The life simulator as defined when looking at titles that can trace their lineage to classic 16-bit era releases like Harvest Moon is all about blending the small farm-town ideal or dream with that of the fantasy world where anything is possible. Wrapped up in repetition and tending to whatever you might build or grow in addition to the hunting and the gathering of resources. Building relationships with townsfolk, maybe getting married and being forced to buy some furniture to spruce up your bachelor or bachelorette pad.
My Time at Portia from indie developer Pathea Games and publisher Team 17 is an impressive achievement mainly due to its sheer size and scope. With a large fully-realised 3D town to explore, ruins to both mine and adventure within, and a large estate to grow and expand over the course of months and years. In-game, that is. There’s a staggering number of things to do, but with such a large canvas unfortunately it’s all weighed down by a convoluted and time-consuming crafting system and rather rudimentary combat. The former is by no means terrible, it just results in the campaign possibly taking well over a hundred hours to complete – with much of it erring on the side of ‘the grind’.
But then again, due to the calming nature of the life sim - for some, that won’t be an issue.
Right, so My Time at Portia is not really a life sim that focuses on farming or the growing of crops, even though farming is available. The focus then is primarily on exploration and crafting, which gives it a feel that’s both fresh and original. The art style is reminiscent of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild in its portrayal of environments, with added Studio Ghibli charm for creatures and animals. Vibrant and inviting, you also get to slay all the fluffy rainbow-coloured Llama that surround your estate. To harvest their fur and meat of course, and all whilst the light and playful soundtrack does its thing.
There’s a story here but to the game’s detriment (and benefit) it’s mostly rather mundane as you come to terms with the setting and flow. It begins with your arrival at Portia, where you’ve come to follow in your Pa’s footsteps and take over the family business. Which is all about construction. This then gently eases into a rather relaxing flow of completing commissions for Portia’s citizens, completing major works for the town and surrounding areas, and slowly improving your homestead whilst growing in combat skill.
With exploration a key component this also means a sub-plot involving the history of Portia, a small town built on the ruins of an advanced Earth-like civilisation. A post-apocalyptic setting by the way of a quaint and colourful location. A fun setting that leads to missions, or commissions, where you’re constructing Old World Boomboxes to solve bat infestations, and constructing blenders to, err, blend ingredients for some healing juice. And then stumbling onto ancient couches and desk fans and cassette tapes when mining for copper and other ore.
There are dungeons and bosses to battle too but the simplistic nature of the combat, and erratic enemy AI means that the key to success comes down to the right sword and steady supply of various meats and herbal drinks and other beneficial items. And it doesn’t grow any more involved than hacking away at an enemy and dodging every now and then. As one aspect of a larger picture though it adds variety, and being able to spend one day mining, the next completing commissions, and the following in-game weekend slaying creatures for rare materials – My Time at Portia has a definite sense of the grand.
But also, the bland. The counterpoint here being that with a town full of people with their own stories and lives to observe and become a part of, most of the NPC interaction is stilted and, well, boring. As are most of the big story beats. Of course, the term boring is entirely subjective, so feel free to replace that with bland.
With so many people to keep track of or even introduce yourself too, like with the crafting it quickly begins to feel like one or two steps too far – as relationships take insanely long times to develop beyond friendly interaction. For a such a vibrant and colourful world, the padding or grind saps some of the overall enjoyment. Crafting the next thing almost always requires way more Bronze Plates or Hardwood or Springs than you expect too, with clear resource limits resulting in long stretches or mining and then smelting and cooking and watching counters, err, countdown as you’re trying to remember to add more wood and fuel to various crafting stations.
In the end, the result is an experience that doesn’t quite get the balance right often. Feeling too repetitive and convoluted for what should ultimately be relaxing, calming, and engaging. Having to store and keep track of hundreds of different ‘ingredients’ adds to the confusion. The grand ambition and scope quickly fade as the mundane tasks, repetition, and long lists of things-to-do and commissions to work through pile up. Perhaps with a more memorable cast of NPCs, a stronger narrative drive, and rewarding combat, these hurdles could be overlooked. My Time in Portia has its moments though and getting through the early milestones hint at the larger picture and more player freedom. As it stands it’s is a ‘life sim’ that could do with a little more of the former.