Portal Knights, developer Keen Games, is currently available on Steam Early Access and already offering players a very enjoyable and polished gameplay experience. At a fleeting glance, this title appears to bring nothing we haven’t seen many times over these last few years, ever since the successes of Minecraft kickstarted an era of open world, sandbox voxel games with crafting, building and hunting features. Portal Knights, albeit much better looking, with cuter graphics and brighter colors, almost didn’t make it into my shopping cart for this reason – and what a great shame that would have been!
Not Another Open World Sandbox
Two long nights and 14 islands later, it’s become apparent to me what Portal Knights is and isn’t: A refreshing mixture between progressive, level-based gameplay and hub building, including familiar gathering and crafting mechanics from sandbox games. What the game decidedly is not at this point, is an unguided open world to go build a house and “live in;” if that’s what you’re looking for, other titles are happy to oblige.
Instead, Portal Knights takes you on a journey through a mostly linear network of mini-maps, called islands, which progress steadily in level and require you to find and activate one or several portals each time to travel further. Portal activation requires collecting shards of specific colors by killing things and gathering. The 3D environments are randomly generated and belong to different biomes with their designated creatures, crafting resources and dungeons. Discovering the latter can be very rewarding as you venture ever deeper into dark crypts and tombs full of special enemies and treasure. As you progress and level up, higher dungeons also become larger and more challenging.
What puts Portal Knights apart from other voxel worlds is a sense of purpose and progression while including a more varied gameplay experience than your standard, linear role-playing game. Every few levels you will want to return to your home base which may be in the starter world or another place of your choosing. The islands don’t reset what you’ve built and you can port between them at any time.
You might start using a ruin as your first base and expand from there or you can go on a full castle building craze. Portal Knights features a complete building sim experience from different tool and workshop progression to crop farming and crafting shiny furniture and decor items for your stately crib. You also need to upgrade your weapon and gear via new resources found along the way, so there’s always something to do.
What adds further gameplay variety as you progress are boss islands and timed events. Every few levels you will face a boss encounter that bars the way to the next tier of islands, so prepare! Also, Keen Games recently released another special event with the Ghost World update, which enables players to travel through special portals for a limited time (look out for special alerts on world map overview!) to find rare resources.
As is to be expected from a title still in development, there’s a list of things to tweak and fix in Portal Knights. While I’ve encountered little in terms of bugs, other than getting my character stuck in blocks and the first boss resetting health for no reason, inventory management and interface handling are on the forefront of my mind. Resources don’t always stack correctly and can’t be manually split either, which is especially a problem in co-op; the game also lacks a direct trade function. Bags and chests fill up so quickly that you soon find yourself micromanaging storage with no way to mark what different chests contain. Dragging and dropping from bags to hotbars and back feels cumbersome.
Combat in Portal Knights is a straightforward hack and slash with dodge-rolling. Players can choose between first and third person view, lock on to targets and switch between them via tab. What got me to clench my teeth in frustration, however, are auto lock-on and enforced camera switches whenever engaging targets. It’s a confusing mechanic that feels counter-intuitive and makes it hard to kite and position correctly. This at the very least, needs an opt-out feature as soon as possible!
For those who enjoy co-op (up to 4 players), Portal Knights offers the option of hosting games server-side. This means no returning to a saved game unless the original host is online. The way the game handles islands and teleporting requires players to be on the same island at once and always auto-port together; there is also no individual journeying available while playing co-op. This may seem like a nuisance, depending on what you want from a co-op adventure.
Early Access Verdict
Portal Knights already features a remarkably balanced, varied and polished gameplay experience. It also has very pretty graphics and a lovely soundtrack by Blake Robinson’s Synthetic Orchestra. While there are still mechanics to tweak and things to be added by Keen Games over the coming weeks, the Early Access is already great bang for the buck and especially fun in co-op. The developer has been very responsive to player feedback, so we can look forward to future updates and more features coming to this enjoyable, unconventional mix of genres. Additional survival and/or perma-death game modes, as well as scaling difficulty and loot for flexible party sizes, could make this title even more appealing to a wider audience.Related: 505 Games, Early Access, Portal Knights, Preview, RPG, Steam