The life of a Space Pirate.
As I browsed the Nintendo Eshop store for a recent release, I came across Manticore: Galaxy on Fire, a mobile port of a sci-fi space shooter that leaves its microtransactions, wait times, and various free-to-play elements behind. While Manticore is still priced at what I feel is a bit too high, it can still offer an engaging experience that rewards you for progressing and I found myself playing the title for hours at a time.
The story sees you as a mute pilot that is hired by Bryce Vantok, a grizzled old mercenary that follows several typical cliche character tropes. Bryce is investigating an event called the Shattering, a cataclysmic event that resulted in the loss of several members of this crew as well as hundreds of civilians. Bryce is in charge of the Manticore, a ship that serves as the base of operations for the team, which is also called the Manticores. You'll visit this ship to take on new missions and upgrade your ship and variety of weapons.
As you hunt down those responsible for the Shattering, you'll encounter those from Bryce's past, uncover long-kept secrets, and experience acts of revenge and betrayal. The story can be interesting at times but can feel lessened due to how it breaks up the action by having your pilot explore recently completed zones for ship upgrades and collectibles. You'll tour these locations with a drone, having its color change depending on your distance from each collectible.
These optional moments of playing 'hot' and 'cold' mostly feel like filler than anything substantial but are essential for unlocking new ships. These moments take place after each mission, so having Bryce exclaim something like "We have to hurry or more people will die", or something to that effect, and then have to spend the next twenty minutes searching the environment for collectibles can lessen the story's impact and urgency.
The campaign is told in three acts, which resulted in a play length of just under 10 hours. While the game does fall into a bit of repetition in how certain missions play out, the developer does attempt to change up the standard dogfighting with escorting cargo ships, scanning locations for spies, and a variety of checkpoint races, with the latter, also contributing to the story not having the impact and urgency it should have. Despite the variety; most of the available missions feel like you are completing the same gameplay loop over and over again.
Nearly every mission has you completing an objective and then being confronted by the boss. These threats are fairly enjoyable encounters when they have some sort of gameplay mechanic like needing to destroy some shield generators to make them vulnerable or those that can teleport to safety and force you to track them down again. Each boss, much like yourself, will have a shield to take down before you can directly affect their health. Thankfully, unlike yourself, they cannot heal once their core health is damaged. While their shield can recharge, it will only do so if you haven't hit them for a certain period of time, so keeping the pressure on your foe is essential.
Manticore suffers from a gaming sin that I find incredibly frustrating; implementing a new gameplay mechanic during the final encounter. This mechanic is painful and was the only time during the game where I felt any frustration or anger. Had they implemented previously used mechanics from the 25+ bosses you took down in order to get to where you are, then I would have thoroughly enjoyed the final encounter instead of hating it.
The whole of the story is told through voice-overs. There are no cutscenes or anything that attempts to tell the story in a different way. The character art is fantastic and I wished these designs would have resulted in static image cutscenes or something that resembled a motion comic. The story is rather good and I think some of the more intense moments would have benefitted greatly from something more than just a character's head shot and some audio.
The flying in Manticore is extremely enjoyable with only one drastic flaw; its sense of speed. The core mechanics to flying are simple. You can expend energy to fly faster with a boost, roll to the side to avoid fire, and use the basic movements provided by the left analog stick to move up and down, left and right. If you have played a space flying game in any respect then you know exactly what to expect here. Manticore doesn't reinvent the genre, but it also doesn't have to. Any sense of speed is only felt during the expenditure of energy for a boost and while you can upgrade each ship to allow for more, it spends far too quickly and the game can feel drastically slow because of it. No matter how much energy you have, you get maybe 4-6 seconds of boost, and then you'll need almost the same amount of time to have it charge back up. Most of your space travel will be hitting the boost, waiting for it to recharge, boosting again, and repeat. This becomes a bigger problem when you are trying to locate the collectibles in a non-story moment. It can feel like it's taking forever to get around, because, quite frankly, it is.
The few space shooters I have played have always had your ship explode when hitting a variety of objects or structures around you. Manticore simply has your ship bounce off them with some penalties to your shield. I did, however; find that some objects allowed you to fly right through them and others would have you bounce off them like you were trapped in a pinball table. It can make exploring and dodging the environment a guessing game in what is dangerous to your spacecraft and what isn't. I appreciate the fact that you never really explode upon contact as while the missions are not that long it can be tiresome to have to repeat them again and again.
Each of the nine ships you can unlock are split into three categories; fighter, scout, and gunship. Apart from visual changes based on which faction they belong to, they vary in a few stats; Hull, Energy, Shield, and Missile capacity. Each of these stats can be upgraded to make the ship more reliable in combat. Each upgrade is unlocked depending on your level and the amount of Mhaan-Tiq you currently have earned. Your weaponry works the same way in that you can upgrade each of the different styles of guns you can equip to your ship. You can outfit your craft with primary and secondary weapons, a missile, as well as up to two different devices like cloaking your ship or causing an EMP pulse.
Your primary and secondary weapons fall into three different categories themselves; Ballistic, Laser, and Plasma. Within those categories are weapons that fire differently like assault, sniper, and spread, each operating entirely different from one another. The assault class is your standard precise peppering of ammo, where the spread is more like a shotgun blast. The sniper class is slower but can hit enemies from a greater distance and is great for taking out the numerous ships that appear before the boss even shows their face. Each of the few dozen bosses have a certain weakness to them and if you take on missions through Bryce, he will indicate the weakness that each boss has to their ship.
The combat here is very simple and the hitboxes for enemy spacecraft is rather large, removing a lot of the frustration of missing your target on a small screen. When you target an opposing foe, a red ring will indicate where to shoot to hit him. Most often you'll need to lead your shots out because you are going to want to aim where he's going to be as opposed to shooting right at him. Again, Manticore brings us more of what we have played before in other games, but it's never really a bad thing.
It's been reported that Manticore runs at 60fps, but there are several moments where the game certainly dropped to very low numbers. I'm not entirely sure if it is due to a memory leak as I noticed it would happen far more often after extended play. The game runs 1080p when docked, and 720p when portable and it was only while playing docked that I noticed some texture pop-up during locations that had a lot going on. Other than some minor pop-up issues and some framerate problems, my experience with the title was a largely positive one.
Manticore is probably one of the better-looking space games I've ever played. It doesn't push out photo-realistic visuals, but damn if the game ain't pretty. Each sector you do battle in has some incredible use of color and nice detail to making them feel like real locations. Each environment is themed to include space stations, abandoned factories, debris-filled locations packed full of wreckage, to locations that feature neon holograms indicating it is some sort of pleasure-grounds for civilization to just kick back and relax. I really enjoyed the variety in the locations to travel to and the visuals that accompanied them.
Much of the game is voiced over and while not everything the character is saying via text is joined alongside the voiced words for it, I was surprised at how much actual voice work is present here. Most of the voice acting is pretty decent to just downright corny. You have an AI on your ship that can get a bit annoying, but Bryce and a few of the support characters you encounter are generally well done. The sounds of explosions and your weaponry is a tad generic but more or less gets the job done.
The AI during combat is probably the only glaring issue with Manticore as you will consistently notice ships smashing into asteroids or the various structures around you. They will rarely weave in and out of the intricate level design and usually just fly around the same open areas begging to be destroyed. I've had bosses just sit there and take my shots whereas a few of them would dodge my efforts and actually give me a run for my money. While you can change the difficulty to make your time with the game more challenging, it doesn't seem to affect the AI in respects to their movement patterns or their behavior.
Manticore is gorgeous, plays well, and has an enjoyable story with some well-established lore. That being said, its $25 CAN price tag is a tad too expensive for what is offered here. The missions, despite the variety in your objectives, still result in the same structure of kill what is around you and then take on the boss. While there is some variety in how to take out the bosses, it's very minor and most missions and their boss can feel like so many missions before it. While I did enjoy my time with Manticore, it's not a title I will revisit now that I have tracked down each and every collectible and unlocked each of the nine different ships. If you catch Manticore on sale then I do strongly suggest picking it up.