Premature Evaluation is the weekly column in which we explore the (well-tended agricultural) wilds of early access. This week, Fraser’s taking a break in My Time at Portia, a crafting sim with shades of Harvest Moon and Stardew Valley.
Tirelessly exploring early access games takes its toll, so this week I’m off somewhere relaxing: a post-apocalyptic town. Portia is more Ghibli than Fallout, thankfully. It’s a brightly-coloured, charming place, surrounded by vast green fields and gargantuan ruins from the time before the cataclysm. A perfect spot for a holiday, then.
My asbent digital dad has left me a workshop in the idyllic town, and thus a way to earn a wee bit of cash while I kick back and enjoy my break from managing transport networks and suffocating in space. A boat, the classiest way to travel if you can’t find a blimp, takes me to my new home away from home, and after embarking I meet my very first Portia pal: Presley.
He's the head of Portia’s Commerce Guild and directs me to my house-cum-workshop. It's… disappointing.
My old man has effectively left me a shed. After Presley leaves, I venture inside to discover it's not even a structurally sound shed. It's full of holes. Unfortunately there’s not much I can do about it right now, so I hop into bed, my sole piece of furniture, and call it a night.
A drafty shed doesn't make for a restful sleep, but I'm up at 7am regardless, with directions to meet Presley and learn the ins and outs of running a workshop. It's also my first chance to explore Portia and meet my new neighbours. Before sauntering off into town, I check my mail and discover I’ve been given the gift of some boxing gloves. I guess you never know when you might need to punch something?
In the town square, I spot my first Portians. They’re preaching, to nobody in particular, about how bad the past was and how people abused technology. They’re members of the Church of Light, an organisation that wants to learn from the mistakes of the past to protect this pretty post-apocalyptic future. Learning from the past seems to mean demanding that people give them technology that they deemed to be too dangerous to be left out in the world. They’re friendly, but I don’t think I trust them.
On my way to the Commerce Guild I make a bunch of new friends.
There’s Mars, who despite his costume is not in fact a sheriff. He runs a tool shop in Portia and randomly enthuses about exercise when he happens across strangers.
And there’s Oaks, whose fashion sense is somehow even better than Mars’.
And here’s a cat.
Like Stardew Valley and its progenitors, My Time at Portia is just as much about becoming part of a community as it is about crafting and farming. Chat to them, give them appropriate gifts and do some jobs for them and you’ll start to net yourself a nice circle of buds. Everyone’s pretty eager to be your pal, too. Portia’s denizens are Stepford levels of friendly and docile, with the most villainous among them merely being a low-key dickhead.
After being sociable, I finally make my way over to the guild where I’m informed, by Presley, that I can’t actually do any work without an official license. I’ll need to prove myself to get it. I’m so glad that bureaucracy was one of the things that survived the end of civilisation. Luckily all I need to do to prove that I’m competent enough to set up shop in Portia is make an axe and a pickaxe.
Outside my home I’ve already got a workbench and an area set aside to work on my larger projects. Completing my first task takes only a few moments as I scrounge up some twigs and stones for an axe, before chopping down a tree to make a pickaxe. Done! Presley is impressed with the quality, of course, and he lets me keep them. I’m not done yet though - my workshop needs a furnace, and only then will I get my coveted license
to kill to craft.
Something big like a furnace can’t just be put together on the workbench, and it requires blueprints too. Thankfully I already have a few in the book my old man left me. Each blueprint has an illustration along with a list of resources, refined materials and what machines you actually need to use to refine them. It takes a lot of the guesswork and wiki-scouring out of the crafting process, for which I’m eternally grateful.
Big projects typically require multiple parts be crafted before being applied to the blueprint that appears in the construction area. It’s a modular approach that breaks large jobs down into more manageable chunks. If you need to build a car, for example, you don’t need to start thinking about the whole vehicle; you can just start with a nice, simple seat. In the case of the furnace, I need to craft a stone stool as well as the furnace itself. It’s another easy job though, and it’s not long before I’m sprinting back into town.
Presley gives me my license, then the mayor allows me to finally register my workshop, the Inventorium. Not too shabby for my first full day. Presley has even set aside a job for me, to break me in, but when he’s about to hand it over, another workshop owner swoops in and steals it. His name is Higgins and we hate him. Presley impotently protests but doesn’t actually stop him, leaving me wondering why I even bothered getting a license when the head honcho of this branch of the Commerce Guild lacks any authority.
Regardless, another job quickly appears. I have to build a bridge! It’s quite the leap from axes and simple furnaces to bridge-building, but after seeing my last job stolen from right under my nose, I’m willing to take anything on.
Maybe it’s because of Higgins, or perhaps it’s just a natural reaction to owning a pair of boxing gloves, but my blood is up. Sitting outside the guild offices is a chap called Dr. Xu. Just a nerdy dude in a lab coat, minding his own business. I beat the crap out of him and make 30 gold in the process. I’m not sure why I can fight the town’s only doctor. Or its shopkeepers, politicians, elderly - basically anyone. I can play rock, paper, scissors too, though not for cash. I guess this is just what happens when video games die out along with civilisation.
So, a bridge! Browsing the blueprints reveals that this isn’t going to be an easy task. I need to build three bridge sections, each accompanied by a long list of required materials. The bridge body, for instance, needs 12 stone bricks and five bronze plates. I can’t even make one stone brick. To get these materials I need to gather 96 stone, 15 tin and 60 copper, turn them into bronze bars, put stone bricks in the furnace, and finally put the bronze bars into a civil cutter. But I don’t have a civil cutter.
To make a civil cutter, I need five stone bricks and two copper blades. So now I need 136 stone and 72 copper. Actually, no, scratch that. Copper blades can only be made using a grinder. To make a grinder I need yet more stone and copper, as well as a bunch of old parts... All of a sudden I can’t see the forest for the trees. My mind is immediately filled with lists and tasks while it’s simultaneously trying to calculate just how grindy this is going to get. The answer, it turns out, is very.
See, most of these resources aren’t just lying around, aside from wood. Sure, you’ll see a few rocks that you can mine, but ancient tech like old parts and most of the game’s ore supply are hidden in abandoned ruins and caves. In Rune Factory and Stardew Valley, going on dungeon-delving adventures is one of the best way to get rare items, and it serves as a nice break from the gathering and crafting cycle. This is clearly what My Time at Portia is attempting, as well, but right now it’s just a lot of wandering around inside huge, empty caves.
To get in, I burn 200 gold for a weekly pass - more of that welcoming Portia bureaucracy - and in turn I get a jetpack and a scanner. The latter lets me see potential treasures buried underground before conveniently laying down a target right above them so I can start mining. I’m mainly here for the copper, tin and stone, but some priceless artefacts wouldn’t go amiss either.
I’ve never been this bored while strapped to a jetpack. Every chamber looks the same - huge and grey and devoid of any notable features. I start watching Friends on Netflix until my stamina is depleted and my inventory is full. It’s pouring with rain when I exit the abandoned ruins and head back home. I jump into bed, damp and exhausted.
As mind-numbingly dull as mining is, my haul’s pretty impressive. I’ve got more ore than I know what to do with, as well as some data discs that I can convert into new blueprints and crops at the research centre and the Church of Light. The bridge doesn’t seem too daunting now. A couple of days and it will be done.
It’s been almost two weeks since I came back from the ruins for the first time. It’s not a lack of resources that’s been holding me up, or long mining trips -- it’s much worse. I’ve been held up because I’ve been waiting for the machines to finish making everything. 10 bronze bars, for instance, take more than an in-game day to produce. That whole time, the furnace is out of commission. Even with a second furnace, the speed is painfully slow.
This would be a good opportunity to do something else. Some farming, perhaps? Or maybe I could make some gifts for my neighbours? And then there’s all the jobs being posted on the guild board. But I can’t do any of those things because all of my crafting machines are in use. I start to consider making a second grinder and cutter, but that would mean stopping work on the bridge and wasting another couple of days making stuff I’ve already built. It’s not appealing.
Stress was the last thing I expected from My Time at Portia. Everything about the game seems to be designed to soothe and comfort, apart from the crafting. And now I’m starting to miss the point. I wake up, refill my crafting machines and then go back to bed. Finishing this damn bridge has consumed every waking moment, and I refuse to even be awake unless real progress is being made. I should be rambling and exploring and fishing; instead I’m at work. But that’s the mindset that crafting puts you in when it takes so long.
When I finally finish, it’s like I’ve been released from prison. I’m free, at last. The bridge has opened up a small, unremarkable island with a cave I can’t yet enter. One final slap in the face. At least I can relax for a moment.
It’s strange, and not unpleasant, to walk around Portia and not have that stupid bridge looming over me. No longer worrying about making sure none of my machines are idle, I’m able to just aimlessly wander the streets, chatting to the eccentric citizens and spying on their daily lives. For a game that has, as its first dungeon, an empty cave, My Time at Portia has a surprising eye for incidental detail.
When it rains, which it does a lot during spring, the Portians will don their fetching umbrella hats when they venture outside. It’s like a whole town of theme park tourists and how can you not love them?
They love pigs, too. The flying pig is the symbol of a popular guild, and the mayor even has his very own piggy pal.
And yet… there’s something not quite right about them. They’re too friendly, certainly, which sets off alarm bells, but there’s also that Church of Light. The pair of missionaries that run this particular church preach in the town square most days, but on the Sunday after I finish the bridge, I notice that they’re nowhere to be seen. In fact, the town is nearly empty. Then I notice a whole bunch of people walking up the spiral path that snakes around a hill. I follow.
They’re off to Sunday service, I discover, and the church itself is at the top of the hill. Once they’re all inside, the sermon begins. It’s an old-school rant, warning about the dangerous influence of technology, using the threat of another apocalypse to cajole the herd. It's weirdly grim for this whimsical world. It also fills in some blanks in regards to Portia's history, teasing things like humanity living underground for generations.
As well as troubling religious fervour, Portia boasts my new favourite local holiday (everyone has one, surely): The Day of Bright Sun. I know, it sounds a wee bit culty, but think of it like Christmas... just instead of trees shedding everywhere and fat men breaking into your home, you’ve got flying ships and presents falling from the sky.
Before the holiday, everyone donates gifts to the mayor, then on the day itself, all those presents are dropped onto the town from an airship circling it. Every resident gathers in the square and chases the ship. It’s a total mess, with people stampeding everywhere, and I wouldn’t be remotely surprised to find out that there have been deaths. Accidental or otherwise. But gosh it’s a hoot. I net myself an apple, some bronze and some wheat seeds. Just what every boy wants for The Day of Bright Sun.
Lamentably, more jobs are on the docket. There’s a cave on the new island that needs a power source, a taxi service to set up and new ruins to explore. Rejuvenated by the Day of Bright Sun and my wanderings, however, I return to the workshop full of vigour. It doesn’t last.
While the concept of actively crafting a fast travel network, building taxis and stops, sounds novel, the process is just as frustrating as making a bridge. Even with extra machines (and a couple of brand new ones), there’s still a huge amount of waiting around, and not many opportunities to work on different jobs and thus earn a bit more cash. The offers are there, sure, but they’ve all got deadlines and, with my machines working night and day already, I don’t see how I’ll meet them.
Two more ruins are available, at least. The first new one is pretty much identical to an earlier ruin, just with different ore, but the second one promises actual monsters and fighting and adventure. Finally! Learning this, I quickly bound off in the direction of the gate. I’ve got a fancy new sword, new togs and a thirst for blood.
At the gate, disappointment waits. I can’t get through. I need to, once again, prove myself. This time not by crafting something, but by fighting. I’ve won a few brawls and killed loads and loads of llamas, so I’m pretty confident. That’s when I discover that I have to fight one of three specific people, all veteran explorers. All over level 20. The first knocks me out in two hits. I’m only level 13.
Grind more - that’s my new objective, I guess. I finish the taxi and all the stops. I finish the cave, too. I’m still not able to defeat any of my three judges. I do, at least, manage to crush an old lady. Well, she used her chicks instead of fighting herself, but it still counts. Unfortunately she has no power to let me into the dungeon. There are no shortcuts here. I’ll just need to get back to work.
I think my digital dad must have hated me.