Weird weapon. Great game.
You know the Rifleman's Creed? "This is my rifle. There are many like it, but this one is mine. My rifle is my best friend. It is my life. I must master it as I must master my life." In arcade-style indie game Particle Mace you'll probably feel just as the rifleman does.
Only, you're not a dude with a gun. You're a spaceship tethered to a bunch of particles that swing around with your every move (that's what destroys enemy ships and nets you points). It's kind of like old-school Atari game Surround, except your tail does much more than just sit there. The result is a rad little game, all controlled with a single joystick/thumbstick.
When I got the chance to play the game in Brooklyn last week, I often felt the relationship with my weapon growing bitter. Rifles are supposed to be functional and reliable, whereas the space junk you drag around in Particle Mace is seriously unwieldy. That doesn't mean you can't learn some sweet maneuvers, like pulling a sudden 180 to bungee your particles forward, or coasting ahead of your opponents to leave your tail in their paths.
There are quite a few different ships to fly. They mostly differ in speed but also in the length of their tethers and in "friction," the rate at which your particles slow to an eventual stop. Without the friction mechanic you could come to a stop and your tethers would keep orbiting (as they would in real life, in actual space!).
The "fast" ship is quickest of course, but has longer tethers so you have to be a bit more calculating to swing your particles on a specific point. "It also means if someone gets close to you, it's really tricky to hit them," says Andy Wallace, the game's creator. "When the fast ship had normal length tethers it was so dominant."
Wallace has been tweaking the formula since 2011, when he was designing the game for iOS. Back then, Particle Mace wasn't quite as original. Your ship could shoot and had a dynamic shield to absorb asteroid hits. The shooting wasn't as fun as the shield mechanic, says Wallace. "So eventually I nixed the shooting, turned the shield into a weapon, and that's how you got Particle Mace."
Then there's co-op mode, where players work together to clear their environment of asteroids and other baddies. Every now and again, the level's deadly contours—a thick white line—will shift around, meaning everyone better get moving. But even if just one player's left, they'll often get the chance to revive their colleagues by breaching moving boxes with (what else?) their particles. Friends to be rescued emit colored waves from off-screen. That makes for a lot of aesthetic flourish, but the game design is smartly tuned to allow for lots of visual stimulus without causing confusion.
Or at least, not too much of it. Particle Mace demands your attention on a few levels, so confusion is part of the appeal. Offense and defense are kind of muddled together; whatever evasive action you take in one instant determines the path of your particles in the very next. Sometimes the funnest thing to do is to not think too much, and just sail right into the thick of it.
Particle Mace is currently in pre-alpha on Windows and Mac. This preview is based on the arcade version with joystick and also Xbox 360 controller. You can get it for $5 on the game’s site, or wait for its final release—in a few months’ time—on Steam.