You’d be forgiven for thinking that Portal Knights is just another Minecraft clone, and indeed, this title takes no small amount of inspiration from the seminal block-builder. But a combination of charming art design, Zelda-style combat, and a strong focus on adventure, level progression, and goals help this Early Access title stand out from similar sandboxes.
First Impressions Video Preview
There’s more than meets the eye with this action-adventure sandbox.
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The building blocks, so to speak, are all there. You plop down in a procedurally generated blocky landscape. You punch trees to get wood. You use wood to build workbenches and tools. You can refine materials into goods for the construction of houses and castles. More advanced tools, weapons, and armor require you to find ever-more obscure resources to craft them.
But Portal Knights really isn’t a sandbox. In fact, you’ll find yourself very quickly reaching the edge of the world, as you discover that the starting area is just a tiny floating island in the sky. The most central resources are portal shards, which allow you to bring the magic gateways in each area to life and teleport to the next level.
That’s the crux of what differentiates Portal Knights. By offering a distinct goal and clear level progression, it plays as a hybrid of a sandbox and a traditional action-adventure title. You’ll fight some enemies, maybe find a cave or dungeon to explore, gather up a level’s unique resources, and then move on to the next. The level map is a big spider-webbing criss-cross of connections, and each level might have two or three exits to further levels.
Enemy drops are the most reliable way to find the portal shards you need to progress, making combat very squarely the game’s focus. You can lock onto enemies and dodge around them as you look for the right opportunity to strike. For their part, the bad guys will have unique attacks with specific tells, some dealing various types of elemental or area damage. The system doesn’t work perfectly - notably, dodging becomes very difficult in certain corners of the procedurally-generated terrain - but it’s a solid base that makes for some fun encounters.
You create a character in one of three classes - warrior, mage, or ranger. Each obviously focuses on melee, magic, or ranged attacks, but there’s nothing preventing you from wielding any type of weapon with any class. The stat progression as you level up will certainly cause a character to lean in the direction of their class, but options are available. The talent tree is currently one of the game’s most disappointingly barebones aspects. The progression is the same for every class, you only get an ability every five levels or so, and your only choice is in the odd level where two abilities open at the same time.
The big milestones in the progression are boss battles against unique, giant enemies. I only hit one during my brief time with the game, but it was a terrific encounter of the Nintendo school of design. Learn a pattern and repeat the pattern in increasingly difficult ways until the enemy is defeated. It’s not revolutionary, but it’s a solid design that helps to cement the game as not just a Minecraft clone, but a smart hybrid of sandbox and action-adventure games.
The game looks great. The toybox feel along with the lighting and generally cartoony design give it a pleasant Saturday morning feel. There’s a terrific variety to the environments, with green hills, desert mesas, and tropical jungles, along with darker dungeons and caves to explore in every area. And while the music isn’t quite as catchy as its inspirations, there’s definitely a spirit of classic Rare themes from Banjo and Donkey Kong, which I greatly appreciate.
Judging by the map and the achievements, there are 44 levels and three boss encounters in this version of the game. The developers promise the final version will have more worlds, enemies, bosses, and crafting options, along with deeper RPG mechanics and more in-game events. My greatest concern for the final product is the repetitive nature of the progression, as every level is ultimately a matter of grinding kills for the portal shards necessary to open the next area. More character options and in-game quests would go a long way toward making that grind more palatable.
With that being said, I had a great time with Portal Knights even in this early state. I was initially concerned that this would be just another Minecraft clone, but its combination of sandbox worlds and action-adventure gameplay differentiates it enough for the game to have its own unique identity. The combat needs refinement and both the RPG mechanics and overall progression of the game need more depth, but what’s there already forms a solid, fun base. If Minecraft-meets-Zelda sounds appealing to you, I’d recommend checking it out even in its Early Access state.