Thursday, January 23, 2020

Building for Fun and Profit

I've mentioned before that I play and enjoy the game Stardew Valley, which can be a welcome diversion from other games I play. It's definitely not a deep game by any stretch, but it is a fun and satisfying game. Well, I think I've found a competitor to the "let's play farmer" Stardew Valley.

In the last Steam Winter Sale, I acquired a few titles to play when I wasn't playing any of my "regular" games. Among them was "My Time at Portia", a game that I'd kept my eye on for quite a while. It hadn't been garnering the same overwhelming interest that Stardew Valley had, but the concept of a "builder" type of game in the same Stardew Valley genre, but in 3D* intrigued me. However, I'd been holding back from purchasing the game as it had spent a long time in early access. I do enough IT work for my job to not want to volunteer to be a beta tester, which is what early access effectively means, so I was content to wait for MTaP to officially be released before purchasing the game.

Well, it went live back in mid-late 2019, so when it went on sale in December I finally decided to pull the trigger. My Time at Portia sat around in my Steam Library for a few weeks, and I finally decided to download the game last week to see whether it meets expectations.

My answer is a "sort of yes", but I also haven't stopped playing the game this past week.**


My Time at Portia (MTAP for short) is set in what is described as a "post apocalyptic world", but it is far removed from the type of post apocalyptic world that, say, Fallout resides in. There are ruins a-plenty to explore, but most of the countryside and the area around Portia are pretty much an idyllic farming community. You learn over the course of playing the game that there was a 300 year age of darkness across the land after some cataclysmic war --likely a nuclear war with a Nuclear Winter causing the darkness-- and it was only after a plucky adventurer named Peach brought back the sunshine that the world began to recover.

Yeah, I know. 'Peach'? Really?

But regardless, that's just background so you'll find monsters and ruins and whatnot to explore out there in the world, ala D&D or any other setting of that sort.

I'm going to try to avoid some of the finer details here, since you have to discover the game yourself, but I can cover some broad strokes here about the game itself.

You are a builder, taking over your father's old shop that he'd left abandoned years ago. You never really knew your father, so you're just learning a bit about him and Portia, the community he lived in, as you go. The game itself is part construction game, part dating/getting-to-know-the-community game, and part story about Portia itself.

The basics of the game are pretty simple: You go get commissions to build things from either the Guild Hall or from townspeople who reach out to you directly. Typically you have a time limit on how long it will take to get something built, and the early game especially is spent trying to build up your equipment so that you can then actually build things for people. Oh, and acquiring the raw materials to do so from the surrounding countryside (and the ruins). There are abandoned ruins, which are great for ores, stone, and the occasional ancient relic you need to make something with; a countryside with trees, shrubs, and wild animals you can use to get raw materials from; and townspeople/farmers/ranchers who do own shops that might have what you need as well. As you progress, the requests get more and more elaborate, forcing you to upgrade and stockpile raw materials to try to stay one step ahead of the requests. Oh, and you can also upgrade your house and land as you see fit, so there's a metagame surrounding how you want to organize your pad.

Setting that aside, there's the metagame of the townspeople itself. You have a scale of diamonds (for townspeople you can develop friendships with) or hearts (for townspeople you can romance). Interactions with townspeople on a daily basis will raise their approval of you, and as you progress you learn more about them and you unlock the ability to hang out with them. For those who can be romanced, once you get high enough in the heart listings you can then confess your romantic interest in them and the "playdates" turn into "real dates".***

And above this lies the overall story that the devs wanted to present about Portia. When I think I'm at the point where things will slow down, storywise, it picks up again.


Okay, that's pretty much how the game goes, mechanically speaking.

Does it scratch my builder's itch? Yes.

Does it scratch my interest in the story? Yes.

Then do I give it a resounding seal of approval? Kind of.

Why the "kind of" response? Well....

  1. The graphics, while pretty to look at, aren't designed to appeal to me.

    Oh, don't get me wrong, the landscape is really nice, and the buildings/stuff you build are rather nice in a cartoony kind of way. I'd describe that as Wildstar meets Thomas Kincaid, I guess. However, the character design has more than a bit of Rugrats style cartoon in them, and the Rugrats style did not appeal to me. On top of that, you can tell that the character designs were angling to try to appeal to both adults and kids, so some of the marriageable characters look adult (such as Arlo or Petra or Phyllis), and others look like adults with kid-style faces (Sam is the best example here). The character designs also had a certain "street caricature artist" aesthetic to them as well, which kind of bugged me from time to time.
  2. It needs more polishing.

    Even after its official release, I find small bugs here and there, mainly in the writing.

    Let me put it out there before anybody else asks: I could tell that the development team's native language was not English almost from the start. There are certain speech patterns that native English speakers have that non-native English speakers have a hard time picking up, and once I noticed the first mistake I started finding them throughout the game. What makes it worse is that about 1/5 of the voice actors' lines are different than the lines on screen. You can tell that changes were made, but QA didn't align the voice actors' lines with the on-screen lines. Given that the voice actors' deviations typically made less sense than the written ones, I suspect that the written lines were the ones that got more polish**** than the spoken lines, and the dev team didn't have the budget to re-record the voice actors.
  3. The path finding. Oh, the path finding.

    Have you seen videos of some of the worst Skyrim path finding bugs? Or maybe the Skyrim spoof? Yeah, it's like that. At one point you're on a quest with an NPC deep in one of the ruins, and I turned around, wondering where on earth the NPC had gotten. Turns out said NPC was underneath the catwalk I was on, walking through the instant death goo below. /sigh

    I've also seen bugs where an NPC keeps trying to get on a horse and the NPC keeps flickering between on the ground and on the horse. These are pathfinding issues that have seemingly been solved in most other video games, so the dev team really needs to tweak their code in this space.
  4. The stereotypes.

    If you're looking for deep characterization, video games typically aren't people's first choice. That being said, the NPCs are a laundry list of stereotypes: The Hot Farmgirl, The Idealistic College Student, The Church vs. The Scientists*****, The Greedy Competitor, The Tomboy, The Sassy Waitress With the Brooklyn Accent, The Farmer's Daughter Living with the Elderly Grandma, the Hot Girl with the Mysterious Illness, etc. They even have seven brothers who look and sound like they came right out of an episode of The Sopranos.******

    The NPCs would also say the same couple of lines over and over again, depending on where you were with the story, so you quickly got used to the same thing over and over and over.
  5. The Pacing

    At first I thought the game was going to be fairly slow paced, but once you get into the mid-game everything seems to have a timer on it and there seems to be not enough time for me to get into tweaking my house and workspace the way I like it. The game burns through a daily clock much faster than Stardew Valley does, and I have to constantly be on my toes to organize my build schedule properly.

Okay, given that list, it's a wonder why I'm still willing to give the game the benefit of the doubt. That's because the issues aside, it's still a fairly well made indie title. I'd be tempted to say that the dev team is likely more familiar with creating mobile games rather than regular PC/XBox/Playstation titles, and there are aspects of MTAP that seem to fit in better with mobile games --particularly the character graphics-- but it's still a decently built game overall. If the dev team continues to fix the bugs --and more importantly get an editor to clean up the language translation issues-- I think that MTAP will do fairly well for itself.

The game is obviously not for everybody, but when it's on sale it's worth a gander. If you like Stardew Valley you might like MTAP.

But I really need to get back to MMOs now....

*And in third person view, no less.

**I finally got around to logging back into WoW and also playing a few other games last night. Nothing fancy, just wanted to work on Cardwyn's Tailoring.

***Really, it's called "Play", and I'm not making this up.

****Although they could REALLY use a lot more polish than this.

*****Okay, this is still a pretty valid trope.

******True Story: Back when I was at college, I went with a group to a conference in New York City. On a Saturday night, we went into Little Italy to get some food. I kid you not, there were tons of little Italian-American restaurants there complete with a guy out in front --typically dressed in a loud suit-- who would try to get us to go inside. No matter which restaurant we passed by, the guy would also have that heavy NYC accent that made the whole thing feel like we'd stepped into a bad gangster movie.


  1. Did you ever play either of the Playstation games Dark Cloud or Dark Cloud 2? In a lot of ways this has the same feel, from the character design to the building. It had this OCD trap of weapon combination/crafting, but feels very similar

    1. I haven't, but I believe you when you say "OCD trap". I managed to pull myself away from it for 24 hours and I feel like I've started to return to normal.

      And all of the times I talked to people --even though I know what they're gonna say-- just because I wanted the +2 Relationship Points....