Portal Stories: Mel (2015)

Yes, there will be some spoilers below.

I don’t know if this game is genius or sub-par.
A prequel that starts in the hey-day of Aperture Science, Portal Stories: Mel is a free fan made mod that expands on the Portal Franchise available on Steam.
And what do we get for our money?

We start off arriving at Aperture Laboratories in scenes reminiscent of Half Life’s opening, getting to see the busy little hive that is Aperture hard at work despite being the dead of night, but pretty much as soon as you step off the train the world becomes empty.
Devoid of any scientists, engineers or volunteers we find out that this is due to you taking part in a night time experiment and so of course, everyone is home with their loved ones.
I can understand the need for this as it makes the beginning so much easier to make, but it just seemed strange to me.
I mean here we are in a beautifully crafted world, fleshing out the past of Aperture Laboratory and yet there’s no meat there, it is like they took the skeleton of the Portal franchise and added a fine silk dress, without adding anything else.
The pacing of the introduction also seems odd, with loading happening every couple of minutes over a half hour period.
They’ve literally packed the beginning so full of props and visuals that it can’t last for long before needing to load the next section.
It’s all rather impressive, but I would just have preferred to have a smaller introduction which felt fuller, have some NPC’s to interact with without having to descend the depths of Aperture.
It just ended up feeling like you’re in a patched up old wing of the facility, rather than being the current and advanced areas.

2015-06-26_00002Once you’re through the introduction, you are literally thrust into the game.
Unlike with Portal and Portal 2, PS:Mel expects you to know exactly what you’re doing, it doesn’t provide any help for n00bs and if you’re like me and you need a bit of practise to start thinking with portals again, it can be frustrating.
That’s actually a word I would use a lot if you asked me about PS:Mel, frustrating.
It isn’t that it’s a bad game, it just turns the difficulty up to 11 very quickly and leaves you with no recourse.
I literally spent ages in some test chambers just shooting portals at random surfaces to see if I could work out a solution from it.
Like many games, the Portal series to date builds you up with examples of how to handle each new element you discover, before you’re expected to tackle it in a puzzle, PS:Mel didn’t follow this thread, which will mean any new users who might see this and play it first are going to find themselves in trouble.
And that’s what keeps this firmly in the “It’s a mod!” territory, it isn’t friendly to new players in the slightest.
I would have much rather had a little bit easing you into the game (or introducing you to the game) then increasing the difficulty til you’re getting frustrated.
If I want to show someone PS:Mel, I essentially have to get them to play one of the previous games first just so they have some training with what to do.
Where as in the few test chambers in Portal/2 I found myself frustrated, I often ended up with a moment of “Oh geez!” when I work out the solution, I never had this feeling with PS:Mel, the game really needed to include some lighter challenges between the more difficult chambers so the player feels as if they’re accomplishing something big.
The game relied heavily on hitting switches, which is fine for the most part but gets repetitive.

The plot to PS:Mel is heavily inspired by Portal 2, you’re essentially running around the “behind the scenes” of the game, with one AI trying to stop you whilst another seeks to aid you for mutual benefit.
The only difference this time is a lack of GLADOS, but even then the finale is too reminiscent of Portal, but I won’t spoil that too much for you.
One thing I do find irritating slightly, is the mod trying to fix itself heavily into the lore of the game series, now I don’t know if they have the green light from Valve over it, but…

Spoilers, everything below is going to be blanked out, mouse over if you want to read it, you have been warned:
When you defeat the big bad AI and you complete the game, the final act of the AI’s shut down is to begin awakening people from storage, we see the first test subject being labelled as C. [redacted], everyone is assuming this is Chel
In Portal GLADOS has been using people for a while, so no one needs to awaken Chel as GLADOS is already using people for testing.
In Portal 2, Wheatly has been waking subjects out of storage so he can escape, so no one needs to awaken Chel as Wheatly is already on top of this.
The end credits scene just seems a little too fan-service, which is evidently working when there’s already multiple threads on the Community Hub detailing “It’s Chel!”
I may just be a grouchy old man, but I just find this irritating, if you’re making a fan contribution to something, don’t try and impact the original, be as unassuming and low key as possible, right?


Did I have fun with PS:Mel?
Definitely, I liked the idea, I just had a few irritations.
It could have been changed a little bit and then I’d have whole-heartedly suggested the game to any and everyone.
As it stands, I’ve got to limit this to long time fans of the games, otherwise that difficulty is going to get you.
And the emptiness of the introduction will also seem needlessly isolating to new players.
All in all, it is good work, and I hope to see more, if smaller content coming out.

Additionally, it should be noted that the community seems pretty split on difficulty, half of everyone agrees with me that things are just a little too hard and need some balancing in the beginning to offset the later levels, where as others love how hard it is right from the get-go.
But one thing I keep seeing is that the mod has learned from some of the more difficult community made maps and progressed from there, if this were a full game or an official sequel it would be forgetting the one golden rule, sometimes your player has never picked up a controller (or keyboard) before.

As a side note, I still want to see an Olympian vs Mantis Men mod for Portal 2, someone get on that for me will you?


I am Silent, part time programmer and full time narcissist, gamer, geek and man on a mission.

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