Graphics: The Army Men series has never made any secrets that they’re designed to appeal to kids, or kids-at-heart, and Portal Runner is no exception. A bright explosion of color, this toy story is filled with glittering gems, exaggerated enemies and big explosions. Being tossed about like a leaf on a river, Vikki’s adventures will lead you into a feast of creative design, from the burning side of a volcano to a gingerbread land, complete with icing standing in as trim on the houses. All of this splendor renders with nary a hiccup, and the characters animate smoothly in the process, even during some of the more intense fights. The cutscenes are quite well done, looking animated but avoiding the use of cell shading, instead feeling much more like rendered versions of Transformers or GI Joe.
Interface: Only allowing one save game was an extremely frustrating decision for those who share their system with others, but the utterly linear nature of Portal Runner mitigates this flaw to some degree. A few alternate control schemes have been provided for those unhappy with the normal setup, and the standard option to adjust the sound balance between music and sound effects has not been overlooked here either. The visual interface remains unobtrusive throughout the game, keeping health down in the lower left corner, while Vikki’s current arrow choice spins quietly in the lower right. While not a stunning design, the simplicity keeps your attention on the world and away from statistics.
Gameplay: How much you enjoy Portal Runner will depend entirely on how much you enjoy platform jumpers, because this game is almost purely a platform jumping title. While the combat may be a bit more intense than you’d find in, say, Sonic, the majority of the time you’re carefully balancing yourself on a ledge and jumping from precarious heights to new ledges below, or above. Unlike most platformers, Vikki’s adventure has a bit more of a thinking man’s edge to it, since her bow allowed the designers to get creative with ranged puzzles. Of course, in the wake of Link’s N64 adventures, using a bow to target distant objects is hardly new, but the principle remains sound, if not novel. The decision to add Leo to the mix was a solid one, as the Lion’s levels tend to be markedly different than Vikki’s. Of course, the difference lies in the fact that Leo’s not capable of doing much puzzle solving, but the occasional break to just run, jump and slash keeps this title’s pulse pumping a little bit harder than you might expect.
Unfortunately, not all is right and proper in the land of the toys, and cumbersome controls hold back some of the fun. For inexplicable reasons, Vikki can not run on angles, meaning she can move forward, or left, but not both at the same time. This tends to limit your defensive options, since enemies tend to either charge or throw weapons at you, meaning it’s hard to dodge when differing styles team up on you. The jumping system is workable, but can be slightly cumbersome when trying to time jumps with Leo, who turns a bit less smoothly than his bipedal counterpart.
Multiplayer: While Portal Runner lets you participate in a deathmatch against another player, the control problems outlined above make this mode for those truly desperate to deathmatch only. Sadly, the environments are fantastic, and I’d love to see the giant chessboard and other such exotic locales ported to more amenable controls, and preferably with support for more than two combatants. The lack or other characters makes this doubly tricky, since you can only control Vikki or Leo, and not any of the monsters with their own unique attacks. On the up side, the frame rate is consistent, and the play is smooth, insofar as there’s no danger of dying due to jitteryness or dropped frames.
Sound FX: While the dialogue may smell a bit of cheddar, the voice acting resists all comparisons to dairy products. Ranging from the robotic Nordic voice of Rage to the Sultry Brigitte, the vocal talent spans all the way to plucky Vikki and her heroic Sarge. While the characters may be archetypical, the lines are delivered with a certain sense of irony that lends a light air to the entire storyline. In-game, the ambient sounds work overtime to immerse you in your current world, as battling chess pieces arc lighting between them, and birds chirp and insects drone in the heart of the desert. Combat plays out as fast and furious in most cases, though again the sense of frivolity pervades some battles. The gingerbread men, for example, die with a pitiful squeak reminiscent of their cousin in Shrek’s performance.
Musical Score: Depending on which world you’re currently visiting, the music changes to match the setting. Harps, flutes and other lyrical instruments provide the backing for the medieval period, while the jungle is appropriately driven by drums and even the occasional bit of chanting. All of the other areas have the same principles driving them, and because the stages in this game are so short, the music can modulate itself to match the general “feel” of the current task. Areas with a time limit, for example, are always accompanied by higher tempo music than others.
Intelligence & Difficulty: While there are a few moments where the combat gets moderately intense, those moments are almost always proceeded by an extensive stocking of the arsenal and anteceded by an extensive collection of healing items. This factor, along with the constant placement of the necessary item almost directly in front of any puzzles, removes much of the challenge from those sections of the game. The jumping segments are probably the most difficult aspect of this title, but even they are surprisingly manageable with a bit of patience and aptitude. The difficulty levels largely affect the combat portions by making enemies tougher and sometimes more numerous. Unfortunately, the AI of said hordes is so lacking that you can usually circumvent their attacks with a few well-placed arrows. Even the particularly tough creatures, like the Black Knights or the Lava Monsters telegraph their special moves, and their normal moves can be interrupted by shooting them with an arrow at just the right time. Once you’ve uncovered the pattern that ensures these beasties remain trapped in a “pain” animation loop, the game is half won for you.
Overall: Whimsical and carefree, Vikki G’s first starring role in an Army Men game certainly manages to improve upon a franchise that’s gone stale quite a few times over. A platformer at heart, there’s also a significant amount of puzzle solving and combat driving this title. While none of these elements are fully developed, they blend together to form a game that’s entertaining and interesting to play, if not exactly riveting. While the multiplayer mode’s forgettable, and there’s not a ton of replay value, the first run through the story is surprisingly long, and filled to the brim with some of the most amazing scenery conceived outside of a Toy Story film. Portal Runner won’t be up every gamer’s alley, but if you’ve got kids, or if you’re a kid at heart, this is a respectable offering with a unique twist on the third person action genre.