It's getting to the point now where we'll have to add an extra genre to our database soon - the Minecraft-alike. From the incredible creative freedom of LEGO Worlds, to the story driven adventure that was Dragon Quest Builders, Minecraft has inspired a whole range of games of its very own - and now there's another challenger to the crown. Step right up, Portal Knights - a game that looks like it could be a Playmobil version of LEGO Worlds.
Sitting somewhere in-between the creative block building of Minecraft, and the role playing inspired Dragon Quest Builders, Portal Knights is a split-screen, block based build 'em up that features plenty of combat, very little in the way of story, and more crafting than you can shake a workbench at. Playing either on your own, or with up to three friends in tow (via a mixture of split-screen and online), the idea here revolves around the titular portals, which are used to teleport you between worlds. Each world you land in contains (at least) one portal, hidden somewhere on the map - and if you can find it, and repair it, you'll be able to travel through it to the next world.
While the game's own description may big itself up as being a role playing game with "100+ memorable NPCs", it's fair to say that's a bit of a... creative way of putting it, at best. With little in the way of a story, and even less in the way of memorable NPCs, Portal Knights is a game that's all about the exploration, and the combat - although there is a basic character creator here, and a choice of three classes to choose from (mage, warrior, and ranger).
Essentially, when you apparate into a world, your first (and often only) task is to find the portal so you can move onto the next level. It's how you do that that presents the game's biggest challenge. With each world being randomly generated, the portal could be absolutely anywhere, and is usually hidden somewhere well away from anywhere you might accidentally stumble across. Instead, you'll need to comb the world with a fine toothpick, as you explore crumbling castles, deep caves, and even darker dungeons.
Of course, it'd all be a little bit dull if there was nothing to try and get in your way while you're hunting the portal down, and this is perhaps where Portal Knights becomes its most "role playing-y". Scattered around the world, whether above or below ground, are many an angry monster, who are willing to do all they can to get in between you and your portal. Combat is of a hack and slashy style, with the game automatically focusing on the first enemy you attack - something which works well if there's just the one enemy around, but which can be more than a little bit frustrating in a group encounter, as there's no way to switch which enemy you're targeting mid-battle. Instead, the only option is to press L2 (on PS4) to turn off the targeting camera, and then attack something again to trigger it, hoping the game decides to lock on to the right thing this time...
However, while it may be aimed at kids, Portal Knights has one heck of a steep learning curve, where even from the very beginning, you'll find yourself facing off against enemies that can kill you in only a handful of hits. While mastering the handy dodge/roll move will often get you out of trouble, the only reliable way to be able to defeat tougher enemies is to a) level up, and b) craft.
Much like in Minecraft, Portal Knights has a huge emphasis on crafting and building. Along with encouraging you to make your own house (you can choose one of the worlds to be your "home base", build a house out of blocks, and decorate it with whatever you find), you'll need to regularly keep harvesting new materials, and then refining and crafting them into new weapons and equipment on your trusty workbench. After making yourself a basic axe in the game's tutorial, it's up to you to put it to good use, digging into rock faces, mines, and even the ground itself as you gather the all important resources you need. Just to make things a little bit more difficult, each world also contains a different mixture of materials and minerals to harvest, meaning you'll sometimes have to jump between them if you're looking for a hard to find ore or gemstone.
Every ten or so worlds, the game takes a bit of a different tack, and drops you head first into a boss fight - which can often challenge you in unusual ways. The very first boss fight you get is against a giant worm, which sits in the middle of a giant pit of lava, surrounded by a circular stone walkway. The only problem, of course, is that you can't actually reach it where it is - instead, you'll need to find the worm tail that pops up on the walkway, hidden amongst dozens of other worms and snake enemies, and give it a smack, causing the snake boss to fall over, and giving you an ample opening.
However, while it may have a lot in common with Minecraft, that's also one of Portal Knights' greatest weaknesses - and not because it's "too samey". Instead, the bigger issue here is that if you haven't played Minecraft before, you'll be left with literally no idea about what you're supposed to be doing. With a pitiful amount of tutorials at the start (a handful of objectives will pop up at the side of the screen if you stroll near to a trigger point, before sometimes randomly disappearing), the game makes very little effort to explain its most important aspects - yet alone reinforce how important they'll be if you want to do well. There's nothing here to explain quite how essential crafting is to your progress, not a sausage that tells you how to mine or gather materials, and not even a whisper that you get access to better weapons and armour by upgrading your workbench (which in itself is hidden away in a small menu tab). We get that a lot of the appeal of these sort of games is in the adventure, and finding your own way, but developers really need to remember, they at least need to teach us the basics first!
If you plan on playing in split-screen (and we'd recommend it, as the game really comes into its own with two players), it may be worth bearing in mind that Portal Knights is one of those immensely irritating games that thinks you either sit an inch from your TV screen, or use some binoculars to play your games. Should the game ever give you anything in the way of text based instructions - like a quest counter, or a tutorial - they'll be delivered in one of the smallest fonts we've ever seen in a game. Quite how this made it into the final version is anyone's guess, but it's clear that this was never tested in a normal living room situation. Just see for yourself, and see if you can read what this says:
Still, if you're a Minecraft fan, and/or you've played your way through Dragon Quest Builders, and/or you fancy cutting your teeth on something a little bit different to LEGO Worlds, then Portal Knights should scratch a familiar itch. With a real sense of adventure as you explore an underground cavern (although perhaps one that's not quite as strong as in LEGO Worlds), there's adventures to be had here - just be sure to give the multiplayer a try too, despite the tiny font.