(Review) Portal: Prelude – Torture

So, yeah. Portal: Prelude was released recently – yesterday? – and thus far, opinions about the game seem to be in two camps.

First, there’s the camp that sail through. This seems to be populated by veterans of Portal‘s advanced maps; they have the absolute precision required to beat certain maps.
Then there’s the camp I’m sitting in, populated by people who can’t make the jumps, maneuvers, or aim the portalgun in midair whilst being fired on by at least two turrets in a window of opportunity lasting less than a second… in the first chamber.
I don’t doubt they had some people test the game, but my guess is that their sample group wasn’t exactly representative of Portal’s entire audience. It’s been mentioned by one of the designers on the mod’s forums that none of the testers got stuck for more than ten minutes, but isn’t that too long anyway? If I was attempting a puzzle for ten minutes straight, I’d quit the game for then and do something else to take my mind off things.

But it’s not the puzzles. I think the problem is that the designers of Portal: Prelude got things the wrong way around; Portal had puzzles; spotting the answer was the difficult thing. Portal: Prelude, on the other hand, has what are for me very difficult maneuvers and tricks; the answers are very obvious – you can very easily tell you need to take out the turrets before you can get to the exit, though it’s just a few metres away, but that’s not the same as doing it.
Note: I only reached part way through 02 before giving up. This is not actually representative of the rest of the game, but judging from the moaning on the forums*, it’s a good guess.

There are a couple of other things I found irritating, but they pale in comparison to the sheer frustration this game caused me. Not even the final boss of Orphen: Scion of Sorcery, a hideous monstrosity entirely dependent on sheer luck to defeat, forced me to give up so quickly or risk hurting myself trying.
Frustration of this kind makes me feel sick to my stomach, and it’s a horrible feeling. I don’t want to risk it… or even go through it for a game like this.
See, nothing about Portal: Prelude makes me want to stick around, so I don’t feel like I’ve lost anything at all important. The two humans… using synth voices in English… are nowhere as compelling or interesting as GlaDOS. What GlaDOS has isn’t exactly charisma, but it’s something – maybe it’s her insanity…? – and these two technicians just don’t have it. Not even slightly. The two puzzles I managed to solve – I’m not counting the test chamber, as that almost happens automatically – demonstrate two things puzzle-wise:
1. How to kill a player (me) over twenty times with the same set of blasted turrets, and…
2. Crouching? What? Crouching in the middle of a jump? Chell never needed this; Portal never even hinted it would do a thing. Apparently you get a hint about it… in 03, though.
I understand understanding we don’t want to go through learning to use the portalgun again; we have proper Portal for that. But…
Why. So. Difficult?

For nine months’ worth of work, it seems like a waste; I estimate this mod is unplayable to a moderate-to-large portion of the people who played and enjoyed the original Portal, either due to the lack of anything compelling from the original game to keep players’ interest, or earnest frustration reaching breaking point at being unable to solve something no matter how many times you quickload, maybe tweak a portal’s position, and try again. Even someone who reputedly breezed through the advanced maps had problems.
If the target audience of Portal: Prelude was purely the ‘hardcore’, solved-every-advanced-map crowd, then the designers succeeded. If the audience wasn’t just the ‘hardcore’, they made serious mistakes; underestimated the difficulty of the maps, severely overestimated the appeal and drive to continue through hardship and rampant death on the part of the players, I don’t know. Mistake, or mistakes, plural.
But, since they don’t rely on this mod as their significant source of income – though they have set up a donation page since so many people asked** – they can make whatever they want of it, without fear; they don’t have to appeal to a wider audience, or even think about being appealing at all.

It’s tempting to think they never did, in the first place.


* To be fair, it’s more-or-less balanced on the forums; some love it, some hate it. Some think it easy, more (?) think it difficult and/or impossible. Some write rave reviews, slightly more write ‘what Portal: Prelude did wrong’/condemnation. I figure whatever I have to say has been said there already, so I’m posting here instead.

** Needless to say, I haven’t donated. Plus, who knows that they didn’t plan it after all, and would have put the page up even if virtually no one asked? That’s just my Internet skepticism and cynicism, though.


  1. Jason said,

    October 11, 2008 at 12:17 am

    Great review. Nice to know I’m not alone before I quit for good.

  2. Exonfang said,

    October 11, 2008 at 7:09 pm

    You can’t have a “review” if you only got to the 2nd test chamber.

    Jump through the orange portal, pop out the blue, place one far behind the turrets, then hop back into the blue portal.

    They do give you hints after awhile as to how to complete the chambers, so its not like they are impossible.

  3. lioleus said,

    October 11, 2008 at 8:04 pm

    I think I can.
    I admitted I didn’t get any further, so anyone reading the review and thinking about it would realise I can only really say anything about the portions I reached, and where I say further, I try to mention where I got it from.
    I also admit I have no chance of finishing the game, so it’s either a review of what I managed to reach – again, clearly noted – or no review at all. ‘Thoughts’? ‘Miniview’? Either way, it boils down to a review, even if a limited one.

    That’s the first test chamber you’re talking about, not the second. I didn’t count the room you begin in, which lacks a sign.
    Now, the first test chamber, I couldn’t move fast enough to aim a portal without dying or falling back through the blue portal. Eventually I gave up on that obvious-yet-quite-impossible-for-me solution, jammed myself against the bulletproof glass wall behind the blue portal, and quicksaved.
    Then died another seven or so times. Not fun.

    Hints? Really? I didn’t get any through the twenty minutes I spent on a single portion of chamber 02.
    As I said, the problem is not anything that should need a hint – I knew where I needed to go – or presumed so, on the one I gave up at. Portal had much tougher puzzles but you didn’t have to have amazing skills to enact the solution once you realised it. They both require skill but they’re different kinds of skill.

  4. murgo said,

    October 11, 2008 at 8:49 pm

    Yeah, I too got stuck in the second room (the first jump of which) for like one hour until I had to check the forums whether I was the only one… Which I wasn’t.

    Then I got the hint for the crouching (though the developer(s?) insisted it’s not necessary) and managed to get through it, played to level 9 and realized that “this isn’t fun” and quit.

    It’s kinda lame to complain about a game that’s free, but I have to say how disappointed I am with it. They took everything fun out of original Portal’s puzzles and left us with very repeative, annoying, insanely hard and overall weak puzzles that only makes me feel nauseous.

    While checking out reviews from google I stepped upon a couple of reviews that were like this (http://www.custompc.co.uk/blogs/adampiper/2008/10/11/portalprelude-review/):

    “I have to admit though; I did mostly “noclip” through some challenges to get to the end. I just wanted to know what was going to happen in the end!

    So the game play, while tricky is pretty good.”

    That just made me laugh.

    • Yaro Kasear said,

      March 3, 2011 at 5:55 pm

      ” (though the developer(s?) insisted it’s not necessary)”

      The developers also insist this is simply an expert mod, when all it really is is a horribly crappy one.

  5. Razz said,

    October 21, 2008 at 5:46 pm

    I never made it to even playing the game, and reading this, I’m okay with that. I’m a high-stress gamer and really bad at PC games to boot (I killed Gordon Freeman in H-L in the tutorial level, and twice before the cascade event even happened XD; it was god mode from that point on :D). I wasn’t going to play this one after hearing the voice work and the clunky dialogue, though. Your review just makes me feel better about my decision. :D

  6. October 24, 2008 at 6:52 pm

    I agree that the two scientists aren’t nowhere near as awesome as GLaDOS was. However, later on in the game, there’s so much cool stuff. Especially the fight with the Newly-Activated GLaDOS. She can throw things around and pick you up and stuff.

  7. Muzozavr said,

    March 9, 2009 at 7:15 am

    First test chamber:
    1. Stay right near the orange portal.
    2. Move camera down, and make sure the exit is directly in front of you, not even slightly to the left and right.
    3. Jump, JUMP, JUMP… win.

    Yes, I’ve just ran through. I had no idea that you were supposed to disable the turrets until now.

  8. youlostthegame said,

    July 4, 2009 at 9:53 pm

    A little late, but I did finish the Prelude game. There are too many levels where you need to have mastery of the physics engine and luck (lots of that) in order to complete. and 02 is the worst of it all. 3 high platforms, low ceilings, and conventional “flinging” doesn’t work, I spent almost a week just thinking of strategies to finish it. Not to mention the fact that 02 was the most active forum level and the mods were like “Figure it out, its easy”

    My view of the game was just sadism on the developers part.

    • lioleus said,

      July 5, 2009 at 12:30 am

      Orchestrated sadism, if they ever said that.
      Because apparently I’m too hopeful to think they’re complete and utter idiots and would prefer to think that, instead.

      Level-testing with people who aren’t seasoned experts of the physics system in use is a GOOOOD thing…

      • Yaro Kasear said,

        March 3, 2011 at 5:58 pm

        They’re just pretending they intended it for seasoned for experts to cover up the fact that they rushed the mod and implemented some terrible level design choices. I couldn’t find any word from them that it was “advanced” until like, a week AFTER they released the mod. It’s pretty telling.

  9. Brosef said,

    April 25, 2010 at 10:32 am

    I haven’t even beat all the advanced maps, or touched a challenge map. I don’t know about glitches or cheats. But I tried Portal: Prelude anyway. The warnings against beginners were unsettling, but you know what I did? I PERSISTED. Some chambers took me incredibly long to solve, true, but I kept at it ( though admittedly, I glanced at a section of a walk-through once).

    Yes, it IS a difficult game, but it isn’t as hard as some paint it to be. With average skill, above average determination, and yes, some luck, the game is nowhere near impossible, and can prove to be an incredibly rewarding experience.

    Seriously. All you need is perseverance. I kid you not.

    Of course, if the thrill victory alone isn’t enough and you don’t want to bother seeing what’s at the end, so be it.

    Just saying, despite its difficulty, it’s a helluva ride.

    • lioleus said,

      April 25, 2010 at 11:08 am

      Too difficult for me. That’s not saying it’s too difficult for other people, but even today I get a sick feeling of frustration thinking about it.
      I have average skill, but also only average determination for this game; GLaDOS was compelling, synth voices were not. I did not notice (…or don’t remember, now, as it’s been ages since I tried) any warnings against ‘beginners’ in the game, let alone average players.

      Still, if it’s fun, it’s a game. Glad someone enjoyed it.

  10. Dervish said,

    May 7, 2010 at 10:06 pm

    If a puzzle doesn’t make you get stuck for at least 10 minutes, it’s an easy puzzle. Dude. Have you ever played an adventure game?

    If you get physically ill when you think about frustration, maybe video games–or anything that involves challenge–aren’t for you. Stick to movies or rollercoasters. There’s nothing wrong about having those preferences, but sheesh, man, realize that’s a weakness of yours and not the game’s.

    I have a problem with different tastes, but I have a problem with you thinking you’re qualified to review something when you can’t play it. “I’m bad at this and didn’t enjoy it” is an inoffensive blog post. “I’m bad at this and therefore I recommend you do not play it” is offensively bad criticism.

    • Dervish said,

      May 7, 2010 at 10:07 pm

      I meant, of course, that I don’t have a problem with different tastes. But “hey, different people just like different stuff” is poor grounds for reviewing.

      • lioleus said,

        May 7, 2010 at 11:13 pm

        Actually, yes. Monkey Island 1 and 2, Day of the Tentacle, Torin’s Passage, The Whispered World, and a number of others. I play text adventures, too. If I get stuck, I keep trying things. Anything. So long as I’m motivated to continue.
        I’m not above checking guides if I get really stuck, though.

        So what are reviews supposed to be, then? They’re almost-entirely subjective as a medium.
        In the general structure of reviews that people seem to stick to, there tends to be an entire section on ‘graphics’; if a person doesn’t happen to like pixel-based graphics, they’re not likely to review pixel-based graphics well. Calling it ‘old-fashioned’ or ‘too blocky’ or ‘doesn’t have enough visual detail’ or any other justification rather than saying ‘I just don’t like pixels’, because then you just get asked ‘why are you playing this game if you don’t like such an obvious element?’ or told ‘man, how subjective.’
        Of course, a pixel-based game could legitimately not have enough detail for a person to play it well. So could a 3D game, and it’s a legitimate problem for both.
        The thing about games is they’re made to be played. Like movies are meant to be watched, and roller-coasters are meant to be ridden. Okay, really they’re made to be sold, but if you make and sell bad games, you’re likely to sell less games in future as people have less faith in your ability to design an enjoyable experience. Enjoyable experiences are generally subjective. Not everyone loves bananas; some people, like me, utterly detest the things.

        I attempted to be balanced in my review. I said there are people who probably will enjoy this, and people who probably won’t enjoy it; outlined why I considered this to be the case. It’s not an outright horrible game. But considering I thought that the audience for the review would contain more people who would probably not enjoy the game than people who would, my overall verdict was still to avoid it. Is my review less credible for attempting to look at the game in that fashion? Would you trust it less than a review that went ‘Wow! You simply MUST play this game!’ or another that read ‘Ugh! This is just a piece of trash! Don’t even look at this thing, you’re wasting your time!’, with whatever level of justification you want? Would it have been better if I’d left out the verdict, and let the rest stand without?

        I admit I wouldn’t do that when reviewing… Micro Machines, for example. I wouldn’t say ‘if you don’t like racing games, don’t play this’. Why, then, did I think it was necessary to state ‘So. Difficult.’ for this? Because most people who play it are going to come to it after playing Portal, at minimum, and the difficulty, at the very least, is hugely different from that of Portal itself, with little or no advance warning. As of the time of the review.

        So, I’ll state it. At the end of the day, Portal: Prelude is a freely-available game, if you have the prerequisite for playing it. If a person doesn’t agree with my review, or thinks I haven’t covered something they’re curious about, what is stopping them from picking it up themselves to try it out?

      • Dervish said,

        May 8, 2010 at 1:09 am

        There’s no reply button under your post so I hope I’m keeping the correct tree structure here.

        Anyway, you are correct about subjectivity. All criticism is subjective. But there are still reasons and justifications that can be offered–a critic is supposed to explain why his particular tastes or preferences are something the reader should care about and listen to.

        So, if you’re going to complain that Prelude sucks because it has too many difficult reflex-based challenges, I hope you have an article titled “Why Difficult Reflex-Based Challenges Suck” you can link to in the footnotes.

        That may seem like an exaggeration, but as is, you basically just say, “It was really hard, and I didn’t like that!” Sure, a bunch of people will agree with you, because they’re not very good at it either. But you’re not supposed to pandering. You’re supposed to be the expert. Otherwise you might as well summarize the game Wikipedia-style with a “If this sounds good to you, go for it!” tag at the end.

        What’s funny is that your descriptions are fine. Your characterization of the mod and the design differences between it and Portal are well-written and basically on point. You paint a good picture. I guess I’m mostly taking issue with your tone–and yes, the verdict. Not because it wasn’t MY verdict, but because it takes some arrogance to pass that kind of judgment when you are looking UP at a game beyond your ability instead of looking DOWN on it. Good criticism is backed up by authority–by expertise. To call the game a “waste” and points out “mistakes” puts you in a position of authority that is undeserved by a dude who couldn’t beat the first few chambers.

        That, and the “10 minutes on a puzzle = too much” just really irked me.

        So yeah. You don’t know me and have no reason to pay attention to a lecture on proper reviewing. But there it is. You’re on Google’s first page for “Portal Prelude review,” I stopped by and saw some things that bother me in mainstream reviews, and I wanted to complain about them. Serious business, etc.

  11. Timanth said,

    August 21, 2010 at 1:47 am

    To continue to revive a dead thread, I just recently got introduced to Portal: Prelude by a friend stating it was the “most awesome thing ever.”

    So, being a fan of Portal, I went like a good little fanboy and immediately downloaded the game.

    I have to say that before I played Prelude, I really didn’t know how to smoothly play Portal. My playthrough of the original game was riddled with thinking and sporadic stops in Portalling. After playing through Prelude, though, I went back to the original game to play through the commentary and found the play much more intuitive, smooth, and generally graceful as I sailed through the chambers.

    I also have to say that I found Prelude frustrating at first (although I have to say that having synth voices crack these jokes lent some sort of creepy black humor to it that I quite thoroughly enjoyed, and getting whacked in the face with a weighted cube in the very first chamber was an awesome joke). It took awhile to figure out that the design flaw wasn’t in the mod’s designers but with Valve’s source engine itself. For some reason, Chel/Abby moves faster BACKWARDS and SIDEWAYS in midair rather than FORWARDS. So as a result, many jumps can be easily done by side-strafing or backing up coming out of a portal rather than rotating and walking forwards. Don’t ask me why, but the Source engine just does things that way, and thus a lot of the jumps are easier to make like that.

    But before I figured that out, I was repeatedly frustrated by the jump chamber (02). I complained to my friend, who simply replied that they just made Portal concepts “non-trivial.” While that might be abit of a broad sweeping statement, I do agree that Portal was a little too easy for such a unique concept.

    As I progressed through the game, however, the sheer genius of what the creators had done (especially with the later levels) began to rub off on me, and I began to understand why my friend had described Prelude as “amazing.” Sure, the beginning is abit slow, but once you figure it out, it becomes much more intuitive.

    Besides, with Portal 2 coming out, the preview videos show gameplay a lot more similar to that in Prelude than in Portal 1 (more on-the-fly thinking, etc.) So think of Prelude as preparing you for Portal 2. ^_^

    • lioleus said,

      August 21, 2010 at 1:49 am

      Well, it’s not like my opinion is the only valid one out there.

  12. Shawn Deprey said,

    January 3, 2011 at 10:23 pm

    HAHA. I am downloading this mod right now. I am in that veteran bracket you spoke of, so, I am doubtful it will give me trouble. I will come back if it does however!

  13. Yaro Kasear said,

    March 3, 2011 at 5:51 pm

    Prelude sucks. There’s no real way to get around it. The level design is absolutely messy. They took no real lessons from Valve’s own level design philosophies, which were designed to make sure that, while it can be challenging, the player doesn’t have to be an insane EXPERT of the game they’re playing.

    9 Months is not. I repeat, NOT enough time to develop a project like that, and the level design shows CLEARLY how rushing a game project is stupid. They deflected complaints about the absolutely broken level design by trying to pass off Prelude as some sort of intentionally Nintendo Hard monstrosity, but the reality is that no, trying to retroactively claim that your Mod was meant for experts isn’t going to fool anyone into thinking you can actually make a Portal mod.

    There’s “Advanced Portal techniques” then there’s having to turn off things like the portal funnel and, yes, even enabling cheats to slightly decrease gravity just to make your chambers playable.

    I played it for 20 minutes. Went online to look at reviews because I got fed up that early in the game, and found that, yes, most mod players despise this game and for the same reasons I do.

    I remember one review I read about this mod that basically stated that this mod is basically a huge compilation of every problem you’ll get out of 99% of the bonus chambers you’ll find on the Internet. This is not something that makes it “better” for experts. It’s just a plain old poorly designed mod. Simple as that.

    There are other annoying aspects that make no design sense that I think the developers did PURELY so they could say they aren’t like Valve. Starting you off with the orange-only portal gun forces the player to right-click through many portals awkwardly, just so the developers coul demonstrate something anyone who has played through Portal knew: That orange portals are entrances as well as exits. For this moronic lesson they made their game control that much more awkward in an already awkward game.

    Then there’s the robotic voices. I can ignore them well enough IF NOT for the fact that the idiots practically lock you from progressing anywhere until they conclude. Again, this wouldn’t be a problem if it was maybe a few seconds’ delay. But the two (supposedly human) characters are 1. Not funny in the slightest. 2. Talk about nothing important at all, and 3. Go one for like, three minutes a pop, keeping you siting on your ass in various places waiting for the door or blue portal to open, which takes so long because the writers couldn’t keep the banter to the GLaDOS golden standard.

    GlaDOS would talk plenty, but she never ever locked you in a room to lecture you about how she couldn’t tell the difference between a blue and orange portal for no reason like the idiot characters in Prelude did. If GLaDOS had something to say that took a little while to say, she let you progress so your gameplay wouldn’t be interrupted by what she was saying. The designers of Prelude seemed to think that what they were saying was more important than actually playing the mod. Also, by what stretch of the imagination would TTS voices actually convince anyone that they’re being tested by HUMANS? I know they’re French (When was the last time the French made a good video game anyway? Name me a single good French video game. Japan, Canada and the United States are way ahead of Europe on the game design thing.), but given the resources they obviously had in making this game, getting American or British voice actors would not have been an even remotely difficult step. The robotic voices were part of why the “jokes” failed so much in delivery, aside from the fact that the jokes themselves were pretty much not at all funny to begin with.

    Finally, there was the overuse of the turrets. Turrets in the original Portal were used to make the player STOP moving in a more direct way and start thinking, again, with Portals, about ways to not only get past the turrets, but knock them down. Valve never once threw the players into a room with turrets just to introduce fake difficulty. Never once did Valve put them in there in a way that just by entering the chamber you’ll get shot to bits by the turrets. Right in the first chamber the designers of Prelude hid two turrets from any view of the player, so that the moment they exit the portal, they’re either sprinting for the elevator or they’re dead. That is not good or challenging level design, it’s just plain BAD level design. The guys behind Prelude should have put at least 2 years into Prelude and did actual playtesting. If they had, they would have found that maybe 90% of the stuff that went into their mod was badly done, and NOT FUN.

    I’m removing Portal: Prelude, and if anyone asks me if they should play this, I will not hesitate to say NO.

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