Portal Knights launches on Xbox One and PS4 on 19 May
Spare a thought for anyone brave enough to launch a sandbox game these days. Not only is the genre dominated by the ten tonne horse that is Minecraft, it's also crowded. Besides Mojang's behemoth, any developer aspiring to stake a claim has to contend with the likes of Terraria, Lego Worlds, Garry's Mod, DayZ, No Man's Sky, Creativerse.... the list goes on.
Despite the crowded playing field, Keen Games' Portal Knights has carved a highly respectable niche for itself. Released last year as an Early Access title on Steam, it's built an ardent following, and is about to make the leap to console, arriving on Xbox One and PS4 in May – and I've played it.
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Dragon Quest Builders, released last October, may be the best comparison for anyone unfamiliar with Portal Knights. Like that pseudo-RPG, there's story here alongside the freeform creation, and while it's not as complex as the Dragon Quest spin-off – and even that was stripped down from the core games – it gives players something to hang their efforts on.
In simplest terms, the world has been fractured into floating islands, each locked apart from each other with portals. As you explore, you'll restore the links between islands, and uncover the cause of the separation. It's not a deep story by any means, but it does get you started and provides a sliver of incentive to keep playing. It also provides narrative justification for each biome you visit being different, and explains the presence of a handful of boss fights as you progress.
The added structure in Portal Knights ultimately feels a welcome touch. Say what you like about having an endless canvas and the boundless potential of creativity, but sometimes you need a kick in the right direction, rather than being dropped in the middle of nowhere and left to it.
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There's a touch more personality to how you play the game too. Taking a cue from RPGs, you'll choose your character from basic archetypes – Warrior, Ranger, Mage – and customise their appearance. Despite Portal Knights' cutesy, super-deformed art style, there's an impressive array of aesthetic choices. All characteristics are applicable to male or female avatars too, so if you want to battle through the disparate islands as a bearded lady-wizard, have at it.
Character class affects overall difficulty, too. With their low physical damage, Mages are terrible at actually mining materials to begin with, making them something of an expert class, while Rangers have a harder time tackling enemies up close.
Once you get into the worlds of Portal Knights, another distinction to Minecraft presents itself. Combat is much more inspired by hack-n-slash RPGs, with enemies having different attacks, strengths and weaknesses, and variable health levels. Wander into the wrong area – or rather, choose to build a portal to the wrong area – and you can be faced with some real tough foes.
This is still a crafting game at heart though, and like so many of its peers feels slightly hampered in the transition to console – or more specifically, a joypad. Keen has done a solid job of streamlining the controls (this goes for the PC version too, which supports controllers) but it still feels clunkier than mouse and keyboard. Up to ten items can be assigned to the hotbar at the bottom of the screen, and the first four of those can be instantly selected using the d-pad arrows, the rest switched between using shoulder buttons, and the active item used – or placed, in the case of building materials – with triggers. Even the fastest fingers in the world are going to find that slower than a single click.
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Mining and crafting (sorry) does, however, feel very mechanically similar to a certain other title. Each biome can be effectively dismantled and rebuilt at will, and secrets discovered by tunneling through the depths. Portal Knights relies on 'recipes' for everything you create, most provided through the in-menu crafting section, and expanded once you build a crafting bench.
Portal Knights' worlds are far richer and more visually detailed though, so even when you're hacking out cuboids of rock and earth or chopping down trees, it does feel somewhat different to Minecraft's blocky voxels. Another particularly nice distinction is that not every island will have all items in abundance – a recipe might call for sand, prompting you to journey elsewhere, stock up, and return. It makes the game feel like more of an exploration, more of an adventure.
One particularly frustrating quirk we did notice was in the UI for the PS4 version. Names of items in your menu screens weren't displayed as the cursor shuffled over them, making it hard for newcomers to know what ingredients they actually possessed. That's not the case in the PC version, so hopefully that kink will be worked out by the time of final release.
A final note – on PC, the size of the worlds generated in Portal Knights is limited by system power, with bigger biomes demanding more performance. There's far less power variance on console – essentially only two models of both PS4 and Xbox One, until Scorpio arrives – so world size feels more like another difficulty modifier. The larger the world, the more resources, but also the more spread out they are, with more enemies and hazards. A focused approach, with set sizes, could make the console release feel a touch more streamlined, though perhaps the incoming player base will appreciate the flexibility.
When Portal Knights does arrive on consoles, it will be joined by the full v1.0 of the game on Steam, boasting the same 'final' content (though Keen Games and 505 promise consistent support and updates going forward for all formats). From what I've played, mechanically there's little difference between platforms, especially if you're using a joypad on PC – choose format based on preference, and whether you want a couch based experienced.
Where Portal Knights earns a solid recommendation though is as a sandbox game with drive; it's Minecraft with all the freedom to build and create, but with more focus. If you love the idea of a world to sculpt to your choosing, but feel paralysed by choice elsewhere, this could be exactly what you're after.