the iron ore you need isn’t there, there’s nothing to do but wait through another loading screen on your way to another island.
It does tell you once you have visited which resources can be found on each island, so you can pick the right one when you need particular resources, but the experience of revisiting islands is not a fun one. It is returning to a place you already know the layout of, finding resources you already know are there, with monsters you have out-leveled and no surprises waiting for you.
Ultimately, Portal Knights aims to put RPG elements and Zelda-style combat into a Minecraft-like game. Minecraft works because everything is systemic. It’s huge, but everything you can find conforms to particular conditions – diamond only appears below a certain height, sugar cane is found on sand next to water, etc. – so you know where to look. When you remove these systems, you have a Portal Knights island; the resources are all over the place, at any height, and if you can’t see them, you want you need another island. It removes the incentive to explore, because there is nothing to find.
Version tested: PS4.