After the thrills and spills of Bioshock, and the slapstick comedy of Monkey Island I was after a change of pace for my next PS Now game. My Time at Portia seemed like a solid bet. After chatting with a colleague about it, he said it sounded like a ‘pipe and slippers game’ which is about as fair a description as any. If Crafting was your favourite bit of Skyrim, this could be the game for you!
You play as the new Builder, arriving in an idyllic post-apocalyptic village to inhabit the workshop left to you by your Pa. And by idyllic post-apocalyptic, I mean that the world as we know it clearly ended quite some time ago, and humanity has now sorted itself out, and for the most part embraced a simpler way of living. Imagine the Mad Max universe a few dozen years after the Fury Road credits have rolled, with the insane megalomaniacs dispatched, and the water crisis resolved, and Furiosa has instigated a sensible governmental structure and everything is now tickety-boo.
For the most part, it’s one of the most relaxing games I’ve played since Endless Ocean 2 for the Wii. This is a game to lower the blood pressure, and soothe the soul. Play consists of building up your workshop, acquiring building materials, and then taking on commissions to build stuff for the Portian denizens. As the meme puts it, video games allow me to live out my wildest fantasies – like being assigned a task and then completing that task. These ‘side quests’ are in fact placed front and centre, with the story very much a secondary element of the game.
Grinding features heavily, with a literal grinder! By far my favourite bit of the game was simply going to one of the mines with my pick axe and excavating out the various ores for smelting, happily stumbling across the odd additional ‘relic’ of the old world to facilitate building increasingly intricate machines. I also became low-key obsessed with the idea of tunnelling out the entire perimeter of each mine. Which I accept is a bit weird, but hey, aren’t we all just finding ways to pass the time at the moment?
There are a few odd little idiosyncrasies with the games physics, most noticeably in the mines where gravity applies to your avatar, but not the matter around you. As a result, I have a few polygons of soil and rock suspended in mid air where haphazard strikes of the pick axe have left gaps around any given point. But on reflection, it’s perhaps a wise decision on the part of the designers not to go in the direction of Cave-in Disaster Simulator.
I really like the way the game handles the passing of time. You awake in your bed at 7am, and have 20 hours of in-game time to go about your business. Going back to bed saves your progress for that day, which you can do at any time, but you are automatically sent back to bed at 3am if you are still out and about. It’s an elegant saving mechanic, and one that came in handy as unfortunately the game is pretty buggy in places, and on several frustrating occasions it just crashed on me. But at worst I just had to replay a single day, typically 15-20 minutes worth.
Alongside the building there is also a fighting element, and a few story missions required to advance the plot require a bit of combat. In my opinion this is something of a weak link. Although accumulated experience results in character development points which can be spent on fighting buffers, there is virtually no technique needed beyond equipping a weapon and button mashing your way to victory. There is a single strike action, plus jump, sprint and roll so if sophisticated tactics is your bag, you will be disappointed. Also, falling in battle appears to have zero ramifications, as you are simply transported back to your bed with your full inventory in tact. Even in the Lego games you lose a few studs whenever you died.
Portia is inhabited by a bunch quirky characters, and the third skill set that can developed after fighting and resource acquisition is socialisation. As the premise of the game is that you start out as a newcomer to this community, at the outset everyone is a stranger to you. Through chatting, sparring, fulfilling commissions and wishes, your relationship with each NPC develops, to the point where some can be romanced, and ultimately wedded. Although I have to say it’s slim pickings: from slimy Albert who fancies himself a player, to walking #FragileMasculinity Paulie, no-one exactly jumped out at me as mate-worthy. Ah, where is Thane Krios when you need him?
Perhaps it says something about me that I much preferred the company of my trust pick axe and chainsaw to hanging out with the NPCs, so my social stats were pretty low by the time I was done. But in my defence, some of the plot driven scripting in this game is just… weird. The over-arching context is that humanity has, barely, survived some kind of extinction level event, supposedly brought about by an over-reliance on technology. Which means the game plays out against a backdrop of tension between religious and scientific factions. Various bits of discovered machinery from ye olden times are essential to progress past the very early stages, but the game keeps trying to guilt trip you about using them, with the implication you might be about to cause a 2nd apocaplyse.
Given that this is supposed to be a family friendly game, it’s probably not surprising that it doesn’t go into too much detail about The Event. But there are some really troubling elements on view. It was harrowing enough realising that you have to routinely clobber the prancing llama creatures to death to harvest fur and bone. Once you get underground, the enemies that must be vanquished start to become unmistakably humanoid, such as the milky-eyed Lost Variants. At least with Last of Us Part 2 I had a shrewd idea of what I was in for.
It’s a very odd game, but it got me through a rough couple of months during winter. A solid 7/10.