What’s Minecraft is yours craft.
There’s nothing wrong with borrowing good ideas if you do something with them. When it comes to Minecraft, there are few bigger ideas to borrow from. Portal Knights dares to go there. What could have been a cynical clone is far from that; this 3D world-building adventure takes Minecraft’s core open-ended experience and bends it into a focused and structured RPG.
The first thing to notice is how much more detailed Portal Knights is than its inspiration. Not that it’s going for realism, but the fidelity of its characters (customisable in the opening creation tool) brings this close to a stylised cartoon Playmobil aesthetic than Mojang’s pixelated playgrounds. The world itself boasts a richness of colour and detail, with swaying grass and glinting rocks.
This additional detail comes at the cost of diminished space in the world, though that’s a deliberate design choice more than a concession to performance. Portal Knights’ opening landscape is similar in scale to the tiny islands of Lego Worlds. Floating in space, the block-built vista is small enough to enable specified objectives in its defined space. A half-built house, the ruins of a castle – these extant structures invite you down a guided path of creation, rather than demanding your unshackled creativity.
Within this more formalised environment, stationary NPCs ask you to bring them a quantity of, say, wood or bronze (once you’ve made an axe or pick on your crafting table to gather them with). Or, they may ask you to recover loot from an underground treasure chest, among any manner of fetch quests and objectives. That gameplay cycle of offering small and regular tasks sets Portal Knights apart as more of a traditional videogame than a freeform plaything.
The RPG elements I hinted at earlier add to that ‘real’ game ethos; completing quests and defeating wandering enemies awards experience, allowing you to level up your character and choose from branching abilities within class specialisms. You might use swords or perhaps bows, though any flavour of combat is intrinsically simple with a target lock and a roll dodge move to afford basic strategies in encounters.
The purpose of this character development becomes clear when the titular portals make an appearance – though small, that opening world is one of a sequence of many, each accessible through a portal that must be constructed from the shards you find in each land. Successive landscapes offer distinct environmental features, ranging between deserts, mountains, caves and snowfields. It’s a compartmentalisation of Minecraft’s various biomes, which enables progression of difficulty in each world’s challenges, as well as a measure of achievement in the number of worlds you can reach.
All previous worlds can be revisited should you need to grind it out against weaker enemies, or just to continue developing that first world you landed on. It’s a great balance of hand-holding and complete freedom, retaining much of that long term appeal that Minecraft famously offers through exploration of its broad and deep environments. Much, but not all – though the trade-off is an absolute win for Portal Knights’ instant accessibility.
That said, more longevity is offered through multiplayer features, available through local and online play. This broadens the adventure as you and 3 friends battle enemies and even bosses to continue your journey through the portal sequence, showing off which armours and weapons you’ve crafted for yourself along the way.
Accompanying the experience is a soundtrack that evokes some of those classic Rare tunes from games like Banjo-Kazooie and Conker. Blake Robinson (whose previous accolades include sound production for The Stanley Parable) hits the right notes here to fit Portal Knights’ jaunty, frolicsome appeal. Despite being based on what is functionally quite a bleak survival game, all your senses tell you that Portal Knights is about fun without any real dark edges.
Where Minecraft is a sandbox that feels uncomfortable in accommodating a formal progression structure, Portal Knights successfully differentiates itself by offering a more guided experience. With better graphics, compartmentalised level progression, more RPG-like character building and even boss battles, there’s plenty here to justify owning both games. On the Switch especially, these smaller worlds invite ad hoc play on the go, making Portal Knights the perfect sandbox for mobile play.
Portal Knights was provided to us by Nintendo/505 Games for Nintendo Switch.