You wake up in a confined “relaxation” room and are soon greeted by the computerized voice of GLaDOS, the resident AI. She says you’re the new test subject in Aperture Science’s Computer-Aided Enrichment Center, apparently a lab where you get to test a newly-developed portal-technology. And so your short and funny journey begins.
The Portal principle is simple: a portal is basically a hole in the wall (or floor, or ceiling) that is connected to another portal. Entering one makes you exit through the other, regardless of distance, position and orientation. For instance, you can end up walking through a wall and falling down from the ceiling when you do. A portal in the floor and one in the ceiling could have you falling indefinitely. The possibilities are endless.
The earliest levels of the game are very easy and simple and will often pose little challenge. They’re designed to easy you into the physics-bending concept and introduce you to all the different obstacles you can encounter, one at a time. There are pressurized buttons, weighted cubes, energy balls that need to be guided to oddly-placed recepticles, and as the game progresses, even acid pools and gun turrets.
At first when you get your portal gun, you can only shoot one portal (with the other one already in place), but every level introduces a new element or portal-possibility to the gameplay. Your own momentum when going through portals becomes increasingly important as the game progresses, for instance. This means that you often need to fall a long distance through one portal to be propelled over a distance at the other portal. As the game so easily explains: “speedy thing goes in, speedy thing comes out”.
The strength of the gameplay lies in its own learning curve. By introducing new ways to use portals, and slowly adding other game elements, the game ensures that you truly understand all the concepts before you can continue. This means that, when you upgrade your portal gun to allow you to shoot both portals at will, the difficulty can ramp up significantly without becoming *too* challenging. By the time you’ll need all the available tricks in the book to beat the levels, you’ll have mastered all of them. It’s a testament to Valve’s extensive playtesting that they more or less hit the perfect difficulty curve for the game.
Of course, there’s more to Portal than just its physics-bending gimmick. What makes this game stand out from other puzzle games is GLaDOS, the artificial intelligence that is your sole contact in the game. GLaDOS starts out as a sort of mentor, explaining the concepts, but there’s more to her than that. The occasional malfunction, the constant mixed messages, the very insincere-sounding concern for your safety, and the promise of cake at the end will not only make you laugh but also indicates there’s more to GLaDOS than meets the eye. As the game progresses, GLaDOS’ comments become more sarcastic, sometimes even hostile and can be flat-out blatant lies, but they never cease to be funny, no matter how disconcerting they may be. Discovering what the deal is with GLaDOS and the Aperture Science Lab becomes a puzzle in itself and adds some much-needed story to an otherwise bare game.
It’s hard to pin down just what genre Portal belongs to. On the one hand it’s a first-person platformer, but it’s also a puzzle game, can be described as an adventure game, etc. It breaks a lot of genre barriers, and that makes it appealing to a wide variety of players. The understated but nonetheless present need for dexterity may dissuade some adventure gamers, however. It’s not the most important skill you need in the game as it’s primarily a puzzle game (in fact, very few sequences rely on quick timing), but it’s still one you need.
And that brings me to the game’s short length. I clocked just over three hours for the main story, so this definitely qualifies as a very short game. The difference between the earlier and later levels becomes very apparent here: it took me just over an hour and a half to complete the first 17 levels, and then it took me another hour and a half to complete the final two levels and the endgame.
Despite the game’s short length, the endgame still felt like it was stretched a tad too long for me, so even with a mere three hours of gameplay, the central portal mechanism was nevertheless at risk of outstaying its welcome. For this reason, I’ve been reluctant to try the bonus levels (which are apparently revamped versions of some of the existing levels, with added difficulty), and I’m also not inclined to try out the (much longer) sequel within the first couple of months, for fear of overexposure. After all, Portal is an extremely well-executed game, but the core of the gameplay - while fun - is still just a gimmick…
But hey, at least when the game ends you’re treated to
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Time Played: 2-5 hours
Difficulty: Just Right
cake an amazingly funny and memorable song by GLaDOS…