Overhead racing games have been a part of gaming for over three decades. Games like Rally-X begat games like Super Sprint, which in turn led to things like RC Pro-Am and Rock ‘n Roll Racing. Mantis Burn Racing joins the fray with a far less battle-heavy setup than the latter two games, but with far more strategy needed to win. With those games, a single good run of power-ups could get you a win or send you to the back of the pack. Now, everything relies on pure racing skill — so there is a heightened emphasis on racing well as opposed to racing with flash.
It’s got a far steeper learning curve than most overhead racers, but it’s also more rewarding too. While most racers focus on cups, this one shifts the focus to improving your skills alongside your vehicles. Rising through the early levels is tough, but doing so makes you better. Being at the back of the pack all the time humbles you and forces you to learn the mechanics. While it’s an overhead racer, it isn’t an arcade one entirely. Sure, it can be played in short bursts, but the physics are far less forgiving. You need to make sure you aren’t just accelerating non-stop as one wrong corner can put you at the back of the pack.
Eventually, you learn how to handle each car. With mastery comes better performance, and with better performance comes a faster XP gain. The more skillfully you race, the more XP you earn — so overtaking a rival or mastering a corner can give you just what you need to not only win the race, but also upgrade parts. This game allows you to upgrade over a dozen parts of your car and you can choose to either keep going with that one, or start from scratch with another one. Tinkering with various vehicles is fun and allows you to find which play style suits you best. Lighter cars zoom around a bit faster, but those looking to rough it up a bit on the track will be out of luck because of how easily they can be knocked around. Heavier cars move around slower, but let you take more abuse with less of a penalty while medium weight cars are a nice in-between.
There’s a risk/reward aspect to a lot of the game. Playing with a roughhouse style can get you ahead– but grinding against the wrong opponent and then hitting a wall will spell end of the race for you. Taking chances all the time will backfire, and you need to know when to best take a gamble. Doing so in last place might get you ahead a few spots, but do you want to risk a first place finish on adding in some destruction? You’ll gain some XP, but also slow yourself down and enable a rival with some boost saved up a chance to win. Boost is the only real flourish you get in the game and it basically gives you enough of an edge to make up for exactly one small mistake. If you rub against a wall or hit an obstacle in first place, you should be able to bounce back with a single boost — but you’ve got to race smartly no matter what.
Variety is a big part of Mantis Burn Racing, and it envelopes many aspects of the game design. There is a fair amount of variety in the track selection, with desert, city, and industrial-themed areas to enjoy. They usually stand out pretty well from one another — but a couple of track setups do bear a bit too much of a resemblance to feel entirely different. Mode selection is fairly robust as well. Beyond traditional races, you can also take part in overtake challenges, elimination races, time trials, and accumulator races offline or online. Most of these are pretty standard, but accumulator is essentially a stunt mode that rewards high level place first, and risks second. The racer who earns the most XP wins this one, and the race ends when someone reaches 10,000 points while the battle for being first on the track is kept alive thanks to the podium positions getting XP gains. It’s a challenge, but rewarding to win. Mantis Burn Racing keeps its controls simple and effective. The left stick moves you around while R1/RB acts as your camera button and your braking and acceleration are handled with the triggers. Everything works as it should and the responsive controls ensure that you won’t be able to blame the game for a loss.
For being “just” an overhead racer, Mantis Burn Racing is a visual stunner. This is a genre that is so often half-assed simply because it can be, but the developers set out to make a stunning game and did just that. The level of detail in the stages is out of this world. One track is by a waterfront area that takes you over some light hills and cliffs. Along the water, you’ll see boats and even people standing by the water taking photos. The sense of scale as you go over the cliffs here and especially in the cave area is impressive. There’s a depth of field blur effect used that really gets across how high up you are, and yet you can still see things like all the layers of dirt within the caves and even water running underneath them.
Much like the early ’90s arcade racers, you get a healthy selection of camera angles to choose from. One gives you a constantly-moving camera over the race and replicates the look of a TV broadcast to some degree. It’s effective in this regard, but doesn’t work well from a gameplay perspective because it’s harder to judge turns with it. The traditional overhead look would in theory be the best of the bunch because it’s the simplest view. It takes this modern-day game and gives it a perspective similar to Super Sprint, but this game’s environments just aren’t built for it in every area. Some tracks feature areas that overlap the track and using this angle means you can’t see where you’re going. The best setup is definitely the standard camera that follows your car. This allows you to effectively see where you need to go without relying the on small corner map and also approach it like you would any other racer with a third-person perspective — only this viewpoint is quite a bit higher than most. This is a visual stunner of a racing game, and its high-fidelity graphics should hold up quite well over time.
The only area that Mantis Burn Racing falls short in is the audio. While boosting and grinding with rivals sounds good, flying through air doesn’t really excite and the soundtrack is quite underwhelming. A couple of its songs are good, but the majority are generic rock that fail to get the blood pumping. The overall sound design doesn’t really take advantage of the environments, which is a bit surprising. While you can see things like machinery being used and waved moving around, you can’t hear any of it and while that does give you one less distraction mid-race, it also hurts the idea that you’re racing in this environment.
Outside of a sub-par soundtrack, Mantis Burn Racing is the finest overhead racer in years. It combines skillful racing with a level of excitement that is usually absent from the sub-genre. The action is fast and you have to be on your toes at all times because you can’t count on power-ups to save you at the last minute beyond a single boost charge acting as a Hail Mary play. It’s a gorgeous-looking game that features responsive controls and a fair amount of tracks and racing types to keep things interesting. Anyone who loves a good challenge and a well-crafted racing game should check it out.