Last week, Valve Corporation released two of their most beloved games on a Nintendo game console capable of being taken on-the-go. That’s a strange sentence to write, not only because Valve has a competing device on the market but also because my 32 year-old brain still associates Valve’s games with being some of the most visually compelling adventures I’ve ever experienced. After checking the date (goodness gracious, it’s been seven years since I finished grad school?), I’m forced to remind myself that it’s been over 11 years since Portal 2 was released. It shouldn’t be shocking that a game of this age can run on a portable device these days, but there’s still a part of that fact my mind has difficulty processing. Personal time dilation issues aside, I’m pleased to report that both Portal: Companion Collection runs fantastically on the Nintendo Switch.
Given the length of time since both entries in this collection were originally released, Portal: Companion Collection has the potential to serve as an excellent entry point to newcomers of the series. $20 for both titles is, in my opinion, an absolute steal for both adults who missed the games upon their initial release as well as teens to whom the series is entirely new. With that in mind, this review will be kept as spoiler-free as possible.
For the uninitiated, Portal and Portal 2 are widely regarded as masterpiece efforts from Valve, even considering the shorter runtime of the first game. You play as a protagonist simply named Chell, making your way through “test chambers” without even the slightest vague notion of where on Earth you’re being kept. There are no windows to the outside, and in the few instances where you can spot outdoor light, it’s so bright that it simply becomes blinding, like an over-exposed photograph. The only communication you experience comes in the form of a seemingly omnipresent voice that sits well within the uncanny valley. It’s difficult to speak too much about the narrative of Portal and Portal 2 without quickly ending up in spoiler territory, so I’ll ask you to simply trust not only this review, but the past praise of countless fans of the series. The series is engrossing, and builds your curiosity in a way that few other games do while also providing plenty of laughs along the way.
Simply put, Portal and Portal 2 are some of the best games I’ve ever played. Valve’s developers do an incredible job teaching you how to play the game as you play it. There are no boring tutorials here. Even one brief tutorial-esque moment in Portal 2 features funny dialogue and sound design to avoid any feeling of monotony. In some ways, Valve’s game design in the Portal series reminds me of Super Mario 3D Land and Super Mario 3D World. Levels are designed to teach you the game mechanics as you play them within a safe space and later build on those mechanics in more challenging situations that require a higher skill level. The difficulty curve is expertly handled, and the game never feels too daunting. In fact, both Portal games don’t even have difficulty setting, and they work perfectly well without it.
Screenshots of the game might make it look like a first-person shooter to those unfamiliar with the series, but the games typically move at a much slower pace compared to the likes of Call of Duty or Apex Legends. These are games that your non-gamer friends or family can play without feeling overwhelmed. I’m making this up on the spot, but it’s an FPP, not an FPS. That’s a “first-person puzzler” as opposed to “first-person shooter”.
There’s one other gameplay aspect that’s absolutely worth mentioning here. The first of the two games in Portal: Companion Collection contains a developer commentary feature that was included in its original release, which allows you to hear from the many people who worked on the game. This is accomplished by triggering commentary bubbles that exist on your screen in-game. It’s a fantastic addition for people interested in game design like myself, which makes me wonder why more games don’t implement something similar (though I imagine this was a time-consuming effort for Valve to include). I also appreciate that the commentary wasn’t all done by one person, such as the game’s director, but instead a variety of members of the Valve team. It serves as a wonderful reminder of how much teamwork, care, and effort is put into developing video games, a fact that is too often glossed over.
But wait, there’s more! Do you enjoy gaming with friends? Portal 2 features an entire co-op campaign of its own. It’s a great addition with which you may choose to either build or ruin a friendship. And unlike certain games on the Switch like Unravel 2 or Pikmin 3: Deluxe, which force local split-screen co-op, all of the possible options for play are available here in Portal 2. You can play local split-screen, local wireless between two consoles, or online with a friend.
Portal: Companion Collection runs fantastically on the Switch. No, seriously. Given the limitations of the system, I was expecting low frame rates in handheld mode or even a reduced resolution in docked mode. Aside from some very minor frame drops when crossing through portals in a busy level, the Switch truly handles everything like a champ. This helps to keep the games feeling just as fresh as they did on their respective release dates, with the Havok physics engine still shining over a decade later, especially in Portal 2.
I’m not kidding when I say that I truly expected reduced performance in handheld mode, and I was happy to be proven very wrong in this regard. Both games run smoothly when playing handheld, with the same generally high frame rate save for some very specific scenarios. I would have been satisfied with 30 fps (that’s frames per second this time, not the first-person shooter) in handheld mode, but NVIDIA Lightspeed Studios did a splendid job optimizing this port. Given the Switch’s chipset, I don’t think I could be happier with the outcome.
When I first began working on this review, I was concerned that I might need to critique both Portal games for a lack of accessibility options. I mean, just look at this sparse Options menu in Portal:
Thankfully, I now believe my initial impressions were premature, for a number of reasons.
First, both games in Portal: Companion Collection features separate, extensive menus for controller re-mapping, an oft-ignored feature that is a welcome addition to any game. The option to use motion controls is also available, and while it personally gives me a bit of motion sickness, it is precise and about as well-integrated as I could imagine it being.
Second, both games feature subtitles (as well as closed captions, if desired) which I feel are of substantial text size. Translucent backgrounds are included behind the text to improve legibility. On top of that, Valve went the extra mile and color-coded subtitles based on which character or closed caption text is being displayed. It would have been a nice bonus to have more granular control over the opacity of the translucent backgrounds or whether the color-coded text is enabled. That said, I think it’s better Valve included these features on the subtitles as a default rather than skipping out on them altogether.
My final point on accessibility is the one that swayed my initial impressions most significantly, because it’s more “invisible” than the rest: by design, the minimalism of the Portal games works to their favor in terms of accessibility. The geography and color palette of each level are usually simple enough that you don’t get lost and nothing looks too “busy”. Perhaps most important was Valve’s choice of colors for each portal: blue and orange. These colors are already a common palette to use when making visual interfaces friendly to those with color blindness. Considering the majority of the games feature shades of white, grey, and brown, the blue and orange portals stick out like a sore thumb and are impossible to miss. Taking into account that the game will also display the border of portals when they’re hidden behind certain objects or walls, it’s simply a slam-dunk of game design.
I’m even more impressed with these design choices because they aren’t elements that were added to Portal: Companion Collection for this new release. Valve thought of this stuff all the way back in 2007, at a time when the topic of accessibility in video games wasn’t given the attention it now receives. Many game studios today could still learn a thing or two by taking a page out of Valve’s book.
Valve Corporation and NVIDIA Lightspeed Studios pleasantly surprised me with this release. Some may simply see this as a cheap, easy port of two-decade-old games, but there’s still an undeniable charm about being able to take Portal and Portal 2 to a local coffee shop or on a train ride into Philly. It’s a perfect entry point for new fans and a great value for the price. And if nothing else, it proves that Valve’s Source engine can run near-flawlessly on the Switch. So I’ll echo the question that’s surely being asked throughout the entire video game blogosphere:
Hey Valve, when can we get Half-Life 2 on the Switch?