Particle Fleet: Emergence

Gemcraft wasn’t the only long-running originally-in-Flash series to get an update in 2020: the anticipated fourth entry in the Creeper World series was released, bringing its fight-the-ocean gameplay into full 3D and provoking the same sort of “Oh, so that’s how I was supposed to be picturing it!” reactions as other suddenly-in-3D games like Final Fantasy VII and Ocarina of Time. I haven’t played it yet, but the release did spur me to try out Particle Fleet: Emergence, another similar game by the same devs and set in the same fictional universe. I found it satisfying and reasonably short.

The basic idea behind PF:E is that it’s like Creeper World, except that instead of the enemy being emitters that produce a slowly-spreading viscous substance that tends to pool in low places, the emitters produce particles that drift about the battlefield aimlessly and independently, weakly attracted to your own forces. To fit this, the battlefield is shifted into space — specifically, “Redacted Space”, a no-go zone chock-a-block with asteroids and shattered planets positioned to channel the mindless particulate in tactically interesting ways.

The main way this affects gameplay is a reduction of the scale of things, probably to keep that particulate from diffusing too much. Instead of building a vast army of autocannons to defend your border on multiple fronts, you have a fleet of about a dozen ships max. You can rebuild ships when they get destroyed, but you’re limited in what you can have under your control at a time — in-fiction, this is explained by your galactic empire being essentially corporatist, and your company’s fleet being constrained by license agreements. And yet, despite this, the game managed to get me thinking of the ships as essentially individuals, cooperating as a team rather than as an army. Again, the scale helps with this. But so does the way that most of the ships are unique in some way. Even just their shape can make them meaningfully different from one another: damage isn’t just a matter of lowering a stat displayed in a little bar graph, but physically carves chunks out of the ships where they were hit, block by block, disabling any weapons or engines mounted on the destroyed bits. There’s one ship whose chief virtue is that it has an extra-thick fan-shaped block of hull in front, and I frequently used it to shield the more fragile “Lance” ships as they moved in on an emitter. Afterward, if it survived, it would visibly be severely damaged by the battle, carved into a different shape than when it started. That’s character development.

For all that, it plays a lot like Creeper World! It’s all about advancing bit by bit, establishing a safe perimeter and then making risky sallies beyond it to seize important locations, with a big emphasis on supply lines, both maintaining yours and cutting off the enemy’s. In Creeper World, you were limited by your network of Collectors, which you could build anywhere, as long as you could defend them. Particle Fleet instead puts a fixed number of energy sources on the map, which, once claimed, provide healing and ammo to anything within a certain range. This gives the level designer more control over how you can advance, but the cadence of that advancement still has the same basic feel. It’s hard to capture in words, but I bet any strategy game made by the same people would feel this way.

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