Portal is a pretty mindbending game, to say the least. This review will echo a lot of the same sentiments that appeared in my Portal First Impressions, which you can find here. As it turned out, what I thought was the first chapter or level in the game turned out to be about the entire first half of Portal. Short length aside, Portal is a magnificent puzzler that provides challenging yet entirely beatable puzzles. Upon completion of the game, advanced versions of some of the later puzzles are unlocked, so you can spend a couple extra hours trying to wrap your mind around even tougher challenges. When all is said and done, Portal is definitely a puzzler worthy of praise, but a weak storyline is really what drags it down.
So, I’ll address the elephant in the room first and foremost (or at least, this was a major point of confusion for me). I played the game thinking I would be in for a 6-10 hour campaign. Instead, I was quite surprised when I made it through in about 4 hours. My initial reaction was to say “man; what a ripoff! I would be upset if I would have bought this at release for full price.” I had assumed that Portal was initially released as a standalone title on PC before making its way to consoles on The Orange Box bundle, but I was mistaken. Instead, Portal first released on The Orange Box, then after a couple years, it became a standalone title for download; never on disc as a standalone.
Really, Portal was more of a demo, from what I read online. It was purposely made short and released in a bundle so that Valve could see if this concept was something that players would be interested in. This way, they wouldn’t make a full-fledged game if it wasn’t something people would enjoy. Portal 2, on the other hand, is a standalone, full-length game. For me, the original Portal feels more like it’ll be a setup for Portal 2; almost as if Portal is merely prequel DLC for Portal 2. This is all in speculation, since I’ve not yet played Portal 2. It’s just that, given the short length and the way the story ended, it’s more like prepping the plot for where it really gets rolling in Portal 2. So, having learned that Portal is supposed to be short, I cannot fault it for being short. Usually I would chalk that up to laziness, but knowing Valve’s position at the time, all is forgiven. Moving on.
As for the story, it was pretty weak. The “story” is mainly picked up by faint hints and clues dropped by the robotic voice named GLaDOS that guides you through the testing area. I’m not really worrying about spoilers because the story is so thin that there really isn’t much to give away. You learn that you are a test subject for Aperture Science, and the guiding robot is a liar. She (I say she because it takes on a female voice) often says one thing, then another actually happens; then she says it’s all part of the test. For example, one time she said that a test was impossible due to an error when they were designing it, so I should just give up. The test proved beatable, and GLaDOS claimed that lying to us was part of the test and she vowed not to lie anymore. Later on, she said that everything would be fine, etc. etc. but in reality, she was trying to kill us. Then, when we came out alive, she doubled back and said that the lies were part of the test again, and that her promise not to lie was also a lie.
The point of me telling you all this is that I don’t really know what to believe and what not to believe about my character, Chell, since all of my information comes from GLaDOS. I assume it’s true that I was abducted to be used for science, and it’s blatantly obvious that they were going to kill me once I finished the course. I don’t know why I’m there, though. I don’t know what the testing will prove, and there really isn’t much that I do know. Eventually, I escape the facility at the end, but the screen fades to black as soon as I see daylight and the outdoors. As a demo of sorts, or a prequel, if you will, it’s a decent cliffhanger for Portal 2; I’m left wondering who I am, what my purpose is, where I am, who GLaDOS is, and so on. I just hated being utterly clueless about absolutely everything story related for around 4 hours before the game ended.
There are no cutscenes in Portal at all; the little storytelling that there is in the game is all told through GLaDOS’ dialogue, which is the only voice you’ll hear in the game aside from the auto-turrets’ voices. I must say that for the little writing and voice acting there was, it was very good! The writing was quick, sharp, witty, and clever, and it made for an odd and unique tone when spoken through a robot. It was weird hearing a robotic voice with little inflection having all the sass and spunk of an easily irritated woman. GLaDOS’ lines provided for some of the more comical moments in the game.
The concept of the game itself, as I mentioned earlier, is pretty mindblowing and mindbending. I had heard plenty about the concept of portals before, but none of the descriptions accurately conveyed the trippiness that the portals create. I never got used to looking through one portal and seeing myself in a detached, third person view. You likely won’t understand how strange this really is until/unless you play Portal for yourself. Going into the levels and simply playing around with the Portals is enjoyable enough, simply because it’s so enthralling.
In case you’re unfamiliar with portals, they work like this: you’re given a gun that can shoot portals at flat surfaces. Click the right trigger to place your first portal, then point at another surface and click the left trigger for your other portal. Then, you walk through one of the portals, and you’ll step out through the other one; it’s amazing! Even better, the portals follow the laws of gravity; if you jump off a ledge and fall through a portal on the ground, your falling momentum will propel you in whatever direction the exit portal is facing. This allows you to reach higher platforms that you wouldn’t otherwise be able to walk or jump to. On top of all this, other objects can be sent through portals, included weighted cubes that are often used to depress buttons which open doors or complete other tasks.
The point of the game is to get to the elevator at the end of the level, which can only be reached by completing the puzzle. The elevator then transports you to the next puzzle. The game loads while you’re in the elevator, and it does so very quickly. It should be noted that I installed the game on my hard drive before I started playing, so that may have played a hand in decreased load times. Occasionally, I would go through multiple puzzles without the game having to load anything new.
The controls are very simple. There is a crouch button, a jump button, the two portal buttons, the directional sticks, and an action button for picking up objects, pressing buttons, and opening doors. That’s all there is to it. The HUD is minimal; the only indicator on your screen is a little aiming reticle that goes solid when you’re pointing at a surface that can support a portal, and it becomes an outline when you’re not. This allows you to focus on the puzzle at hand without having distractions onscreen. Oh, and when you’re being shot at, the screen grows redder and redder until you die. Other than that, there are no other HUD elements to note.
Gameplay is smooth, fun, enjoyable, and easy to learn while being hard to master. I would oftentimes look at a puzzle and know that X must happen for Y to happen, yet I wouldn’t know how to get X to happen. Or I’d see the buttons I would need to push, but I wouldn’t know how to push them in time for the rest of my timing to be spot on. A few of the puzzles were about setting up the portals to enable yourself to time certain aspects just right so that it would all work smoothly. There were no puzzles that required twitch reflexes or extremely perfect timing. There was always a solution that was “easy” enough to execute, as long as you were smart enough or creative enough to think up the solution.
Because the puzzles were difficult, yet all the pieces to the puzzle were right in front of me, it really motivated me to do well. All the necessary elements were there; it was simply a matter of putting two and two together to make a chain reaction, or to activate something, etc. Certain portions of Portal required me to backtrack to the beginning of the level so that I could use an element that initially seemed to have no purpose, yet came into play later on. The level design was genius.
Portal is pretty replayable; upon beating all the puzzles, new modes are unlocked, which allow you to try to beat each puzzle while taking a certain restriction into consideration. You might want to try taking the fewest steps to the end of the level, or maybe you want to try using the fewest portals. Advanced mode changes certain elements of the later levels while keeping each one mainly intact; this makes each level harder while keeping the main point the same. For a perfectionist, this would likely double or triple the amount of time you would spend with the game. I, on the other hand, am not a perfectionist. I tried a few of the Advanced levels, but I stopped after beating half of them.
Graphically, Portal is good-looking, but repetitive (yet understandably so). In the testing facility, everything obviously looks the same. It was a bit unnerving staring at the same colored walls and floors for 4 hours. This isn’t a fault because, obviously, the testing facility would keep all factors the same while only changing one variable, scientifically speaking. Therefore, the environment should not change in an experiment, so this is justified. The graphics are otherwise crisp and clean.
There isn’t much to notice in the audio department except the highly enjoyable “Still Alive” song that plays during the credits. This actually provides a final piece to the storyline, and fills in a gap or two while entertaining the listener and creating a reason to stick around for the credits to roll. You might want to give it a listen (if you don’t mind spoilers), as it partly captures the tone of GLaDOS’ personality and of the game as a whole while continuing to reference cake.
Oh, cake. There are references to cake all throughout Portal, and it’s kind of like game-long running joke that I manage to not fully understand. Through dialogue, text on papers, walls, and computer, cake is constantly being mentioned somehow, and it adds to the unique bizarreness of GLaDOS and Portal.
In all, Portal is fun, quirky, mindbending, and overall enjoyable. Unfortunately, the paper thin storyline and length of the game are its downfalls. The length of Portal isn’t an issue in itself; I already explained that. The problem is that due to how short Portal is, it doesn’t allow you to mess around with the concepts presented for very long. It’s almost as though once I was getting used to how things worked in this world, I was cut off and send to the final boss battle, which I must say was one of the most enjoyable and intense boss battles I’ve ever fought.
I truly enjoyed Portal, and I’m looking forward to picking up the sequel sooner or later. Thanks for reading this review, and I hope you found this helpful. If you did, consider leaving a like or a follow, and comment with your thoughts on Portal. Did you enjoy it? While you’re here, maybe check out the LP channels in my “Links” tab.