From the moment Keith T. Maxwell began muttering to himself in the void of space and high quality British voice acting poured out of my ear buds, I knew this was going to be good. Poor guy just can’t get a break: fresh off his umpteenth space pirate hunt, Keith gets sucked into a mysterious wormhole and ported to the other side of the galaxy, only to find out his instantaneous trip lasted decades from the point of view of those he left behind. That’s just the beginning of his problems, as he finds himself in the middle of an interstellar conflict between spacefaring humanity and a virulent alien species who don’t sound particularly friendly over the intercom. Under the player’s guidance, Keith pulls himself up by the bootstraps in his new environment and decides where his allegiances truly lie.
If the premise doesn’t already make it clear, Fish Labs has wildly succeeded in exploiting a truth that’s mystified videogame dev teams from time to time: story matters. Thanks to excellent writing and voice acting, Keith’s journey affords him encounters with a slew of thoroughly interesting characters. Hostages nervously stutter after being rescued from pirates; alien narco traffickers delight in getting entire space stations drunk; government-funded scientists throw money around with abandon that gives even the jaded Keith a start. That the characters are so vivid is precisely what makes the player care about defending besieged cargo ships, transporting VIPs while going toe-to-toe with laser-armed aliens babbling bizarre languages, and everything else Keith finds himself pulled into during this ten hour extravaganza.
Underlying the superbly penned main story is the subtext that Keith has to make a living on the side, which provides both fun diversions and the funding he’ll need to upgrade his ship so he can survive the plot. To this end he takes odd jobs offered in bars as he hops among space stations, and here a reputation system comes into play: multiple factions share the galaxy, and taking missions hostile to one group’s interests will earn Keith a cold reception at space stations in that faction’s territory. If he manages to survive a withering storm of lasers, EMP blasts, and missiles as he tries to dock in dangerous zones, he’d do well to smooth things over with an ambassador at that space station’s bar if he wants unrestricted access to that faction’s goods and technology.
Keith’s desperate need for cash makes the sidequests in Galaxy on Fire 2 feel much more integral to the player’s experience than the standard mobile fantasy RPG’s “fetch ten of these” chores, a fact that should be received warmly by iDevice owners keeping an eye out for the next big adventure. RPG fans especially will lap up all the equipment shopping, bartering, and forging Keith will be getting into. Each and every item on offer in space station shops has its own stats and even fully fleshed out descriptions relating them to the wider society and economy of this universe Fish Labs has so painstakingly created, which enhances the player’s sense of total immersion.
Not that action lovers are left out in the cold, because the flight sim aspect of Galaxy on Fire 2 begins the moment Keith disembarks from a space station and begins exploring the cosmos. Equipment plays a pivotal role in the player’s experience while he’s completing a mission, and in fact determines whether he can accept a specific task at all. Early on especially, the player must carefully choose between slapping on extra armor and thrusters for heavy combat, attaching a drill for ore mining, or trading out the weaponry on Keith’s ship entirely in favor of cozy cabins needed to take on personnel transport missions. The main scenario does a great job of introducing the player to the different classes of equipment, with basic components conveniently handed to him for free by important NPCs he allies with during the plot. The restriction on the amount of equipment Keith can carry around at any time is thankfully relaxed as the player purchases more advanced space ships.
Varied missions make for widely varied gameplay in Galaxy on Fire 2. Serving as a space taxi usually means quick cash and a relaxing star-studded scenic route, but randomly generated hostilities outside space stations get the adrenaline pumping with their demand for evasive maneuvers. Mining ores from asteroids might sound like the most boring proposition imaginable in a videogame, yet Fish Labs has whipped it up into a very entertaining minigame that pits the player’s thumb against an erratic drill bit in a struggle to keep it on target.