The first thing you’ll think of when you lay your eyes onto the Portal Knights is the striking similarity with the legendary Minecraft. Indeed, graphically this game looks like the modernized version of Mojang’s sandbox, but it definitely is more than a mere Minecraft clone. Developer Keen Games’ approach delivers precisely the right amount of structure, with enough of an actual story to compel players through hours of play – without taking away the freedom to remodel entire worlds, which many fans of the genre love.
The way I always seem to see Portal Knights being pitched is, “It’s like Terraria, but in 3D.” Honestly, that’s a pretty great way to put it. The game leans heavily on Minecraft-y style crafting with loads of additional complexity added through surprisingly complex RPG trimmings. You’ll craft all sorts of gear, level up your character, fight loads of creatures in all sorts of different biomes, and tons more. Better yet, it’s all multiplayer. Currently, the mobile version offers four-player local multiplayer over WiFi, but the hope of online multiplayer (or even cross-platform online multiplayer) is something we’re really going to keep our fingers crossed for.
A disastrous event called the Fracture has split the globe into 47 distinct biomes, now only accessible by discovering and restoring portals. This works well because each area has materials to greater or lesser extents than others. Once you’ve reached a new area, you can warp back at will, allowing you to collect items better used elsewhere.
This game masterfully balances freedom against progression. If you want to ignore the story and keep yourself busy by building the world, you can do it without any repercussions. On the contrary, you even have the area that serves perfectly as a building spot, and it’s the opening area as well, Squire’s Knoll. And if you don’t give a damn about building sandcastles, you can power through the game’s story, unlocking new areas and uncovering the mysteries of the Fracture.
What really makes Portal Knights stand apart from the crowd are its RPG and character growth elements. You’ll meet other characters on their missions, which will give you a bit more motivation to continue exploring the worlds. Missions you complete and enemies you defeat will reward you with experience, which can be used on level-up to enhance your abilities.
These gameplay elements aren’t innovative on their own, but their application to a sandbox game like Portal Knights provides some much-needed depth to the genre. Grinding the game for the experience gain just to power up your Knight is a much more rewarding experience than run of the mill sandbox gumption. Improving character stats changes every aspect of the game, not only combat. Increasing strength doesn’t just boost melee attacks; it means you can mine faster, while dexterity spikes your movement around the environment. Powering up can feel a little too much like grinding to start, but seems to accelerate; my mage knight was a powerhouse after only a few hours of playing.
Battles are surprisingly skillful too, reminiscent of classic Zelda games. You’ll even automatically lock on to the nearest enemy. However, each foe has a different set of abilities and unique attack patterns and learning how to read their moves and dodge them offers a satisfying weight to each encounter.
As well as each world containing various monsters for you to either defeat or run away from, you are occasionally thrown in front of giant bosses with a successful battle being required to progress. Enemies in the game get tougher and tougher as time goes on and, in some cases, they can feel pretty overwhelming. Dying in these fights doesn’t cause any issues or loss of progress, but it can feel a little frustrating if you are underpowered. To combat this, you’ll likely find yourself doing quite a bit of grinding to gain experience, or searching across the worlds you’ve unlocked for specific materials that can bring you some higher quality armor and weapons, especially if you are playing alone.
As we said earlier, Portal Knights can either be played completely by yourself, with one other person in local split-screen co-op, or with up to three other players online, and players can drop in and out as they please. The missions you have to do remain the same, but taking on bosses or tricky enemies together seems more fun than going for it alone.
Sitting somewhere between the Minecraft-type gameplay of building and exploring, and the RPG-like features of crafting, battling, and upgrading your character’s skills and abilities, Portal Knights feels like it would mostly suit families, friends, or even distant friends online, who wish to explore either of these genres of gaming together in a sometimes challenging – but usually charming – package.