If you’ve ever wondered what happens when you put particle physics and puzzle games into a Large Hadron Collider, the answer you’re looking for is Particulars, a puzzle game about all the complicated stuff you didn’t understand in science class. In concept, the game seems pretty interesting, requiring the player to actually think in order to accomplish the task set out for them at the beginning of each level. In execution, this is a game with a wildly varying difficulty level, which sometimes matches the wild and uncontrollable movements of the player-particle.
The concept of Particulars’ gameplay is relatively simple: use your particle to affect the other particles and avoid being annihilated. The notion of affecting other particles actually covers a broad range of activities, including annihilating pairs of different particles to collect data, starving black holes, or creating new types of particles by shifting your charge and merging with others. Throughout the game’s ten chapters, Particulars does a good job of challenging the player in new ways and introducing novel gameplay elements to create constant variation. The problem with this variation is that it can result in peaks and valleys in terms of the difficulty level. To introduce new gameplay concepts at the beginning of each chapter, levels become extremely easy, focusing solely on the new concept. As you progress through the levels in a chapter, other elements are added back in, and the difficulty ramps up significantly. The steep difficulty curve seemed to be a constant theme throughout the game, and I often found myself getting overly-frustrated and having to step away. This level of difficulty may be discouraging to some players, and if I weren’t reviewing the game, I probably would have put this one down. I’m not saying that games shouldn’t be difficult or challenging, but Particulars seems to be intentionally overly-difficult.
The excessively challenging nature of Particulars is due in part to the lack of any explanation of the game’s mechanics and objectives. Unfortunately, the developers took the minimalist approach to the gameplay and visuals and extended it to the instructions at the beginning of each level, opting to force players to figure things out on their own. The option to skip a level at any point leads one to believe that they understood they were making a game that was potentially too difficult for some players, and while those that are gluttons for punishment will avoid using this, others will find it a welcome release from a level that you have tried and failed countless times. I tried to avoid using it as much as possible, but there were still a few levels that I just couldn’t solve and had to skip in order to get to the end of the game.
In order to justify the gameplay, the developers crafted a nonsensical plot with little explanation. Story elements are delivered through quotes displayed on-screen at the beginning of each level and cutscenes at the beginning of each chapter. The quotes seem to be delivering the backstory of the main character Alison, who appears to be having troubles with her family and social life. I say appears because nothing is really explicitly stated or clarified. The character history is difficult to follow, as the quotes don’t seem to be delivered in any particular order. Each has a name and a date attached to it, and they jump around from different points in the character’s past to conversations she seems to be having in the present. In addition to this, sometimes these quotes are drawn from real books or historical figures, further confusing the attempt at a story. The cutscense feature little to no dialogue, and instead attempt to present a narrative involving the character leaving a storage unit where the game is actually taking place, meeting friends at a bar, embarrassing herself, stealing food, and then getting caught. Furthermore, these scenes are repeated in different chapters, giving a little more information but still not enough to make the story make sense. This game probably would have been better off if the developers had just left the story element out and simply delivered a puzzle game about particle physics.
In terms of presentation, the visuals are well-rendered and simplistic. During gameplay, the screen is dotted by the glowing colors of the different particles against a soft glowing, white background. The particles are crisp and look good on-screen, and the game manages to look good while only utilizing a few colors to signify the charges of different particles. The only problem with this limited palette is that as things get more hectic on-screen, it becomes easier to lose your particle in the mix, which usually ends in your annihilation and having to start over. The cutscenes are presented in a hand-drawn comic book style, which also looks good and fits with the minimalist aesthetic. But while I would have loved to have played a game that tells an interesting story in this style, or played a puzzle game utilizing the visual style of the gameplay of Particulars, unfortunately the marriage between these two elements just doesn’t work.
In addition to the lack of explanation and overly-difficult gameplay, the game itself didn’t load correctly the first time I played and the top layer of the visuals seemed to be missing, making an already difficult game even more challenging. When I went back to play the second time, the problem had resolved itself. While I have been unable to determine what caused this issue, or if others who have played the game have had similar difficulties, it is still another element that might be too discouraging for the casual player.