The Portal games are genuine classics – brilliant, inventive first-person puzzle games that combine an inventive gameplay mechanic, mind-bending designs and witty storytelling to create a truly special experience. However, the fact is that these games have essentially been absent from the console space since their original releases in 2007 and 2011 respectively. Aside from enhanced backwards compatibility support on Xbox, we’ve seen nothing new from either game since the PlayStation 3/Xbox 360 era. The good news is that this changed spectacularly last week with the release of Portal: The Companion Collection.
This new double-pack from Valve and Nvidia Lightspeed Studios combines Portal 1 and Portal 2 along with bonus gameplay content at an attractive £13.49/$19.99. Both games run on the landmark Source engine, most famous for powering 2004’s Half-Life 2, so obviously, we’re not looking at state-of-the-art technology here. However, brilliance in game and art design make both titles a great match for Nintendo’s hybrid console and it’s been fantastic to revisit these games, which turn out to be a perfect fit for the platform.
Before we go into platform differences, it’s worth discussing the basic graphical makeup of both titles and the huge artistic and technical improvements made between the two games. Portal is essentially a series of basic puzzle rooms. The puzzles are interesting enough but the environments are simple, with rudimentary flat-textured walls, angular geometry and a heavy reliance on baked lighting and shadows. The game has an austere look with repetitive, straightforward artwork. Given the constraints of the project – developed by a team of about 10 people – these limitations make sense.
Unfortunately, the Source engine and tools at the time were incapable of delivering the sort of subtle detail that a smaller-scale game demands. Portal mostly lacks normal-mapping, has little in the way of specular lighting, and has no environmental shadow maps, techniques common in other games from the period. The artistic constraints of a game like Portal might make this effort more challenging but there were certainly accomplished depictions of small-scale spaces in earlier titles, like 2004’s Doom 3, for example. In this case, it’s the design of the game that shines through to this day – but the sequel improves matters in all regards.
Portal 2 was based around the same conceit as its predecessor – a linear series of puzzle rooms – but it depicted the gameplay environment after years of disuse, giving the artists an excuse to fill environments with foliage and natural light. Areas were genuinely varied and were broken up by extended cinematic gameplay sequences through large environments. Technically Portal 2 ran on an evolution of the Source engine technology featured in Half-Life 2 Episode 2, which meant an extensive use of shadow maps, HDR-based lighting, and high quality particle effects. Source was showing its age by this point but a combination of art tweaks, new tech, and a larger production budget produced a much better-looking effort.
Stacking up the new Switch port with the Xbox 360 original doesn’t reveal much – both versions look much the same. The Switch releases tend to have a bit more contrast in general, particularly in the first game, but shadows, object draw and lighting seem identical. Image quality is where things diverge: the Xbox 360 code runs at 720p on both titles, with no form of anti-aliasing in the first game and a primitive blur filter in the second. Impressively, the Switch release hands in full 1080p while docked with what appears to be 2x MSAA, providing a substantial boost to image detail and quality. Fine features resolve much more clearly and with more stability. Dynamic resolution is a possibility but I didn’t notice it during my testing.
We don’t often see MSAA deployed on Switch but its advantages are obvious – edge aliasing is reduced while maintaining clarity and sharpness, meaning that these games feature very strong image quality for Switch titles. Portable mode gets a cut to 720p as expected, with MSAA as well for the first game, though Portal 2 has no form of anti-aliasing whatsoever in portable play. Outside of resolution, visual settings seem identical between portable and docked play.
Xbox 360 comparisons are one thing, but I thought it might be fun to stack up these ports against the native Linux versions running on Steam Deck – and they still hold up well. Perhaps not surprisingly, the higher performance handheld can run both games locked at 1080p60 with 4x MSAA and improved texture filtering, but otherwise, Switch is on par with the Deck. There’s not much room for settings enhancements beyond Xbox 360 or PS3 even on much more capable PC hardware – and in fact, I’d venture to say that a Switch OLED model may be preferable overall, simply owing to the superior display. Some of the technical annoyances sometimes experienced on the Deck dampen the overall experience as well, such as controller input curves that aren’t well-suited to an Xbox controller for TV play.
Returning to Switch specifically, performance is really where this port goes above and beyond. For a bit of context, the original PS3 and Xbox 360 releases aimed for a 30fps target and were generally quite stable – though on Xbox 360 there were some unfortunate frame-pacing issues. 30fps works perfectly fine for these titles, but an increase in fluidity would certainly be appreciated and that’s exactly what we’re seeing on Switch, with a target 60fps that’s met for the vast majority of play on both titles.
Occasional duplicate frames do pop up during traversal and sticking the camera right up to dense alpha effects expectedly can cause issues, but in general we are getting a solid 60fps in docked play. Portals themselves prove the primary issue in docked play, mind you – the addition of a second viewport can cause some frame-rate hiccups at times, and loading portals into view often causes short but noticeable performance issues depending on the complexity of the scene(s). It’s not a big deal though and rarely intrudes on the experience.
Portable mode mostly clears up these performance concerns. Portals run just fine in handheld mode, while the slight stutter during traversal is rarer. It runs very well indeed – essentially a locked 720p60 in typical play. The combination of the higher performance target alongside boosted image quality really makes this port special. The Switch is well suited to the demands of seventh-generation console titles, and typically delivers resolution enhancements in ported games. However, the doubling of frame-rate is much less typical and impressively, we get a 720p/1080p split across portable and docked play as well. It’s a very impressive effort.
On a global level, this release does remind us that perhaps Valve might like to consider updating its classic catalogue for modern console hardware in the way that it periodically refreshes the PC originals: 4K60 would be a walk in the park for both titles on today’s Microsoft and Sony machines, and who wouldn’t like to revisit the Half-Life saga on their latest devices? For now though, the Portal Companion Collection is a truly excellent Switch port. Sharp image quality and solid performance land this well above the typical Switch conversion and put the system on solid footing against much more powerful hardware. This is a superb translation of two great games that shows the Nintendo hybrid at its best.