Welcome back to the In-App Purchase Inspector - our regular look at free-to-play games from the consumer's perspective.
In each instalment, we consider the incentives or pressure applied to make in-app purchases, their perceived value, the expansion offered by IAPs and the overall value of the experience.
The end goal is to see whether the game makes a good enough case for us to part with our cash, or whether players are content - or engaged enough - to 'freeload'.
This time, we're taking a look at Deep Silver Fishlabs' space combat title Galaxy on Fire 3 - Manticore, the latest in the long-running series.
Back in 2006 with the launch of the original Galaxy on Fire, our sister-site Pocket Gamer promised that the pre-smartphone title would “change the way you think about mobile phone games forever”.
And while that may sound hyperbolic with the benefit of hindsight, the fact remains that Galaxy on Fire is an outlier in the world of mobile gaming.
Galaxy on Fire is an outlier in the world of mobile gaming.
First off, the very fact that the series began ten years ago - before the launch of the iPhone and its App Store - and still continues today, is pretty remarkable for mobile.
That it's a space trading and combat saga only makes it more surprising.
But when you start playing Galaxy on Fire 3 - Manticore, it's clear that the series still holds the ability to confound expectations.
The initial plot exposition and introduction to mechanics takes longer than in your average mobile game, and the focus on narrative - with characters fully-voiced and the world well-established - immediately comes to the fore.
And as you embark on missions through well-rendered galaxies, guiding your ship to collect resources and enemy intel while trading fire with rival factions, it feels closer to a console title than a mobile game.
For Galaxy on Fire's hardcore fans, though, Manticore seems to have defied expectations in a rather more negative way.
It's the first mainline series entry to adopt the free-to-play model, and has also dropped popular features like trading in favour of a more singular combat focus.
“They have adopted the freemium scheme and it's just not what any fan would have wanted,” commented one member of Pocket Gamer's App Army community.
“It should have been called Manticore as it resembles little from the GoF series,” added another.
But is the monetisation in Galaxy on Fire 3 - Manticore really so egregious?
Racking up credits
To progress through the main story missions in Galaxy on Fire 3 - Manticore, you need to first gather intel on the target's location by playing through contract missions until you happen upon Gang Informants.
Take these out, and you get a step closer to zeroing in on your primary targets.
But each mission has a difficulty rating - Moderate means you'll likely survive, while Risky warns you're more up against it - based on the power of your own ship.
And this in turn feeds back into the upgrade loop that powers Manticore and so many other free-to-play games: play missions to earn soft currency, plough the currency into upgrades, unlock more missions.
In Manticore, this currency is called Credits. But although you'll mostly earn this currency through mission rewards, you can also buy it in bundles ranging from $4.99 for 20,000 to $99.99 for 560,000.
This means that other than its relative abundance, Credits are not a great deal more 'soft' than the premium currency Mhaan-tiq.
Mhaan-tiq bundles range from $4.99 for 500 to $99.99 for 14,000. It's used primarily for skipping upgrade timers, but it can also be used in lieu of Revive Charges. Revivals cost 10 Mhaan-tiq apiece.
Elsewhere, you can use Mhaan-tiq to open Cargo Boxes of varying value - Mining (25 Mhaan-tiq), Terran (100) and Nivelian (300) - for rewards from additional Credits to entire new ships.
So far, so standard. But perhaps the most unusual thing about the relationship between hard and soft currencies here is that one cannot be used to buy another.
Hard currency cannot be used to buy soft currency.
If you lack the soft currency to complete an upgrade, standard F2P practise is that you pay the remainder using hard currency. Here that's not an option, which will be a grating experience for some.
At best, it's an attempt to keep the player coming back to play more missions to stock up on Credits, perhaps to ensure that a committed player doesn't run out of content too quickly.
At worst, it's a cynical effort to double the pressure on a player to spend and ensure that even an abundance of premium currency isn't enough.
Scraping a living
If you're trying to play for free, the mission rewards are just about enough to feel like progress is being made, and there are also rewards on offer for those willing to give the game a social push.
Connecting with your Deep Silver and Facebook accounts will get you 100 and 50 Mhaan-tiq respectively.
A player is also encouraged to invite people via Twitter, Whatsapp or iMessage with a reward of 50 Mhaan-tiq per install. This seems like a smart move and a mutually beneficial one.
But the most frustrating thing about Galaxy on Fire 3 - Manticore is just how slow it is.
The most frustrating thing about Galaxy on Fire 3 - Manticore is just how slow it is.
Even more damning is the fact that this is by design and there's little evidence that even spending would meaningfully accelerate the process.
Being a game that relies on there being fresh content - as opposed to, say, Clash of Clans where the competitive element is enough to sustain users - it's as though progress has to be slow, to ensure a player doesn't get through the existing missions too quickly.
In the end, I haven't spent money in Galaxy on Fire 3 - Manticore because the appeal just wasn't there.
The game itself is impressive visually and feels satisfying enough, but there's so much repetition involved - and so little prospect of eliminating it - that it quickly leads to fatigue.
I'm not of the opinion that free-to-play is the reason for Manticore's failings - although many evidently are - but sympathise with the difficulty of Fishlabs' task to make a much-loved but niche space sim a viable and profitable F2P title.
And in the end, there is a clash between the game Manticore is trying to be and its free-to-play implementation.