Hidden object games are a weird little subgenre. We get bucketloads of them, one a month, but they’re almost entirely monopolised by a single company: Artifex Mundi. And while other genres will evolve and diversify – see how RPGs have changed over the years – hidden object games retreat into themselves and get increasingly repetitive with each release. More refined, sure, but repetitive. Still, the hidden object audience laps it up, enjoying the familiarity, getting the same joys as ordering tikka masala every time they go to a curry house.
The closest genre that comes to mind is the sports genre, and it’s easy to cast Artifex as the EA and FIFA of hidden objects. Every release delivers marginal differences, but that’s no more than its audience demands. So, to extend the comparison, if Artifex are FIFA, then Portal of Evil: Stolen Runes is the Pro Evolution Soccer of hidden objecting. It may not be from EA, but it’s clearly competing with, and borrowing from, its opponent.
Portal of Evil: Stolen Runes is not an Artifex Mundi game, but it looks incredibly similar to one. Squint and it’s all there: a female protagonist looking to solve an occulty mystery, bumping into wonkily animated characters on her way through rooms that have never been touched by a dustpan and brush. Find gems and cogs in the trash, build up an inventory of junk that could be its own hidden object scene, and solve intricate puzzles. Even the details are there: you can get hints for each puzzle, but you’ll have to sacrifice an achievement or two if you do. Collectibles scatter the environment, and there’s a bonus episode that acts as a prologue.
Stop squinting, though, and you see some differences. Portal of Evil: Stolen Runes is an ugly cousin to Artifex Mundi games, and it’s got a lot of rough edges to its gameplay. Artifex Mundi have refined these things over the years, but Portal of Evil can’t keep up, and it looks musty in comparison. To make up for it, Portal of Evil is eager to offer more value for money, a greater sense of challenge, and an increment more charm. Reading that paragraph back, perhaps the Pro Evo comparison isn’t that far off!
Let’s work through those comparisons. Portal of Evil: Stolen Runes is not an attractive game. It’s getting on for six-years old now, and even has a sequel on PC, and – woo! – can you see it on the screen. The scenes are okay, but could have benefited from a dash of colour, with the opening hour in particular feeling like you’re wading through a Dan Brown movie: all washed out browns, Catholic imagery and paintings with hidden symbols. It’s a notch in quality below an Artifex, but still not bad. Where Portal of Evil falls down, though, is in its determination to be cinematic: more often than in an Artifex, you’ll cut to your character, who’s looking like she’s just learning how to walk and interact with the world, with robotic, unnatural dialogue tumbling out of her mouth. It must be what it’s like to be Mark Zuckerberg.
There’s a VHS-style graininess applied to all of these cutscenes, and they’ve clearly not been optimised for anything other than a Gameboy Advance. Sure, you can have a giggle at them if that’s your cup of tea, but we couldn’t help but feel that the modernisation was lazy, especially when so little has been done to optimise the controls for console, too.
Portal of Evil, while clearly aping Artifex hidden object games, has a lot of these kinds of edges. In Artifex games, you can retreat back into the previous screen with a simple press of the B button; in Portal of Evil, you have to hover your cursor near the bottom of the screen and hope that you find the pixel that moves you there. The cursor feels slippier, and the click-areas are smaller, so you’re often caressing the analogue stick in an attempt to get the game to register what you want. If you find in-game instructions that provide the solution to a puzzle in an Artifex game, it will paste those instructions helpfully onto the puzzle; in Portal of Evil, it rarely bothers. It’s relatively minor, but there are a few of these examples, and they add up.
To be fair to Portal of Evil: Stolen Runes, it does provide some player-centric benefits that Artifex might want to borrow. There’s a little revolving dial on the cursor that lets you know, ever-so-subtly, that there’s something worth exploring nearby. And, in an act of extreme puzzle-generosity, you can access a map that sticks a big red dot on any room that has a puzzle left to solve. It might be too helpful, in fact, as it’s easy to use it as a crutch, spending more time in the map than you do in the game proper. The hint system doesn’t require you to complete a swift game of Mahjong or dominoes, like other hidden object games, so there’s a friendliness to the whole package that some might interpret as babying the player (note that a harder difficulty does turn these off).
You might be thankful of the help, as Portal of Evil is a deal more demanding than hidden object finders are probably used to. There’s the puzzle difficulty, which is dialled up quite high (we skipped a couple, like losers) and they don’t pull from the same library of puzzles that Artifex does. Roughly half of the hidden object games are actually ‘find the matching object’ games, where you’ll have a listed item and need to find its home in the environment. So, a paintbrush goes in a paint pot, an arrow into a quiver, etc. The difficulty comes from paint pots and quivers not looking much like paint pots and quivers when there’s nothing inside of them, so it occasionally strays into the illogical.
The map is also crazily sprawling, and you’ll have items in your inventory for hours and hours. Fair play to Portal of Evil for being patient and handing us items like jade figurines right at the start, yet only paying them off at the end of the game. It’s a bit of a troll, as you’ll be trying to use them for hours, but we appreciated it. Then there’s the game’s length, which is probably fifty percent longer than your average hidden objecter, so you’re getting your money’s worth.
That takes us to Portal of Evil: Stolen Rune’s charm. You wouldn’t have guessed it from the first hour, where you’ll be wrestling with controls while navigating a yawn-worthy church in Viva, southern Italy, but there’s a lot to like as you get into its murky depths. Once you reach the pivotal moment where you’re hopping through portals to other dimensions (not a spoiler, it’s in the title), things get bonkers and it’s all the better for it. It feels a little bit like the Crystal Maze, as you wander into Medieval World and Aztec World in the hunt for crystals – sorry, runes – and the pace barely lets up.
That’s not to say that Portal of Evil is some kind of revolutionary tale that will trouble Kentucky Route Zero or anything. This is hokey as they come, with you playing – wait for it – Vanessa Helsing, in an early entry for worst character name of 2021. You’re searching for Grandpa Abraham, who has gone missing, but not without sending you messages that he’s ‘onto something’. It’s basically the plot of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Templars and all, with some planar travel and a “strange and evidently alien hunchback” in it. That’s a direct quote from an Aztec chieftain, and it should give you an idea of a) the quality of the writing here, and b) just how Ed Wood and B-movie it can all get. You’ll likely have a sense of whether that’s a good thing or not.
For insatiable veterans of hidden object games, it’s relatively easy to make a case for playing Portal of Evil: Stolen Runes on Xbox. It attempts some innovations, new puzzles, a harder difficulty, a sprawling map and a grab-bag of environments to create an experience that’s different enough, while keeping enough of the Artifex Mundi template to feel comfy. For newcomers, though, Portal of Evil is so ropey that it looks like a game of Atmosfear on VHS, and it has rough edges that only the most forgiving could ignore. For fans of the genre only.