Flying your spaceship and shooting other bad spaceships will be what you will spend most of your time doing in Manticore: Galaxy on Fire. Fortunately, it's a refined and precise experience, with easy to pick up controls that allow for all sorts of flashy maneuvers. The left analog stick controls your ship direction and the right one controls braking, boosting and triggering left or fight barrel rolls that can be used to evade enemy locks. That is all you will need to know about flight controls and despite really responsive, we found sometimes using this default scheme made us inadvertently barrel roll while boosting and crashing our ship onto space debris or capital ships.
Weapons systems are reserved for the shoulder buttons. ‘ZR’ will fire your infinite primary weapons while ‘ZL’ will fire your limited, missile weapons. You can use ‘R’ and ‘L’ to quickly swap between weapon mount points. Your primary weapons have different types of ammo (ballistic, laser, plasma), fire modes and range. As more of these you unlock, the more options you will be able to fit into your ship and having the right weapon type for each boss is key to a smooth victory.
Some ships have device slots and you can use these with ‘A’ and ‘B’, adding options like EMP pulses or cloaking devices to your arsenal. If you do happen to find yourself fighting a space pirate boss without the proper weapon to take him out, you can either restart and reconfigure your loadout or, if you’re stubborn like us, ram them into submission. Micromanagement of your weapon load-outs plays a big part of the game and it is particularly well implemented.
As you would expect, the highlight of the game goes to the spaceships you will be able to fly. There are a total of nine different vessels, divided into three categories (fighter, scout and gunship) and faction (Terran, Nivelian and Vossk). All of them have different hull, energy, shield and missile ratings. Just like all primary and secondary weapons, these can be upgraded, limited to your current level and available Mhaan-Tiq. Unlike the free mobile version, you don’t have to pay for these as they are rewarded upon successful mission completion. Regardless of your choice of upgrades, there is no denying these ships look absolutely stunning.
The campaign is divided into three long acts, with plot exposure being delivered by very welcome voice acting for all characters. The Manticore mercenaries take on a breadcrumb approach at hunting down space pirate factions by taking down their leaders one by one, thus most of the missions will evolve you destroying a particular boss ship. Repetition might be a bit of an issue for some, but we prefer to celebrate instead the amount of ways the developer found to keep things interesting, adding several other types of mission to break up the usual ace pirate dog fight: escort missions, cargo inspection missions, capital ship take downs, combat air patrol for the Manticore itself and even the odd race here and there. You are never quite sure of what is around the corner and it certainly motivates the player to keep going not only to know where the plot is being driven but what the developers have come up for you next.
Apart from the regular missions, there is also an optional free exploration of each sector you do battle in. In these you are often left alone to explore with your probe satellite for hidden data cubes, items that will unlock hundreds of lore codex entries where you can delve deep into the lore of the Galaxy on Fire series. These can sometimes get a bit frustrating if you spend 20 minutes scouring every inch of a sector for that last illusive bit of intel, but players who do take these on will also be able to recover 15 different prototype Terran ship parts which will then be added to your hangar as a flyable option. When you’re done, you can either warp straight into your next mission or dock onto the Manticore to tweak your ride.
It is impossible not to review Manticore without making sure you take a good look at this game's graphics. Every sector you fly into battle is an exquisite canvas of lovely stellar backgrounds adorned with all sort of science fiction props such as space stations, jump gates, capital ships, aftermath wreckage from epic battles you can only imagine in your head and so on. You can even hit ‘+’ at any time and enter 'Action Freeze', a photo mode that lets you freely fill your Switch photo library with gorgeous space vistas and your ship from any angle you desire.
All of this running at a smooth 60fps, courtesy of the improvements made to the game when jumping to Switch hardware. It is true that if you ever played the developers more recent PC offerings you will notice there are less dynamic lightning effects, but what was accomplished within the limited Tegra hardware here is no short of a masterpiece. If you grew up on TV shows like Babylon 5, Manticore looks exactly like you imagined video games in the future would look like.
Sound was not overlooked either. Besides the aforementioned great voice acting (with hilarious quips from your ship’s AI making you forget the Link-like mute stance of your pilot) and despite the fact that there is no way for sound to travel in the void of space, a quiet game Manticore it is not: Sound effects for your weapons are meaty and satisfying, explosions are frequent and pack the appropriate punch while interactive music means it will pick up the pace when you are engaged in battle and play out moody, sci-fi eerie melodies when you’re out exploring.
A few issues do pop up and shatter the illusion of being a part of a galaxy torn by warfare and unlawfulness. The enemy AI pilots are often a bit on the daft side of the spectrum, even in the highest difficulty settings. While most of the attacking waves will serve less than mere annoyances to your mighty arsenal, it is often sad to see them unable to successfully navigate the intricate set piece the developers set up for them to do battle in. This becomes a true glaring issue when you spot the enemy ace space pirate ships smacking straight into say, a space station (and if you’re not careful, you right along with it). Nothing too deal breaking, but still a shame since addressing some of these issues would results in a better overall experience. The lack of any sort of multiplayer is understandable due to the game’s roots but still somewhat disappointing.
Manticore: Galaxy on Fire is an outstanding example of mobile-to-Switch done right. A gorgeous looking, content-heavy slice of space shooting action with a deep plot, set in a lore filled universe that has taken years to mature during a decade since the Galaxy on Fire series premiered in the mobile market. True that just like the games of old within this genre, this remains niche and will possibly only tickle the fancy of a very specific target audience with the whole Switch owner population. If you happen to be one of these individuals, jump right in and be prepared for some great space antics ahead, hunting down alien criminals we are very sure were named by the developer’s cats running wild in their keyboards. Plus on top of it all: It is an exceptional tease and proof-of-concept for the up and coming conversion of EverSpace to the Switch. See you, space cowboys.