Mace, the Final Frontier – Particle Mace smashes its way to the stars.
For all that we talk about presentation, complex mechanics, and deep storytelling, there’s still a lot to be said for simple, arcade-y fun. Once in a while, we need something that feels like Asteroids, or Geometry Wars, or even a fusion of the two. A fusion of the two, with some Osmos-like physics, and a mace of space junk to sling around. A fusion called Particle Mace. As if it wasn’t obvious, just such a time has come.
Particle Mace places players aboard a ship lost in space, with no conventional weapons to protect them from the hostile enemy life advancing through space. When all else fails, though, the ships tractor beams come through, essentially chaining particles of space junk to the ship, chunks of junk that can be swung around to hit enemies and asteroids out of the way. The concept is simple at heart, and executed beautifully.
Particles will move into a neutral standing position if the ship stands still, but they are only moved and swung around by the momentum of the ship. Initially, the game encourages players to get the mace moving by flying around in large circles, but other strategies can work as well. A personal favorite strategy of mine is to pick up speed by flying towards the target, only to suddenly switch directions and fly away, directing your particles to hit whatever you were flying towards before getting pulled away by the ships travel again.
The kind of strategy players might adopt will also vary based on the kind of ship they choose to pilot. The game opens up with only one basic, well-rounded ship to fly, with a handful of others unlockable by completing various goals. Some examples of ship variety include a slow ship whose speed is made up for by much bigger particles, one whose particles are always spaced a certain distance apart from each other as if on a grid, and a quirky one that can only move in six distinct directions. My personal favorite is Cascade, a ship with particles that hang at varying outward distances, creating a sort of wave-shaped curtain in place of a typical mace.
In order to unlock all the ships, players will have to invest time and effort into both of Particle Mace‘s single-player modes. Both modes share a simple enough goal; survive and smash stuff, all while getting your score as high as you can. Asteroids simply yield a point each, while enemies yield 10. Killing an enemy will start a window of time that will give you a score multiplier if you kill a second enemy quickly enough, multiplying in increments of 10 all the way up to 100. Enemies vary from wandering foes that pay you no mind to a couple different kinds of more aggressive ones, including ones that will pinwheel into you or hover tauntingly at the end of your mace’s range before going in for the kill.
Arcade mode is simple enough, placing players in an arena of enemies and meteors to smash. The longer voyagers fight, the more the arena will change, with its highly lethal walls moving, shrinking, growing, or changing the shape of the starbound battlefield. Arcade mode features multiple difficulties, including an asteroids-only mode, featuring a sea of giant green space rocks to work around.
On the other hand is mission mode, where the real meat of single-player is, especially to first-timers. Mission mode will throw objectives at players in groups of three, exchanging the possibility of a giant checklist for much more simple assemblies or tasks. These can vary from traveling to points on the battlefield to killing a certain number of enemies within a certain timeframe, with the details getting trickier and eventually straight-up brutal as more challenges are cleared.
Some challenges go well together; at one point I got the matchup of having to hit no enemies for 30 seconds, and only having one particle attached to my ship. Other times, the way they line up can actually make them more challenging; one mission required me to hit nothing for a minute, while another equipped me with particles that shot out wildly in all directions at the start of the match. Guess what they did: they hit things! Learning when to tackle multiple objectives at once and when to focus on one is part of what makes Particle Mace’s mission mode enjoyable, but it can also be frustrating. I didn’t find myself halted from progressing for long until about two thirds of the way through the challenges, but when the moment finally came, it was not because of the challenge of any individual task so much as the combination of the three I was given, a combination making it impossible to complete any of them without a frustrating amount of trial-and-error. Nothing is impossible, though. Just very, very hard.
What with space being, well, rather large, Particle Mace boasts a multiplayer co-op mode. Two to four players will fly around an arcade mode arena in any difficulty setting, with both of their scores feeding into a single score pool. If one player is incapacitated, the other can revive them by slamming their mace into them; friendship is, after all, extremely violent like that. Unfortunately, this multiplayer mode is limited to local co-op, requiring multiple compatible USB controllers plugged into one PC. The game can be fast enough that online play might get choppy and laggy, so it’s an understandable shortcoming.
Particle Mace doesn’t waste time with anything fancy in terms of presentation. Its visuals are very simplistic, but will sometimes get creative with the background of space, occasionally looking like a static-filled TV screen, or glowing green. The music is fun and engaging without getting distracting, and fits the game’s tone very well. The only error in presentation, itself the only truly substantial fault I’ve found in the game at all, is how the visuals react to you taking out an enemy. Whenever a foe is maced, the kill is accompanied by a loud sound, a pulse of red, and a coupe seconds of slowdown. While this certainly looks nice, it can actually be a bit distracting and disengaging from the games flow, in instances that require a lot of concentration. If I’m being pursued by a storm of thirty enemies and I’m taking them out three at a time while evading their interceptions, the last thing I need is a distraction every time I smash one. It’s certainly not game-breaking, but it takes some getting used to.
Particle Mace reminds us of why simplicity is important. The mace mechanic is straightforward, elegant, and extremely fun. Trying out each new ship and figuring out what fits ones individual play style, as well as what’s most suited for certain challenges, expands this simple mechanic into something with surprising variety. Mission mode gives players a huge slab of objectives to take care of, and all of them are a lot of fun, even once the difficulty starts to ascend more and more rapidly. Arcade mode is flawless and replayable, with the ability to hop into the depths of space with a buddy doubling its value. Occasional distracting effects can only do so much to damage the hull of this otherwise pristine, simple, and practical voyager of the stars. I give it four and a half weaponized space trash bags out of five.
Final verdict: 4.5/5
Available on: PC (Reviewed); Publisher: Andy Wallace; Developer: Andy Wallace; Players: 1-4 (local only); Released: January 22nd, 2015; ESRB: N/A ; MSRP: $8.99