Subject to a great deal of scrutiny, as well as the occasional punch line, the Army Men franchise has had a rough go of it ever since its inception several years ago. What began as a genuine and enjoyable journey into the world of little green plastic army men has quickly diminished into a series of disastrous titles characterized by stale gameplay and rushed delivery. Portal Runner tries to break that trend by presenting a fresh perspective on the Army Men universe. Does it do so successfully? Let’s don our fatigues and find out.
In a surprising twist, Portal Runner tells a tale of love, jealousy and teamwork. After discovering mysterious portals leading into strange new worlds, the diabolical Blue super spy Brigette Bleu sends ace investigative reporter Vikki G. on a wild goose chase into the portals, affording her the opportunity to make her move on Vikki’s boyfriend, Sarge. It’s now up to you, as Vikki G., to forge your way through each of the portals and their adjacent worlds, in hopes that the next portal will lead you back home safely.
Portal Runner is a third-person action game spanning five worlds and over 25 levels of combat, exploration, platform jumping and puzzle-solving. The portals lead Vikki to wondrous environments, from the prehistoric age to the ice age, all of which are populated by creatures bent on making sure Vikki doesn’t survive the trip. You’ll engage enemies the likes of dinosaurs, aliens, knights and dragons. To help freshen up the gameplay, Vikki G. encounters Leo early in her quest, a friendly lion that helps our heroine in her hour of need. At this point, you’ll get to play as both characters in a variety of scenarios: as Vikki alone, with Leo by her side, as Vikki riding Leo, or on the prowl as Leo himself. The inclusion of Leo certainly helps break the otherwise monotonous platform-style gameplay, adding another dimension to the adventure.
Throughout the game, Vikki G. is equipped with her trusty bow and arrow, which can be used in either first or third-person perspectives to fend off enemies at long and short-range distances respectively. Vikki can also order her companion, Leo, to attack surrounding enemies. The more Leo engages in battle, the more his Fury Meter rises, making him more aggressive and lethal in combat. If Leo’s Fury Meter grows too high, however, he’ll become unpredictable and vulnerable, so it’s important to monitor and manage his actions accordingly throughout the game.
Despite the varied gameplay styles, Portal Runner still suffers in a few respects. For one, the control scheme is extremely awkward. Using a design similar to that of Tomb Raider, Vicki and Leo suffer from an inability to turn around efficiently, an issue that magnifies when you come across platform-jumping elements. It’s also a problem when enemies attack from various directions, forcing you to react accordingly. Manoeuvring our heroes is simply more cumbersome than it should be. Another problem lies in the camera work. An issue that often plagues third-person action titles, the camera in Portal Runner doesn’t seem to re-centre itself properly after you survey the surrounding area. And last but not least, the gameplay itself seems to lack purpose in the grand scheme of things. Most of the levels consist of Vicky and/or Leo running around collecting jewels while searching for a key that will lead them to the next level. This element of gameplay becomes rather repetitive as the game progresses.
Visually, Portal Runner is a mixed bag. Bright, colourful and energetic are adjectives that best describe the overall atmosphere in the game, but Portal Runner does very little to distinguish itself as a PlayStation 2 title. The character models, aside from Vikki G, need more detail in them and although the resulting framerate is steady, unlike previous Army Men titles, more should have been done to take advantage of the next-generation console. Audio has often been the high point of previous Army Men titles and Portal Runner is no different. The voice-overs are well acted and the ambient sounds are effective. Perhaps a little more background music is needed throughout each level, but otherwise the sound is very solid.
Portal Runner is a straight-forward platform game that appears to be geared towards a younger audience, evidenced by the bright and colourful visuals, playful environments, over-the-top voice acting and the inclusion of Leo the lion. With that said, Portal Runner suffers from an awkward control scheme, bumpy camera work and repetitive gameplay elements. While Portal Runner is certainly an improvement to the Army Men franchise, there’s not enough punch to distinguish it as anything other than a run-of-the-mill action game, for which there are better options on the market.