Monday, July 6, 2015

Portal Stories: Mel

NOTE: This is expanded from my Steam Review...

I'l be honest here...I initially liked this Portal 2 mod a lot but somewhere after chapter 2 it went off the rails.. 
I usually don't spend much time with fan mods generally because they're either not well thought out or buggy.  From the first few hours I honestly thought this one was different.
Is it as engrossing a story as the original game? Almost.   But then we all know it so well that we really can't expect too many surprises from a bridge narrative.  Think of Portal Stories:Mel the same way you think of Star Wars: The clone wars.  
Yeah, a lot is familiar but there's also a lot of questions that get answered.  Admit it, when you were running around Portal 2 and found the old test facilities weren't you just a little bit curious?  This game fills in the blanks that could only be touched on in Portal 2. 
Unfortunately, once you get to the actual tests it's all downhill...
I'll spare you the spoilers save for the timeline.  You're in between Portal and Portal 2 trying to get out and there's no GlaDos.

Look, Portal games have always been like trying to build a functional Rube Goldberg device.  Always has been.  If you don't know what a Rube Goldberg device is Google it, trust me it's worth it...
Are the puzzles difficult? Yes and no which is absolutely wonderful, at least at first.  I spent almost an hour just trying to get out of the first chapter.  Know what, that's OK because it was exactly the same for me in Portal 2.  It will take you just to the brink of exasperation and suddenly you see the solution.
At least that was how it started out....
The visuals are good and worthy of a few screenshots.  The voice acting is OK.  However, I prefer the REAL voice of Cave Johnson (J. K. Simmons )
The lack of GlaDos starts to become evident when what is apparently her predecessor (Aegis) tries to actively engage in killing you.  Ultimately he's just another ominous male robotic voice like something out of a bad sci-fi movie.
The problem with this game is that it got too ambitious like most Portal Mods do.  They were right on track up to about the middle of chapter 2 then things started to get stupid.
By stupid I mean presenting puzzles with solutions that weren't even remotely evident from your surroundings.  For me, It seemed the game suddenly switched from brain teaser to masochism.  It was less about portals and more about hopping over desks so as not to get electrocuted, burned, drowned, etc.  Too much time spent on things that had little to do with Portal games.  
If I want to spend my time playing a game that's all about leaping over chasms and crawling through vents I'll go play Half Life 2.  
After awhile it got annoying.
The main difference between playing this and a REAL Portal game is the thought that went into the maps.  In the entirety of my time with Portal and Portal 2 I can count on one hand the number of times I had to go look for a walk-though video.  This game drove me first to YouTube for each level and finally cheats just to get out of an area (sv_cheats 1 & noclip work wonders)
My mind doesn't like to work on needlessly complex puzzles.  Hey, it's a game not String Theory!  It's supposed to be fun!  
Ok, so I'm no MENSA candidate, it's a just a game folks...
One that crossed the line from challenging to outright abusive.
Portal was never easy but you always had everything you needed right in front of you even if it wasn't immediately obvious.  
None of this going back and forth into rooms 3 times to open a door monotony only to have to do it all over again to open another.  Or making me jump to the perfect spot  which is a 1x1 square in a game engine with just slightly more sophistication than Quake!
That's a mark of bad level design.  If I have to keep going back to the same place just to finish a level or keep dying because of things that have nothing to do with portals something's gone wrong.  It tells me there wasn't enough imagination expended to create a completely fleshed out  level. 
I call those "Boomerang" maps and  unfortunately, this mod is full of them.  I got  the impression that the first and last half of the game were designed by different teams.  Almost as if the game itself developed multiple personality disorder mid way through its development.
I'm also thinking the devs were getting a little too caught up in being clever with the map design.  Which is typical for Portal mods and a big reason I don't play them much.  The charm of Portal games has a lot to do with a good story and ambience that weaves its way through the gameplay.  It spurs you on and is often an important ingredient to solving maps.  

Portal Stories: Mel started out that way and I did find the story amusing but by Chapter 3 I could tell that this game was just another gussied up mod.
Meaning I can only recommend the first 2 chapters of this  game and maybe half of the third one.

A lot of reviewers will excuse the level of difficulty by suggesting that players should be already be familiar with Portal mods at an advanced level.  I say that's a cop out.  If you're anything like me, playing this game will leave you suffering from a bad case of bait and switch.  It isn't marketed as a mod.  Even with the always attractive price of FREE it's pitched as something more.

I appreciate the effort to try to mimic the feel of the original but in the end it's just another game mod for those more interested in the mechanics of Portal than the more esoteric aspects of the game that made it so popular.

Portal Stories:Mel is a free (4.4GB) download for registered owners of Portal 2 on STEAM and does not require Portal 2 to be installed to play.
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