The life sim genre is fairly under-represented on Switch. We’re still eagerly awaiting the arrival of Animal Crossing, and the only Harvest Moon game on the system is a half-hearted affair that doesn’t really do the old Marvelous-developed games justice. At the moment, the only real heavyweight available is Stardew Valley, but even then – as brilliant as it is – not everyone is into that retro 16-bit look so many indie games sport these days. My Time at Portia is an attempt to water this drought, and it does a surprisingly good job at it.
The plot is initially fairly basic. As the son or daughter of a once famous builder, you arrive at the post-apocalyptic town of Portia with two aims in mind: to restore your old man's dilapidated workshop, and then use it to build a host of new items and upgrades to help restore Portia to its former glory. The twist, however, is that you aren’t alone: there are a few other builders already living in Portia and they aren’t going to sit back and let you claim all the kudos, so you have to build consistently enough to work your way up the workshop rankings too.
There are three types of building task available to you throughout the game. There’s a commission board in the Commerce Guild where an infinite number of random small tasks are generated for you: make a certain number of a specific object, that sort of thing. Then there are over 100 secondary missions, which require a bit more effort and only appear once you’ve gathered enough reputation or build up your friendship with one of Portia’s many residents.
Most important, though, are the main story missions, and these are so complicated that they can be a bit overwhelming, especially early on in the game when you’re still trying to find your feet. The first major mission, for example – which kicks in about an hour into the game after you’ve registered your workshop – tasks you with building a bridge to unlock access to another part of the game world. Simple, right?
Except a bridge is made up of three parts: two bridge heads and a bridge body. To build each head you need to combine 5 hardwood planks and 3 copper pipes, and to build the body you need to combine 5 bronze plates and 12 stone bricks. But, in order to get those ingredients you first need to build a grinder and a cutter for your workshop and put different materials through those first and our head hurts already just writing this.
It’s also worth pointing out that many of these steps include in-game timers, where you have to wait a certain amount of time for some ingredients to be built. Don’t be too alarmed: this isn’t for free-to-play reasons, it’s for time management reasons, much like many of Animal Crossing’s tasks like giving things to Reece to build. It’s designed to give the feeling that some things take time in life, and there’s plenty to be getting on with while you wait.
It’s a bit full-on from the kick-off, then, and while it’s admirable that the game throws a meaty task at you almost right away and gives you something to work towards over a number of in-game days – you have limited stamina each day before you have to call it a night and head to bed – the fact the game is relatively light on explicit instructions will mean younger gamers may struggle with just this first mission. You’re armed with your dad’s notebook, which is a charming way of learning the ‘recipes’ for each of these builds, but it’s deliberately slapped together in a haphazard way: authentic, sure, but hard to follow.
Get over this enormous hurdle, though, and My Time At Portia (shouldn’t it be My Time In Portia?) eventually reveals itself as the impressively in-depth life sim it truly is. As you work your way through the story-based missions and progress along what actually becomes an engaging little plot over time, you’ll discover the numerous other trades this particular Jack specialises in.
There are around 50 villagers living in Portia, all of whom have relationship meters you can increase by interacting with them, giving them gifts and playing Rock, Paper, Scissors or sparring with them. As your friendship grows with them you unlock either Play or Date options, which let you head off on little adventures like exploring a haunted cave, lighting fireworks or just chatting by the sea. These generally take the form of basic mini-games and are charming enough. If you choose to go down the romance route (same gender romance is possible too, incidentally), it can all eventually lead to marriage and kids.
Then there’s the whole farming side of things, which lets you sow and grow plants. And the fishing. And the raising of animals. And the mines you can enter armed with a pickaxe, radar and jetpack (so you can get out of the massive hole you dug). Oh, and the combat, which is necessary in some areas and on some missions, and works fairly well for something that’s only one mechanic in a game packed with them.
When it all comes together this is a game that you can easily spend hundreds of hours playing, continuing to find new things long after the main story has ended. Thankfully, despite its scope loading times are also fairly minimal, though it could have been so much worse: they were a real concern for us throughout the course of the review process.
We’ve been playing the game for the past month and have had to sit through painfully long loading times every time we entered a new room or area, sometimes lasting over a minute. We did an experiment armed with a stopwatch: from booting the game to continuing our save, to waking in bed and leaving our house, it took 3 minutes and 57 seconds before we were finally standing in the open world section (and only about five seconds of that were us in control).
To Team17 and developer Pathea’s credit, a patch was released the day before launch that fixed the issue to a satisfying degree... with one exception. When you initially start up the game it takes even longer now to reach the open world section – around 4 and a half minutes(!) – but once you get there the load times from that point on are greatly improved. Just make sure that if you’re going on a commute you load the game beforehand and use the Switch’s suspend feature to avoid sitting staring at a loading screen on the bus for longer than it takes to listen to a pop song.
My Time At Portia is an enormous game and up until the last minute it looked like it was going to have similarly enormous loading times, which would have lead to a frustrating, annoying experience. Instead, with its eleventh-hour patch, it’s a pleasantly impressive one we have no problems recommending.
My Time At Portia is an ambitious game that actually delivers on what it sets out to do. The crafting can be extremely overwhelming at first and the presence of some in-game timers can be a mild annoyance, but get your head round its detailed multi-step building missions and you’ll end up with a game that could end up racking hundreds of hours on your Switch.