Like most kids I was pretty sure that my local pool probably had a massive killer shark lurking in its depths. That didn’t stop me from loving swimming, but I was always wary about the toothy death that could potentially be waiting for me. I blame Jaws for that, of course. Over the years a lot of films and media have painted sharks as terrifying creatures of the sea that will devour anything and everything. But there haven’t been a whole lot of shark based games, for some reason. So when Maneater began circling, a self-proclaimed shark RPG, how could I not be interested?
Before we get into the review proper it’s worth pointing out that sharks get a pretty bad reputation as savage killers, when the reality is they don’t give a toss about us humans. In fact, on average there’s only about 4 shark related fatalities per year. By contrast there’s about 150 deaths attributed to falling coconuts per year, and high school and college football has about 12 deaths a year. My favourite comparison is that in America there’s an average of 20 deaths per year at the dastardly hooves of cows, which is why I try to at least 5 steaks a day. In other words if you see a shark fin slicing through the water toward you it’s probably actually a cow in disguise wielding a knife.
Maneater is not concerned with trivial things like facts though, and instead portrays sharks as cunning, ruthless and driven to rip humans into gory hunks of flesh. It’s so over-the-top and crazy that there’s really no danger of people ever confusing Maneater with being factual. It’s just a game that wants you to have fun as a fleshy torpedo with teeth that can propel itself out of the water, because what the world really needs are toothy tanks trying to learn how to fly.
The action is framed as a reality-TV show called Maneater which follows several hunters that are out to kill every single shark they can find. At the top of the pile is Scaly Pete, and as the game opens he captures a female shark before ripping open her guts with a knife, revealing a baby shark that he yanks out. In a further display of brutality Scaly Pete slices the fin to mark the shark for later, but ‘lil baby maneater whips around and rips off Pete’s arm before escaping into the murky bayou water. Now playing as the baby shark you gobble up the remains of Pete’s hand and set out on your quest for vengeance, going from a little terror of the oceans to a full-fledge massive monster of the deep.
Y’know, I really like that Maneater presents humans as complete arseholes, too. The various hunters it portrays are just as savage and brutal as the sharks in their quest to exterminate every single one. And the various environments you swim around in are polluted with nuclear waste, debris, sunken boats and even the dead bodies of mafia victims. Sure, Maneater shows sharks as straight-up horror movie stars, but it doesn’t exactly paint the humans as saints, either.
I’m also a fan of the narrator who pops in now and then to comment on what you’re doing. There’s a good sense of humour in the game that’s used to comment on a variety of things, including the poor treatment of the ocean and the difference between a hobo and a bum.
The firsy hour id tough going. You might be a shark that can gobble up little fish, but you’re still just a [pup and the waters you’re swimming in are dominated by alligators. You’re in no position to fight those bastards, so a lot of the early missions make you sneak around like Metal Gear Shark, avoiding the bigger predators so that you can glide in and chomp on some fishies like it’s a free sushi bar.
Before long you’ll have chomped enough stuff and completed enough missions to start growing. When you level up you get bigger, badder and more capable of dishing out the damage. Better yet you can spend the various upgrade materials you acquire through munching and exploration on mutations, a system that basically acts like gear for your shark. Want some electric teeth? Of course you do! There’s two basic types of gear: electric or bone, though there is a third set awarded for getting collectibles. It’s a basic, straightforward system but it’s also incredibly satisfying and fun to become a monster shark who can now take on alligators like they are nothing. It’s just a shame the developers didn’t go a bit further – why stop at just bioelectric or bone? If you’re going to have silly stuff like that, why not go further?
The basic controls for your shark are a breeze, although on PC I’d highly recommend playing with a controller. The left stick moves you forward and back, while the right stick controls your direction. The animation of your shark is beautiful and graceful, and with a pull of the left trigger you can put on a burst of speed with a swish of your tail. Quite honestly, there’s fun to b had just swimming around. There’s a lot of lovely scenery under the water, and on the surface you can glimpse the pesky humans and their cities, carnivals and golf courses within the open world. You can even find underwater tourist attraction information signs to bite.
Head to the surface and the camera switches, your top speed becomes much higher and you get that classic shark fin slicing through the water. I’d recommend keeping the Jaws music on standby on your phone for these moments. Even humans on land aren’t entirely safe as you can propel yourself out of the water and onto land like the world’s most terrifying sushi delivery service. Naturally you’ll start to suffocate, but the game is generous with how much time you to cause mayhem on land.
You’d be a bit of a useless shark without being able to bite so that’s mapped to the right trigger. You also get a basic evade, and a tailwhip move which sadly doesn’t feel particuilarly useful compared to just biting chunks out of everything. However, the tailwhip does have a cool party trick in that you grab an animal, human or or object in your mouth and then whack it toward a target. It’s pretty awesome to snatch up a seal, power out of the water and smack the poor creature straight into a hunter on a boat. Maybe a future chunk of DLC could introduce shark tennis?
When it comes to eating or fighting the combat is shallow to say the least. All you really do is mash the bite command and occasionally use an evade. You’ll get to do battle with alligators, great white sharks, orcas and even Sperm Whales in the depths of the ocean, but they all amount to the same thing: biting. There’s no thought, no strategy, no opportunity to do something cool.
Going up against the human hunters in their boats is a little more interesting. You can ram the vessels and bite them, or you could leap out the water and snatch the hunters straight off of their boats. Since the hunters have guns the evade button gets a lot more use here, but it’s still just mindless massacring. Still, leaping out of the water, crashing onto a boat and then going to town on some poor fools is kinda awesome.
There’s a couple of key issues with the controls, mind you. First, you can’t remap the chomp button which is a pain in the arse because yanking on the trigger like a teenage boy whose just discovered the joys of masturbation can get a bit sore on the finger. I’d much prefer to have the attack command mapped to a face button for easier mashing.
The other issue is that in the heat of a fight it’s easy to get too close to the surface and find the camera swapping over to the cutting view. And since you’re often holding down the left trigger more speed you’ll find your shark leaping out of the water by accident. It took me some time to get used to the fact I had to tap the submerge button to go back down too. It never feels quite right.
Trying to actually keep your target in sight is awkward, too. The lock-on instantly turns off as soon as your prey shifts out of your view, which they’ll do all the time since you’re fighting in a fully 3D space and both you and the enemy have dashing moves. Against the harder foes that need a few bites to turn into chum, the whole thing looks a bit stupid. You aren’t a graceful killer, you’re a thrashing lunatic whose busy spinning around in circles.
Ultimately the biggest problem Maneater faces is that the entire concept feels like something that the developers came up with in a napkin in a pub. With a few pints sitting in the stomach it seemed such a brilliant idea, but the next day when they all sat down to work out how to actually do it they were so excited about the shark thing they forgot about figuring out how to stretch it into a game. The mission design is so incredibly dull and repetitive that it somehow makes being an anger-powered killing machine dull. Every objective is to eat X amount of something, or destroy the target. That’s it. Go and kill 10 parrotfish! Okay. Eat 10 humans. Right. Now go eat 15 King Mackerel. Yeah, sure. Now eat 10 King Mackerel. Umm…Eat 10 King Mackerel. Hold on, didn’t I just do that?
It might sound like I’m exaggerating the issue, but that is actually how the game is structured. Quite often you’ll end up having to eat X amount of one fish, then have to do it again at a different place. The only thing that might spice the action up is whether a Predator is in the area or not. Very occasionally Maneater tries to do something a little different, like having you consume ten people who also happen to be Mafia, but it’s incredibly rare. Even the fights with the local Apex Predator (you unlock it after completing enough of the other missions) feels almost exactly like everything else you’ve been doing.
Going up against the shark hunters should have been a place where the developers could really have some extra fun, but sadly even these suffer from dull design. Basically by chomping enough humans you’ll start drawing out hunters, and by killing them off and wrecking their boats your infamy will increase. Each time you rank up your infamy a new named shark hunter comes after you. You get treated to a couple of seconds of cutscene introducing them, and the fight is on! It’s thrilling, until you realise that they are just regular enemies and so you can leap out of the water, snatch them up and bite them in half. Done. All they get is a slightly different weapon or sometimes you have to destroy a bit of the boat to get them, but apart from that they are no more different or exciting to fight than any other hunter.
I actually ripped through four or five of these named shark hunters in a single fight without really thinking about it. Apart from your infamy rank there’s nothing stopping you from fighting them, which is sort of cool. But given how basic the combat is you could chow down on most of them in a few fights without breaking a sweat. Each one killed rewards you with a new mutation, so at least there’s a reason to go after them.
The map is littered with collectibles like nutrient caches, licence plates and landmarks. When you look at the map it seems like there is loads to do, but there really isn’t. You can 100% the game in under a dozen hours, and complete the main stuff in 6-8 hours. Given how repetitive the game is, I’m glad the runtime isn’t any longer than that.
This dull, boring mission design really does hold Maneater back from being something special. The good news is that you can combat the problem by playing Maneater in smaller bites. If you sit down and try to play for hours on end it’s impossible to ignore the problem, but if you just dive in for a quick snack the brilliant joy of being an absurdly powerful shark wreaking havoc is impossible to deny. And at the end of the day, it’s good to see games like this coming out, trying new things. I just wish that after the developers had come up with such an awesome concept, they had sat down and thought about how to build interesting missions around it.
It’s a tough game to score, really. It’s such a cool concept and the core gameplay is absurdly fun at times. But once the initial novelty of biting pesky humans in half wears off you’re left with a meatless carcass. Maybe wait for a sale on this one, unless you’re after a mindless power-fantasy and don’t mind repetitive missions.