Portal: Companion Collection (Review)

Ten years ago, in a post-seizure stupor that left me unable to get my game on for nearly a full week, I named my gun-to-head Top-10 video games of all-time. I’ve never really been a fan of that. I know that’s a weird thing to say for a game reviewer who, in lieu of review scores, just lists all the indies she’s reviewed in the exact order she recommends them. But, the thing with that is, I’ve been documenting how I came to my indie recommendation order. It’s called Indie Gamer Chick. You’re reading it, right now. Hello! Yea, I can’t believe I’ve lasted eleven years either.

I’d use this caption to complain about the endless “cake is a lie” jokes, but I have a plushie companion cube somewhere. I’m part of the problem. Actually, I think Brian bought that for me. Woo hoo, I’m absolved of all guilt!

Anyway, I named Portal one of my ten favorite games of all time, and Portal 2 got to come along for the ride. I hadn’t done a complete run through Portal since 2007, and Portal 2 was, along with L.A. Noire, the last major AAA game I played before starting this very site in July, 2011. I actually liked L.A. Noire a lot more back in 2011. It was the first game I, in my newly-found authority as a pseudo-famous game critic, named my Game of the Year. That probably didn’t age well. I can’t imagine getting any value out of L.A. Noire today, in 2022. Then again, I was certain Portal and Portal 2 would lose their luster playing them again. They’re humor-based puzzle games. Once you’ve heard the jokes and know the solutions to each room, what more can you get out of them?

I was wrong, as I often am when it comes to games and the test of time.

WarioWare, Inc. - Mega Microgame$! (USA)-220724-103345

In 2012, I gave WarioWare Inc.: Mega Microgame$ the edge as my personal favorite game ever. I’ll be updating the list before 2022 is up, and there’s a strong chance that the only two games from the original list will be WarioWare and Portal. I’ll get around to the list around November, give or take.

Well, both were just re-released on Nintendo Switch for an absurd $19.99 price tag. Jeez, two of the best games ever for $20? Are you shitting me? It sort of makes Nintendo look like douchebags for putting their old games out for $50, doesn’t it? So, let’s take a look at them individually.

PORTAL (2007)

You know how so many gamers bitch about games “holding their hands?” Portal is THE hand-holding puzzle game. I have never played a game before or since that literally explains how to beat every single puzzle in the game to you like it does. BUT, Portal does it in a way where you don’t realize you’re being told exactly what to do. Listening to the audio commentary included with the game, I was stunned by just how much play-testing went into it. I’m used to playing games from developers who think play-testing means you give someone a copy of your game and then sit and Mommy them through it. You know, tell them exactly what to do if they encounter a problem instead of watching them in silence and re-calibrating based on that. That’s not what Valve did.

I wish more games had audio commentaries. I know they’re mostly used by game developers, but there’s a lot of those these days, in case you didn’t notice. But seriously indie developers, especially those of you lucky enough to make it to the big time, you learned lessons along the way. There will be a generation after you, and you owe it to them to pass along what you learned. It’ll keep our pastime’s light shining bright.

They watched the players and instead of saying “you’re supposed to do this..” their developers did that in the game without actually saying it, and basically created an extended tutorial so amazing that many call it the greatest video game ever made. They used basic psychology and the association to train players with visual cues. Were you supposed to build up momentum on a specific spot? They designed the first level where you need momentum so that the spot you start building momentum from is laid out a certain way, then repeated that layout in most future areas where you use momentum. Were players not looking up in an area they’re supposed to look-up? They used retractable walls to call attention to it. Through lightning, stage direction, and visual cues, they basically guide you towards each room’s solution. Oddly, none of the “waaaaa, games hold your hand too much these days” crowd singles out Portal, even though it’s a game that holds your hand so tightly it turns purple.

The funny thing is, after giving players clues and hidden chambers that give the automated test vibe of the game a subtle eeriness, the final act of the game veers into spooky and unnerving far better than 90% of the survival horror titles I’ve attempted in my lifetime. I think that’s probably why Portal 2 leans much heavier into creepiness. You don’t think of Portal and Portal 2 as horror games, but the hairs were standing up on the back of my neck the entire time, like I was waiting for a jump scare that never happened.

Yet, Portal never feels condescending about it. In fact, you usually feel pretty damn brilliant when you solve a puzzle. Why is that? That’s what’s been on my mind this week: what makes Portal work, that surpasses all generations, and all tastes in gaming? It’s a puzzle worthy of Portal itself, and I was stumped on it. It’s certainly not the genre. Trust me; puzzlers are not a super popular avenue for gaming. Of the twenty least-viewed game reviews I’ve done, over half are for puzzlers, and all but two are IGC-Approved. Then there’s Portal, a game with universal appeal. Even people who don’t like first person shooters will play it, because it’s not a shooter. People who don’t like puzzlers like it. And I have to believe it’s more than just the pitch-perfect humor. Comedy can be awesome seasoning for a video game, but nobody plays games just for their sense of humor.

In my second play-through of Portal, one annoyance and one genuine gameplay problem stuck out to me. The annoyance: I had a tendency to make myself duck when I didn’t want to. I must not have been alone, because ducking was removed entirely from Portal 2. The actual problem: the final boss sucks. I hate it. I hate that it has a time limit. I hate that it goes against the tone of the game. I wish they had just done a tough puzzle to end. They could have easily kept the “retrieve the cores and drop them in the furnace” mechanic. That’s fine, but having GLaDOS shoot missiles at you was like something out Super Mario Bros. and a poor fit, in my opinion. Portal 2 does basically the same concept, and that fight sucks too.

I came to the following conclusion: Portal is game that makes you feel good about yourself. It’s you, a sterile room, and some traps, and you have to use your wits for them. It helps that the puzzles aren’t impossibly hard. In 2012, I reviewed a 2D take on Portal called Gateways! that, 3,599 days later is still ranked #32 out of all 634 indies I’ve actually wrote a review for. It’s a smarter Portal, with the most mind-bending puzzles I’ve ever experienced in my life. It’s by far the game I’m most proud of finishing. Yet, it never found its audience. It’s too smart. Portal is Goldilocks smart.. just right. When you finish a level, the “ta dah” moments can be exhilarating, even on the easiest stages (of course, the mechanics also dictate you might not even realize when you’ve finished a stage. I had that happen a few times). Having played hundreds of puzzlers, I can’t think of a single one that does that. Only Portal. A short, linear, glorified tech demo shouldn’t be ageless. Portal is. Portal 2 isn’t. At least as much.

Like the best puzzlers, Portal does what I like to call “the Big Overwhelm” where, at first you’re dumbfounded by the conundrum presented to you. One so vast you wonder if the logic of it will ever reveal itself to you. Hell, some of my favorite puzzlers don’t feature the Big Overwhelm. Most Lolo puzzles don’t. Sleepaway Camp/Friday the 13th Killer Puzzle don’t. Hell, even Escape Goat and its sequel rarely have it. The nature of Portal; minimalist, where everything is spread out, just lends itself to The Big Overwhelm, because it never makes sense.. until it does.

PORTAL 2 (2011)

Portal 2 is a weird cat, and while it seems to survive the test of time, it doesn’t in a vacuum. It needs to be tethered to Portal 1, which is why Portal Companion Collection is the perfect 2022 package for it. But, back in 2011? Not so much. Ideally, Portal 2 would have been packaged with another Valve release, similar to the Orange Box. Turning Portal into a full-fledged game, and one with a story that requires you to know the events of the first game to appreciate it on any level, was bold and not entirely successful. Despite being a relatively short game, Portal 2 feels very padded. But, that’s not what’s bizarre. What absolutely baffled me was how the game could have better, more ingenious puzzles than Portal, and feel less satisfying. That shouldn’t be possible, and yet here we are. I enjoyed my time replaying Portal 2, but unlike Portal 1, I was ready for it to be over when it ended. How’d we get to that point?

Let’s get the co-op discussion out of the way first: I didn’t like it. But, I’m not a co-op person. Ask someone who is. Apparently I’m “hard to get along with” for games that require actual cooperation. Pssh, the nerve of those fucking morons in my house to say I’m difficult and mouthy, right?

Part of it is the setting. Portal 2 is potentially one of the great post-apocalyptic games. Right from the very intro, you’re unnerved. The opening hotel room bit feels exactly like a dark ride at Disneyland, and that’s a sensation that repeated over and over and over again throughout the game. There’s even bits where you’d swear you’re watching a proof of concept video for what the line would look like for a new attraction, with video monitors and running banter from hilarious characters. Hell, there’s even a section that’s fashioned like a roller coaster, and I’m not the first person to notice it looks a lot like Space Mountain. Hey, theme parks are fun, and so is Portal 2.

Portal 2, or Myst? Only my doctor knows.

Yet, the setting is betrayed by GLaDOS devolving from villain to clownish insult comic. When she first comes back to life, it’s a frightening moment. She wasn’t exactly scary in Portal 1, but she had an undeniable menace about her. That’s amplified at the start of Portal 2, and the table is set for her to be an even better villain than she was in the original game. She’s vindictive, cruel, and petty. But, then they went overboard. She starts cracking fat jokes. One would have worked perfectly fine. She’s trying to break you down psychologically, and her cracks about you being an unloved orphan and a terrible person all work towards that. She’s a straight-up bitch, and in my authority as a straight-up bitch, a damn good one.

No. Sorry, but no. If hundreds or even thousands of years passed, there’s no potato left. I get that they wanted the sight gag and setting up the GLaDOS potato battery bit. BUT, these potatoes wouldn’t just have a tiny bit of mold on them. They’d be gone. No skin. Not even dust. Gone completely. IMMERSION BROKEN!

But, after the first fat joke, she keeps cracking them in subsequent rooms. One worked, two was pushing it, but when they keep coming room after room, suddenly GLaDOS is reduced to a buffoon. The mysterious setting with dilapidated test chambers all work, but GLaDOS calling you fat for the fifth time instead of talking about how much she’s going to enjoy your slow death by torture completely undermines it all. They try so hard to pay it off in the final act of the game when Wheatley calls Chell fat and Potato GLaDOS says “she’s clearly not even a little fat” or something to that effect, but it’s too late. Hours have passed, and her scariness has long since faded. They over-played the pettiness to a mood-wrecking degree.

It’s time for MATCH GAME!! What do you think when you see this picture? If you match the first word I thought of when I saw this, let me know. Highlight here-Nickelodeon-let me know in a comment or on Twitter.

Not all the puzzles are exactly brilliant this time around, either. Some are simply a matter of figuring out where to put the portals. When it feels like a maze, that type design works. When it doesn’t, it feels like a glorified hidden object game, only instead of looking for Waldo (that’s Wally for those of you with evil accents), you’re looking for a white panel that you can place a portal on. Also, the final act betrays the concept of Wheatley being the dumbest sentient being in existence. They get it right the first time, with the first puzzle he designs being absurdly easy, and again when his turrets don’t work. But, then he starts “using GLaDOS’s designs” as a means of keeping the actual challenging puzzles going. BUT, logically speaking, he should also fuck those up too, right? Shouldn’t they have done something else? The plot completely goes off the rails, and as a result, all the overly-long interruptions in the test chambers aren’t really worth it.

As illogical and frankly.. sorry.. shitty as Portal 2’s actual narrative is, the gaming gods shined on us and delivered us Cave Johnson. My spirit animal. I would bare his children if he wasn’t fictional and dead from grounding-up and snorting moon rocks. J.K. Simmons is our greatest national treasure. If I had to choose between sparing him or burning down Yellowstone.. hey, most people think Yellowstone is where Yogi Bear lives anyway.

Hey, don’t look at me like that! They’re the ones who told a compelling story that made me care, then totally cratered it by asking me to suspend the logic center in my brain. In a game that leans heavily on brain usage. It needs to be said: Portal 2’s story sucks and is a complete waste of time besides telling jokes that land about 40% less than the jokes in Portal 1 did. Boo! Boo, says I! Boooooooo! AND WHILE WE’RE ON THE SUBJECT, even the most dense fucking moron on the planet.. Cave Johnson, for example.. would realize the best usage of a Portal Gun would be to create a perpetual motion machine. Of course, that would create a feedback loop and destroy the entire universe, WHICH IS EXACTLY THE TYPE OF THING CAVE JOHNSON WOULD DO!! AND FURTHER MORE..

Ahem.

Where was I?

I remembered almost every single joke, bit, and story aspect from the original Portal, even though I played it longer ago. Portal 2? I didn’t remember ANYTHING about the opening of the game. The hotel room? Nothing. Wheatley’s gags? Nothing. Granted, it’s possible the bug zapper in my brain went off and deleted it, but I remembered a lot of the gags once GLaDOS arrives. My theory: my brain had an allergic reaction to Wheatley, one of the most annoying and unfunny characters in any game I’ve ever played, and erased my memory of him as a coping mechanism.

No, it doesn’t matter in the long run. Gameplay is king, and the worst aspects of Portal’s game design are better than 99.99999% of all games I’ve ever played in my life. It doesn’t hold up as well as the first game, but it had to carry a heavier load, too. The jokes still mostly land, and the game is often drop-dead hilarious. At its best, the level design actually outshines the original. Like, seriously, some of the levels are just so massive that it leaves you in awe. That “ta-dah!” sense of accomplishment still hits on a level no other puzzle game I’ve played in my entire life does. Puzzle games should hold-up to the test of time more than most games, and I figured that one out. They make you feel good about yourself. But, they shouldn’t hold up to replay. They should be one and done. Portal and Portal 2 are somehow replayable, and I still don’t have an answer how that’s possible.

Looks like the orange team is winning this game of Splatoon, and someone in the apartment above is really enjoying their porn.

This is one puzzle old Indie Gamer Chick couldn’t solve, even after five days of shaking my head and saying “no, this shouldn’t be possible.” Time is probably a factor. It’s been a decade, and like, I couldn’t tell you what the 14th level of almost any game looks like off the top of my head after a decade, but I don’t think that completely explains it. If I had to guess, I’d say that Portal and Portal 2 hold up to replay because it hasn’t been topped. It’s the king of its genre. The greatest logic puzzler ever. Its inferior sequel was the last of its breed. Sure, there’s a whole modding community on PC still, to this day, coming up with all kinds of absolutely batshit levels. I’ve had about a dozen people this week ask me about them, ignoring the fact that those do absolutely NOTHING for console players. Or, maybe because I’m in a puzzle solving mood, I’m overthinking it. Maybe they hold up because Portal is just plain fun? I think that’s it. When Portal 3 inevitably comes out, it’ll be fun too. Probably. Just as soon as Valve gets that preschool diploma and finally learns to count to three.

IS PORTAL: COMPANION COLLECTION GOOD?

Duh.

Portal Companion Collection is Chick-Approved but isn’t an indie and thus isn’t eligible for the Indie Gamer Chick Leaderboard

Portal: Companion Collection was developed by Valve
Point of Sale: Nintendo Switch

$19.99 burned her stuffed companion cube in a furnace in the making of this review.

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