Portal review
Just Short of Perfect - A Must Have Game

The good:

-Everything that isn't length

The bad:

-Lasts about 4 hours or so, and the replay value only adds on another 3 or 4 at best


People are always raving on about ‘innovation’ in the gaming industry. Whether its motion controls, art styles or whole genres of gameplay nobody ever shuts up about it. “Oh this is innovative and therefore good” and so forth, people are always hyping things up just because they’re different. But how many ‘innovative’ titles have actually turned out decent in the last generation? Many ‘innovative’ games lately have merely been average titles at absolute best, often unimpressive in design and in their attempts to differ themselves from the bog-standard of the industry they wind up been little more than mediocre, worthy of note for nothing more than the fact ‘they tried’. When you look around only a handful of titles have really been ‘innovative’ and actually turned out great. Quite possibly the most notable of the titles among the niche realm of “Oh look at me, I’m different” is Portal.

Released as part of The Orange Box back in 2007, Portal is a First-Person Puzzle game developed by the rather critically acclaimed Valve whom is legendary for their work on the Half Life franchise, and the digital distribution client Steam. Portal runs on the Source Engine Valve created for Half Life 2, and the advanced physics the engine enables are pretty much what creates the whole backbone of the title. Portal is best described as a First-Person Puzzle game, which centers itself around a unique mechanics based on portals. Early on in the game you obtain the ‘Portal Gun’ that enables you to fire a blue and an orange portal, and anything that passes through one of these portals will come out of the other. The concept itself is simple, but the immense variation in the puzzles and the sheer mind-bogglingly difficult challenges that Valve have create to exploit the mechanic are downright incredible. Portal is a prime example of something simple can be better than something complicated.

Something about this place is downright eerie.

Storyline-wise Portal is pretty simple. You are a nameless character (Well not named throughout the game anyway) in the Aperture Science Enrichment Center; a lab conducting a series of experiments primarily based around teleport technology. You wake up and are greeted by GLaDOS; an artificial intelligence that keeps the center running and conducts the tests. You will go through a series of test-chambers, completing various challenges all of which aim towards some unknown goal. The setting and what little plot there is are very simplistic, but also very powerful in compelling you to proceed throughout the game. Who are you? Why are you here? Where is here? Why are you performing these challenges? Who or what is GLaDOS exactly? These questions constantly puzzle you as you proceed through Portal, whilst the game doesn’t actually provide you with a story you often find yourself creating one in your own mind, as you make your way through the Enrichment Center, compelled by the sense of mystery.

The game isn’t entirely without narrative either, GLaDOS provides you company in the way only a robotic voice that you aren’t even sure if real can. Aside from providing you with bits and piece of information about the center itself, GLaDOS serves as your guide through the chambers and also presents the game with a simply superb dark –sense of humour. To quote one particularly line by GLaDOS;
"The Enrichment Center promises to always provide a safe testing environment. In dangerous testing environments, the Enrichment Center promises to always provide useful advice. For instance, the floor here will kill you. Try to avoid it."
This is only one example of the simply superb writing in Portal, GLaDOS constantly provides you with fantastic humour whilst also emphasizing the atmosphere of the game. Your only company is a mechanical voice that serves as little more than a guide, and the design of the enrichment center is as mechanic and cold as could be. This sort of isolating and lonely design only further adds to the narrative GLaDOS provides, creating a unique atmosphere that constantly crosses between mysterious, claustrophobic and hilarious.

The stick-figure diagrams are your friends.

Speaking of design, the general appearance of Portal is superb. Graphically the Source Engine is still impressive even after a few years, but the art direction in Portal is brilliant. The blank design of the earlier test chambers really emphasizes the cold and harsh test environment you’re in, and the colours in the game do a fantastic job of isolating you even more. The only colours you’re going to see often are a metallic silvery-white and brown that makes up the test chambers, and the peering red eyes of the cameras scattered about the rooms. The only cheerful colours you’re presented with are the blue and orange colours of the portals which are effectively your only allies in the lonely chambers in a way, especially as said chambers slowly start to become riddled with death traps. The whole design of the game is a metaphor in many ways, and even those pretty little portals of yours become hollow when they connect to each other. Very few games can enhance their atmosphere and narrative so well through their environments but Portal never fails to. Adding to this is the design of the object as well, the internet meme-spawning ‘Companion Cube’ serves as your only friend throughout the experience is a box with pink hearts in the center of each of it’s faces, the cameras and turrets are mechanical are lifeless with glowing red eyes, and the Portal Gun itself interesting and unique, but at the same time as lifeless as everything else. There’s a hidden meaning to almost everything in Portal, you just need to look for them.

Artistic design aside, the other side of presentational value is sound and Portal does this surprisingly well and in unique manner. Musically there are practically no sounds in Portal. Just the cold, lonely silence of the test chambers, with your only sounds been the rather mechanical sounds of various testing equipment, the ‘splooshing’ sounds of the Portals and of course, GLaDOS’ voice. In many ways this reflects the atmosphere as much as the artistry of Portal does; the lack of sound once again emphasizes your isolation and the mechanical sounds of the varying equipment you encounter essentially enhances the fact your only company is mechanical. GLaDOS’ serves as your only real company, and even then the dark humour mixed in with brief hints at how to succeed at the tests often leaves you feeling more alone than you were to start with. The only ‘friendly’ sounds you have are the soft and unique sounds of the portals, which are once again merely a tool for you to proceed on. Another interesting point of the audio in Portal is how the turrets you encounter have soft voices that sound almost feminine behind the mechanical side. Their dialogue is well done as well; often the turrets talk as they look for you and occasionally mention how they’re alone, almost making you feel bad for avoiding the devices that will murder you on-sight. If that isn’t bad enough, should you succeed in taking a turret down in some manner they’ll often say “I don’t blame you”. Those 5 words are incredibly powerful and make you feel compassion for a machine built with no purpose other than killing, and it’s an incredible narrative tool.

The turret just wants a hug. A very bloody hug.

Moving on to the gameplay elements of Portal, as I explained earlier your only real tool in the game is the Portal Gun; a device that can shoot and a blue and an orange portal which are interconnected. You don’t immediately start with the gun, nor does it initially come with both portals, but you find yourself in possession of the fully-equipped device very early on in the game. Your generally objective is to proceed through the test-chambers, most of which require some specific use of portals in order to do. Whether it be transferring objects from one area to another so you can place them onto switches, or to simply avoid contact with dangerous substances you’ll often find that the simplicity of the levels does no justice to the challenge you’ll face, and there are often many different solutions to the puzzles in Portal. The puzzles themselves get more advanced as you go along, from using portals to manipulate your momentum to reach higher areas by ‘flinging’ yourself, to navigating your way through areas where certain sections prohibit the use of portals. You’ll often find the later test-chambers also combine and enhance many of the earlier puzzles in the game, creating some incredibly complex situations with several different solutions if you look hard enough. And that is where the beauty of the design in Portal is. The way you figure out ingenious uses for your Portals is what makes the levels so much fun, you’ll often find that you can do so many unique things with them that no two runs through the same test-chamber will be the same, and on your first run of the game nothing beats the challenge of trying to think of new and exciting ways of using the Portals in order to proceed. A lot of the time the solutions to the puzzles you encounter are simply yet ingenious, where as others really take a good amount of trial and error, but never does this get tedious. Portal succeeds at creating a challenging, unique and amazingly fun gameplay environment that promotes trying a variety of different ideas.

Unfortunately whilst Portal may be incredible in it’s design, it’s also extremely short. There are only 19 test-chambers in Portal and depending on how good you are at figuring out how to get through them the game can last a very short amount of time. There are bonus maps and challenges unlocked after beating the game that offer a fair deal of replay incentive, and there are 14 Steam Achievements for the people whom like to try and achieve them, but even with all of this Portal is still a really short title, and often leave you longing for much more. Even with all the replay value here you’re likely to complete everything Portal has to offer in 8 hours at most, if even that. The only other issue you’re likely to encounter in Portal is that certain test-chambers are very trial-and-error based, and one or two outright shake off the ‘thinking man’s approach’ for a more ‘try everything and hope it works’ strategy, and these particularly situations are mildly frustrating.

OCD = Obcessive Cube Disorder?

Overall Portal is a superb title, if not an outright masterpiece. The presentation and gameplay is both unique and downright groundbreaking in execution, and you’ll often find yourself astounding at the blend of amazing atmosphere, humour and the sheer amount of fun you can have with a title based around a mechanic so simple. Portal has few faults, and even then those faults are more so attributed down to individual preference and skill than anything else, with the sole exception of length Portal is simply perfect. Whilst this game certainly won’t appeal to you if you’re looking for an Action title or some bog-standard generic FPS that plague today’s market, anyone seeking a unique and practically unmatched puzzle game should look no further. Portal is a title that you really have to experience.

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