Sea change is a popular concept in Australia. Tired of stressful, fast-paced city life, retirees flood to small coastal towns in droves, looking to slow down and appreciate the smaller things. My Time at Portia similarly offers safe harbour from the brutally hard side of gaming. No twitch reflexes, permadeath, or 12-year-olds screaming expletives are to be found here, just a peaceful life of crafting, mining, farming, and making friends. After a year in Early Access, My Time at Portia‘s full release is a sprawling life simulation with endless activities to indulge in, but little in the way of innovation.
My Time in Portia is the fourth game from Chinese independent studio Pathea, following smaller titles Planet Explorers, Protoform, and Drains. The game begins with the player-created protagonist hopping on a boat to the city-state of Portia, ready to build a new life for themselves. They have inherited a run-down workshop from their father, and the townspeople of Portia quickly put the new builder to work. A bridge needs to be constructed for local tourist attraction Amber Island, and the player character is just the person for the job. Rival workshop owner Higgins is upset about being overlooked for this job and strives to defeat the player by producing the best workshop in town.
The bread and butter of My Time at Portia’s gameplay is commissions: crafting projects requested by the townspeople. Once the player has proven their grasp of the basics by crafting a stone axe and pickaxe, commissions can be accepted from a notice board in the Commerce Guild. Plot-important commissions (such as the bridge or designing a transport system for the town) do not have a time limit and can be completed at one’s leisure. The townspeople are a bit more impatient and require items to be crafted and delivered within a few days. At the end of each in-game month, the workshops are ranked and awarded prizes for performance. Completing commissions raises the player’s workshop ranking, enabling them to take on more complicated projects.
Nearly everything in the world of Portia can be crafted, from basic household items to a massive water filtration system. The player starts with a simple worktable and assembly area, enabling them to craft crude stone and wood items. Small items can be quickly combined on the worktable, with bigger projects needing to be created piece by piece in the assembly area. Alongside the workshop, the protagonist’s father left behind a book full of diagrams for grinders, forges, cutters, and other crafting machinery. Better machines can process rarer materials to create better tools, creating a pleasing gameplay loop of continually improving equipment. As the game goes on, further diagrams for new projects can be obtained from missions for the townspeople or researching ancient data discs at the research lab.
All this crafting requires a lot of resources, which can be acquired in various ways. The town of Portia is surrounded by open fields filled with trees to chop down, stones to quarry, and unsuspecting llamas to harvest for meat and fur. Abandoned ruins open into voxel-style dungeons for mining, with ancient relics hidden deep in the earth. Combat-oriented hazardous ruins feature waves of unique enemies, traps to avoid, and treasure chests filled with rare materials. Boss fights at the end of each dungeon truly test combat skill, with Skyrim-like feasting on food in the pause menu often required to survive.
Every action costs stamina, and a few swings of the axe are enough to exhaust a new character. Fortunately, almost every action also gives the protagonist experience points, and levelling up grants increased health and stamina along with a point to spend in the extensive skill tree. Skill points can be funneled into three broad categories of fighting, gathering, and social abilities. The fighting branch generally increases damage output; gathering reduces stamina costs when using tools; and social will improve the rate of befriending the people in town. The character’s statistics can also be boosted by decorating their home, with couches and tables giving boosts to stamina and health. Duplicate items also stack bonuses, so an early game house might look like a hoarder’s lair given the piles of couches everywhere.
Despite My Time at Portia’s resemblance to Harvest Moon, farming feels more like an afterthought than a key component of the game. Crops are planted in small boxes rather than fields, and, while they benefit from fertiliser, they do not need to be watered and will survive with no attention during the growing process. Livestock can be purchased from a nearby farm, but, if the player’s workshop lacks a proper coop or barn, the animals can be stored in a chest without issue. The animal-based materials can be obtained more efficiently by slaying monsters in the fields, leaving animal-keeping more about cuteness than practicality.
My Time at Portia has a staggering cast of 55 townspeople to interact with, 29 of whom can be romanced. Friendship can be built up with the characters by chatting each day, giving presents, playing rock-paper-scissors, or sparring with them. Each townsperson has unique likes and dislikes, resulting in favoured presents earning more friendship than generic ones. Once a character’s friendship has reached ‘buddy’ level, they can be taken on weekly play date. These dates involve minigames to impress the friend, such as going to dinner, drawing in the sand, or playing on a seesaw. After a confession of love, romantic activities, including soaking in the hot spring and stargazing, become available. Either gender can be romanced, and both marriage and divorce are possible. While the number of characters is impressive on paper, in practice, such a large cast is intimidating to befriend. With so many characters sharing the limited writing resources, each person only gets one or two story missions and as a result end up with rather bland personalities. A smaller cast with more detailed lives would have gone a long way.
My Time at Portia‘s cel-shaded graphics are a thing of beauty, as the pastel colours and painterly aesthetic perfectly evoke the peaceful atmosphere of the land. The weather changes constantly, with rainy and overcast days altering the pallet of the world. Music is simple but cheerful, with a different tune for each season. The voice acting is distinctly cheesy, ranging from the female protagonist’s overly bouncy preschool television voice to Minister Lee’s barely audible mumbling. As of the release update, voices can be turned off if desired, but the campness of the acting adds a certain charm.
The real area My Time at Portia struggles with is finding its niche. Since the first Harvest Moon invented the life simulation genre back in 1996, many different games have put their spin on the idea. Animal Crossing slowed down the pace to real time and emphasised house decorating. Recettear pulled the focus of the genre into owning and maintaining an item shop. Rune Factory added a fantasy setting with a strong focus on story. Meanwhile, My Time at Portia has a very strong gameplay loop, but lacks a distinct identity. With such a large time commitment required for this style of game, a focus on one well-defined element (rather than being a jack of all trades) would help the game stand out from the pack.
My Time at Portia is a peaceful, beautiful life simulation that offers a calming experience, but little that pushes the boundaries of its genre. Simulation fans will find plenty to enjoy in this large, detailed world, but little to surprise them.