Originally a “freemium” mobile game, Manticore for the Nintendo Switch is actually the third entry in the Galaxy on Fire franchise, a series of action adventure games set during a time in which mankind has learned to thrive in space. Manticore: Galaxy on Fire stands alone just fine and doesn’t require the player to know anything about what events transpired in the past. As a fairly straightforward arcade-style space shooter, this is one mobile game port I really got into.
In Manticore, you play the part of a rookie pilot taken in by the eponymous mercenary group Manticore after they rescued you from a pirate ambush. Casting your lot with this rag tag bunch of gold-hearted mercs puts you in the position to escort a Terran Federation delegation en route to a special conference in the Neox sector. The goal of the conference is to divide and set up sovereign territories among the ruling powers to prevent an all out war over Glow, an essential energy resource native to the Neox area. Just as the proceedings are about to get underway, a massive explosion triggers the near total destruction of a nearby moon, a disaster that destroys almost every ship, starbase, and fighter escort in the region. Manticore’s numbers are dramatically reduced as they consolidate what’s left and figure out what - or who - caused the explosion taking hundreds of lives with it. This tragedy, referred to as The Shattering, has a ripple effect on the entire story as Manticore cuts its way up the chain of a ruthless pirate band in search for the truth.
Manticore follows a story progression built around completing strike missions against key space pirates. From the comfort of your starship, you’ll engage in different activities, such as escorting and protecting frigates, defending large battleships, weakening defenses, patrolling sectors, track stealth ships, and scan cargo freighters, to draw out pirate warlords. Once the target is defeated, you’ll jump to the next area to fight another boss (or engage in some light, non-essential missions) or stick around to explore the area and collect secret items. Pirate bosses are not like the cannon fodder goons that precede their arrival. Armed with better ships, weapons, and equipment, defeating these ace pilots takes a little more work because of how they can affect the battle with radar jammers, energy shields that refill health when shot, mines, and blinding countermeasures. Additionally, boss ships are often susceptible to specific kinds of fire power. If you jump from system to system, you won’t exactly know what enemies are weak to. However, if you take the time to board the Manticore ship base and navigate to the stage select screen, you’ll be told exactly which weapon type that boss ship is weak against. The Manticore base is also where you can customize your ship loadouts. You’ll start the game with a pretty average fighter but you’ll soon earn a handsome collection of ships from fallen enemies as well as blueprints for stronger, more powerful fighters. Each fighter can be equipped with a primary and secondary weapon and also missiles and technical gadgets, like a cloaking device and EMP based weapons.
Upgrading your ship is the best way to address the ever-increasing space pirate threats that come about with killing your way up the food chain. Completing missions rewards experience points, increases in player rank, new weapons and ships. One of the most valuable rewards is a special, crystallized material that is used to upgrade the ship’s performance along with the strength and efficiency of weapons and technology. Upgrades are connected to your player rank which limits how often you can boost your stuff which, I assume, is to prevent the player getting too overpowered and unbalanced against the game. That being said, it always feels like there’s a wide gap between the ranks you need to hit before an upgrade becomes available. On the plus side, it does make hoarding the crystals (you won’t use it for anything else) allowing you to splurge whenever you are allowed to beef up your vehicle.
I liked Manticore a whole lot because it's a solidly built, arcade-style space sim. Piloting the ship feels really good even though you can’t do much outside of pitch, yaw, and a flashy evade maneuver. Though the ship’s moveset is pretty limited, I never felt like I had to wrestle with the control scheme or learn to make do with limitations. Primary and secondary weapons are mapped to reasonable locations on the Switch controllers, be they the Joy Cons or Wireless Pro controller (which I used). Another technical part of the game I liked were the graphics. Manticore can be absolutely pretty at times which made me wonder how much post-mobile work was done for such lovely visuals. The game’s vision of space isn’t a sea of inky blackness punctuated by starts and the occasional sun, planet, or galaxy. Each area you’ll fly into has a distinct look designed around notable structures and environmental hazards, like blown apart frigates and battleships. You might find yourself in the middle of a Terran military outpost or entertainment district in one corner of space and a dangerous asteroid field or, my favorite, a massive cargo distribution hub in other. While it wasn’t necessary (because enemy attacks are easily managed), I had a lot of fun evading pirate ships by ducking and weaving my way through barely passable gaps in star base structures and floating shipwrecks, evading fire and forcing them into dangerous pursuits only because I thought it felt cool to do. And it did!
At first, I wasn’t expecting a whole lot from Manticore: Galaxy on Fire because it was a mobile game port - and the third game in pre-existing series, to boot. But because of its tight controls, fun (if repetitive) gameplay and great graphics, I grew really fond of it over time. Furthermore, the game scratches my constant itch for space sims and even though it doesn’t have the depth of, say, Wing Commander or Elite: Dangerous, I still had fun exploring modestly-sized portions of space, customizing my equipment, and laying waste to pirate scum. I’d even go as far to hold out hope for a more fully-featured, console-sized sequel. If taking to space in a starfighter built to send murderous bandits into the cold vacuum of space is your idea of a good time, then Manticore: Galaxy on Fire is certainly worth considering.
Librarian by day, Darkstation review editor by night. I've been playing video games since the days of the Commodore 64 and I have no interest in stopping now that I've made it this far.