Find a way out of an abandoned laboratory that’s under the auspice of a dutiful AI.
PC Release: June 25, 2015
By Ian Coppock
Every so often, an opportunity comes by to review an older game that can still compete with the best of the new stuff… a game that didn’t get reviewed on this page back when it first came out, but now gets a (belated) moment in the sun… a game that, in tonight’s case, takes some of the best that a beloved series has to offer and recreates it with impressive attention to detail, and some love of its own. Portal Stories: Mel is that game, and tonight’s a good opportunity to see how it fares both as its own game and in comparison to its predecessors.
Portal Stories: Mel is a first-person puzzle game set between the events of Portal and Portal 2. For any Portal fans who are freaking out over apparently having missed a new title from Valve, that’s not quite the case – Portal Stories is actually a fan-made game and the debut title of Prism Studios. Much like the series’ vaunted Aperture Science, Prism Studios seems to be run by a cabal of madhouse scientists who enjoy tricky puzzle chambers and jabs at black humor. This concoction of theirs is an attempt to conjure the same “sciencey” magic that captivated gaming audiences everywhere with Portal and Portal 2.
Though the bulk of Portal Stories: Mel is set between the two main Portal titles, the game actually starts in the 1950’s with the arrival of Mel, a famous Olympian, to the then-brand-new offices of Aperture Science. After walking around the company’s opulent offices and getting an eyebrow-raising welcome from Aperture CEO Cave Johnson, Mel learns that she’s been hired on as a test subject for the company’s suspended animation initiative. Well, she climbs into the chamber, goes to sleep, and wakes up sometime between Portal and Portal 2… decades later than planned.
As Mel stumbles through the ruins of Aperture, she eventually gets a call from Virgil, an office employee who insists that the decay is all an elaborate test. Well, Mel isn’t fooled for long, and also discovers that Virgil is a personality core who’s also trapped in the bowels of Aperture. She also finds an old timey portal gun, complete with 1950’s warning labels, and promptly begins puzzle-shooting her way back to the surface of the facility. Virgil offers to help however he can- unlike Portal 2‘s Wheatley, he’s a calm and friendly personality core who does a better job of planning ahead. He’s Bing Crosby to Wheatley’s Bob Hope.
As the two make their way ever higher, they encounter another problem; after Chell knocked out the insidious GlaDOS in Portal, GlaDOS’s backup AI, AEGIS, came online to manage the facility in her absence. AEGIS is intent on exterminating all life in the facility so he can rebuild it from the ground up, leaving Mel and Virgil with an unfeeling, unsympathetic adversary. Armed only with her portal gun, Mel will have to stretch her wits to their limits to escape before AEGIS can resurrect Aperture Science.
Despite being identical in plot to the first half of Portal 2, the story of Portal Stories: Mel opens Aperture up for more sci-fi intrigue. Though the game is not considered canon by Valve, Portal Stories presents a believable scenario set between the two titles that, in many ways, acts as a bridge between them. Like her counterpart Chell, Mel is a silent protagonist who offers no spoken thoughts on the chaos inside Aperture, but her perseverance in spite of being a stranger in a new time period suggests a Chell-like tenacity.
Unfortunately for Portal Stories: Mel, the supporting cast of characters isn’t all that interesting. Virgil is a friendly little core, but he serves more as a game guide than a Wheately-esque fountain of gaffes. Sure, he pokes fun at the occasional Aperture absurdity, but most of his dialogue is restricted to giving Mel instructions. It was probably better that Prism Studios not try to fill Wheatley’s guide rail with their new character, but the two personality cores cannot help but be compared. Virgil, while competently written, just ain’t all that interesting. To his credit, though, saying these things about him does elicit feelings of regret.
Even though there’s not much to say about Virgil, he’s still leagues and fathoms more interesting than AEGIS. GlaDOS’s substitute laboratory overseer is barely even a character, and is much more an automated computer than a sophisticated, finicky AI. AEGIS’s flatly delivered announcements about laboratory protocol, while done out in an intimidatingly deep voice, can’t hold a handle to GlaDOS’s bleak humor. Here, it feels less like Prism Studios is trying to avoid reinventing the wheel and more like they’re trying to avoid putting a wheel on altogether. AEGIS is about as interesting as a printer, and his dialogue little livelier than a tray 2 lifting error.
No, the most Portal-like bits of humor Portal Stories: Mel has to offer are in the very beginning, when Prism at least manages to capture the likeness of Cave Johnson’s dialogue from Portal 2. Whoever the studio hired to voice the character has an uncanny vocal resemblance to J.K. Simmons, which helps with the game’s immersion. The Cave Johnson impersonation and the occasional funny rule reminder are where Portal Stories: Mel feels most like a Valve-made Portal game, but otherwise its narrative is pretty unremarkable.
Although a Portal narrative is supposed to be the fun, funny glue that binds the game together, Portal Stories‘ absence of a memorable one is this game’s only major flaw. For a start, the game’s level design is excellent, and presents a real challenge even to gamers who have played the two main Portal games. Indeed, Portal Stories: Mel seems to assume that players have already done so, given how difficult even its very first puzzles are.
As with the main Portal games, Portal Stories: Mel comprises puzzle rooms that are solved using the portal gun. Players can fire two portals onto two different surfaces, enter one portal, and come out the other. Some surfaces are resistant to portals, which is one of the Valve games’ most challenging factors. Players may also need to make use of environmental objects, like weighted companion cubes, to move forward. Unlike the main Portal games, which introduced new mechanics and obstacles gradually, Portal Stories: Mel pretty much hands players everything from the get-go.
To its (great) credit, Portal Stories: Mel actually advances many of the level design innovations that Valve made with Portal 2. It’s not often another studio can take what Valve did and make it better, and that Prism Studios managed to accomplish that feat makes Portal Stories: Mel warrant immediate attention. This game introduces almost no new mechanics or obstacles, but rather scrambles the series’s pre-existing obstacles in new ways. Players might need to oil up a hard light bridge with friction gel, something that Portal 2 never did, or find new ways to get behind the game’s infamous turrets.
All of this, of course, means that Portal Stories: Mel is much more difficult than Portal 2. Even its mid-range puzzles are harder than the toughest conundrums Portal 2 had to offer. This makes Portal Stories unwelcoming to players new to Portal, but it’s a bit unreasonable to expect gamers to play this before playing the main games anyway, so power to Prism for turning things up for the established fans. Any inveterate Portal fan spoiling for a new challenge will love (and hate) Portal Stories: Mel.
Similarly to the level design, Portal Stories‘ art direction manages to preserve what Portal 2 pioneered and add some intriguing innovation. Players can expect to encounter the same derelict puzzle chambers encountered in Portal 2, but Portal Stories adds a few new areas with original textures and objects. These include the 1950’s Aperture labs back when the company was, y’know, alive, and new office and administrative areas under the control of AEGIS. The game also introduces a 1950’s variant of the Aperture turret, as well as dozens of new doodads and decals to spruce up what would otherwise look like a very familiar world.
Because Portal Stories: Mel is built in the Source engine and therefore to run on PC, players can expect few performance issues in-game. No crashes, no glitches, and relatively few physics bugs. The game’s comprehensive suite of options lets players tweak and fiddle with the game how they will until they achieve their desired performance setup. For anything that can be said about Prism Studios’ writing, these developers are ardent students of everything else Valve does well.
Even though Portal Stories: Mel doesn’t quite create a memorable story, any Portal fan can tell that the game is a labor of love. There are signs here and there that this isn’t a Valve game, like the puzzle chambers’ considerably longer lengths, but Prism Studios still did an impressive job adhering to the atmosphere and level design innovations of the Portal games. The puzzle chambers are still laden with the thick, mysterious atmosphere of Aperture Science, as well as that inescapable feeling of isolation that comes with being within its walls. It provides a hearty morsel of fun for inveterate fans by turning up the difficulty, without sacrificing that tantalizing sense of exploration.
In closing, Portal Stories: Mel is still a must-have for Portal fans despite being light on the dark, absurd writing that made the other two games iconic. It faithfully builds upon the level design and head-scratching puzzles that made titans of the two main games, and scrambles what those games did without losing the atmosphere of Aperture Science. It creates a plausible bridge between Portal and Portal 2, but manages to use its impressive level design to still be its own game. Oh, and uh… has it been mentioned that the entire game is free? That’s right. Prism created an impressive Portal tribute and both it and its soundtrack don’t cost a dime. So go get it, and take an in-depth journey through the next level of Portal‘s groundbreaking puzzle design.
You can buy Portal Stories: Mel here.
Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.