First Impression: Manta (Steam Next Fest 2021 Demo)
Updated: Dec 16, 2021
Seamlessly transitioning between high-flying dogfights and deep-sea battles is not something I thought would mix well. I can vaguely recall a handful of titles from the 1990s and early 2000s that have tried the concept. The fact that I've forgotten their names by now is probably an indicator of how well they pulled it off. However, a new indie arcade flight simulator seems to have found a way to make the concept work well while incorporating a mindset-shifting assortment of gameplay mechanics for this genre of games.
Manta by Psychoclast Software is a still in development title that emphasizes amphibious combat, remaining true to its tagline, "Across the Skies, Through the Abyss" which appears on the official website. This year's Steam Next Fest has been a significant opportunity for Manta to make a lasting first impression with its public demo available as of the beginning of this event and two developer live streams showing the potential of this title to hundreds of people. After a few months of interesting short videos from the official Twitter account, I can personally say that I wasn't disappointed after being able to thoroughly play the demo... despite how many times I failed the mission! But that's less because of game design and more because I approached the game with the wrong mindset.
There are three key points to be made here.
Manta is set in a sci-fi world with mentions of the antagonist being a Federation and a mysterious Order of the Manta, but let's stay focused on three key points.
This is the titular craft of the game. The Manta-class amphibious biointerceptor is described as only being piloted by human telepaths that establish a psychological link with their Manta. This craft is by far the fastest and most versatile craft in the game, capable of seamlessly transitioning between airborne and underwater. It can carry a wide array of energy and kinetic weapons within the weapon bays of its morphing airframe. The Manta is made up of an organic/biopolymer material that enables the morphing of its shape at will. At lower speeds, the craft becomes wider, flatter, and more circular. While at high speeds, it elongates and reduces its width. The craft can also enter a hover mode and remain stationary.
Furthermore, its weapons and defensive systems are described as genetics (specifically alleles). The Manta can be upgraded mid-mission by acquiring technology found on the seafloor, enabling players to change just about every weapon, shield, and other ability the Manta employs. These upgrades are done at the Gene Forge, an undersea dock. Upgrades are necessary to the Manta's success. They are not something that can be ignored without consequence. Some enemies are susceptible to certain types of weapons, and extra armor provides more survivability against the high number of enemies that rove the area of operations. But most importantly, essential components needed to interact with allied forces can be expanded upon.
Actively Use Real-Time Strategy
This brings up the second point. Despite all of its ability, the Manta is unable to win the day by itself. Not because it is underpowered, but because it is a single craft operating on a relatively large battlefield. It cannot be everywhere at once and complete all objectives on its own while protecting its allies. The enemy deploys flying aircraft carriers, flights of interceptors, fleets of submarines, and attack groups of warships determined to destroy the player's home base.
After playing the demo for quite a while, it was clear that I was doing something wrong. I did not begin to have success until I changed my perspective from the usual "lone heroic fighter saves the day" mindset that arcade flight shooters often portray.
The first thing that comes to mind when commanding friendly units is mentioned in an arcade flight sim are "wingman commands." Those are quick sets of commands to order computer-controlled allies that follow the player aircraft to attack, defend, change weapons, or other basic tasks. Manta goes beyond this and instead embraces real-time strategy (RTS). In Manta, the RTS portion of the game is significant. This is something that I don't think was easy to portray in the previews up to this point.
The Manta-class amphibious biointerceptor has command and control functions, namely the Tactical Display (TD), that enables it to remotely work with the Citadel - the main base that transports the Manta into the combat area. The Citadel can repair and resupply the Manta while also acting as a factory. As the Manta scowers the ocean with visual scanning and sonar to search, it can identify and tag resources needed for unit production. Identified resources appear on the TD. Once marked by the Manta's resource trackers, the Citadel deploys engineering units to build supply infrastructure like mining rings or powerplants, increasing the number of supplies in the Citadel.
Fleet weapons and hull designs discovered by the Manta can be assembled in the design tab of the TD to create allied units of various sizes to combat enemy forces. Each design can be saved with a custom name for easy organization in unit production.
Assuming there is a sufficient amount of supplies needed for production, all constructed allied units can then be commanded by the Manta using the Tactical Display. Dragging and dropping the icon of one or more allied units into an area will have them move there, whereas dropping their icon onto an identified enemy will order them to attack the unit. Allied units will also naturally fight any enemies that approach them. The number of allies the Manta controls can be increased with command circuit ship upgrades.
Actively going out of the way to disengage from combat to build resources, construct allies, and deploy them effectively is the sure-fire way to find success in Manta.
Embracing the New Style of Combat
Finally, using the amphibian combat style significantly improves survivability. The current gameplay is quite fast-paced in the air, with turn rates so fast that keeping a target in the gunsight is a challenge on its own. Using the lead targeting computer is the only real way to bring unguided weaponry onto target while maneuvering. Detecting incoming missiles in the air is equally problematic. Attempting to predict when they may be launched and acting accordingly is the best course of action, but they're so fast there is always very little time to react. Undersea combat feels like the right amount of slower-paced movement with somewhat realistic game mechanics that use sonar pings to navigate but relying on these pings reveals the player's position. So using them sparingly is preferred, though the wealth of enemies they can spot and resources uncovered make them worth the risk.
The Manta being able to dive into the ocean from hundreds of feet in the air while traveling over Mach 1 makes diving into the sea a viable tactic. Escaping enemy fighters by diving into the water, forcing their missiles to slam into the water surface, and counterattacking from behind is amazingly effective. Sneaking beneath airborne enemies and above water defensive positions is very effective in hit-and-run tactics. The ocean is also the perfect cover from enemies while regenerating shields or commanding the allied fleet.
Just remember that submerged enemies also utilize this position. Getting attacked by sea-launched missiles is possible, and unseen enemy submarines can creep up onto vital infrastructure.
With real-time strategy unit management being just as crucial as the piloting skill of the player, Manta's approach to the arcade flight sim genre is fascinating. With a full game release date listed as September 2022, Manta is in a good position to release as a stand-out title within its genre. With screenshots showing absolutely massive submarines and warship-sized allies flying along with the Manta, I look forward to taking on a squadron of interceptors while commanding battlegroups of my own!
About the Writer
Aaron "Ribbon-Blue" Mendoza