Disclaimer: Yes, that is a Hall & Oates reference in the Maneater review title and no, I’m not ashamed to throw that one in right at the start.
When it comes to games that let you play as an animal protagonist, more often than not they’re light-hearted affairs. Recently we’ve had Untitled Goose Game, and of course there’s the over-the-top glitchfest that is Goat Simulator. Unless they’re anthropomorphic action heroes, it’s usually bright colours and a happy joy-joy feeling all round.
Which is all well and good when you’ve got kids to entertain, or you actually like a bit of bright and colourful (and there’s nothing wrong with that), but sometimes you want something a bit nittier and grittier to get your teeth into. Well, thanks to Tripwire Interactive, now you can.
That’s right, if you’ve ever watched Jaws and thought, “Damn, those fishermen deserve to get eaten”, now is your chance to live out that oddly specific power fantasy. But is it a game to hone in on like a drop of blood in the sea, or is some of the finest pedigree of chum going…?
A Cautionary Shark’s Tale
What did surprise me, though, is that there’s an actual story to Maneater. I know I complained about the lack of real story or motivation in my Ion Fury review, yet I wasn’t exactly expecting one in a game like this. So the fact that my shark pup has drive, revenge motive and a real reason for surviving actually had me invested in what’s going on.
The experience was also made all the better when it dawned on me who the narrator to the whole adventure was, too. Who else could make a shark’s tale more interesting than SNL alumni Chris Parnell, who you may also recognise from animated spy sitcom Archer, or that god-knows-why popular Rick and Morty cartoon. Hearing his sarcastic tone drive the plot, as well as throw out some hilariously irrelevant trivia, makes this game already more enjoyable.
Our tale starts in a somewhat Metroid-like fashion, in that you’re given some of the later abilities and agility as you get a feel for the controls. However, this is only a fleeting tutorial before the adventure begins. You’re being hunted by the legendary Pierre LeBlanc, or Scaly Pete to the locals, as he films a reality TV show for Port Clovis TV. This big-bellied bayou boatman succeeds in catching you… and that’s where the fun starts.
Turns out, the “you” in question is actually the shark pup that Pete cleaves out of your captured mother. After leaving a mark to recognise you for the hunt as you grow, you even things out by leaving a mark too. And by that, I mean you bite Pete’s hand clean off before making a break for the waters.
This sets up Pete as the villain, and rightfully so, but there’s more to it than just chasing one man down. As you rise through the ranks and growth stages of a shark’s life (albeit drastically sped up), you’ll find yourself taking on a whole host of these Southern types out for blood. Which is funny, because so are you.
Cor, She’s a Beauty
Scene now set, what exactly is being a shark all about? Is it not just about eating any and everything in sight, asserting your dominance as queen of the deep and instilling fear in the general populace?
Well, yes, as it happens, that’s entirely what it’s about. Your initial missions start simple enough: eat a set amount of swimming buffet types, terrorise some locals, generally… be a shark, live up to the stereotype. As you start to gain notoriety, you’ll attract the attention of the seafaring equivalent of bounty hunters. Each one is as colourful as the last, and each one you shuffle off of the mortal coil gets you closer to your revenge on Scaly Pete.
Controlling the shark is easy enough: the left stick is your navigator, the right your camera control. You can rise and dive with the camera pointing at where you want to go, or use a combination of face buttons. You start off in the muddy waters of Fawtick Bayou, before working your way through bigger sections of the map until you’re at the Gulf. As is the case with most open world games, each hub varies in size, what with the bayou being relatively small to help you get to grips with being a shark.
Both main and additional missions tend to blur together after a while, as you’re often tasked with destroying or eating a set amount of something to progress. But much like Saints Row 2 (of all comparisons), you won’t unlock the next chapter until you’ve ventured into side mission territory. Whilst it may not be ideal for those that want to cruise through the story, it does have its benefits.
Firstly, it gets you out and about, letting you take in the rather attractive locales you nefariously navigate through. Alright, maybe not the initially murky bayou and its toxic waste dumping grounds, but certainly when you open up the other areas. Secondly, it allows you munch anything you set your sights on for those necessary upgrade points and experience (which we’ll get to in a bit). Thirdly, the main game won’t progress until you receive a certain progression/evolution level, regardless of finishing the main missions, so you may as well get to exploring.
Jumping, Spinning and Flipping the Shark
Thankfully, this never gets boring as being a shark is an incredible delight to play. Not content with just trawling through the waters and occasionally eating docile sea life, Maneater has a bevvy of tricks and stylish features up its sleeve to keep you entertained.
As I said earlier, the start of the game lets you dabble with a couple of these as a tasty morsel of things to come. Of course, no game is just going to let you instantly be a badass, so naturally you start with a small suite of moves to get you going. As well as your standard bite and dash, you can evade the majority of attacks, but these aren’t always reliable. When you start to grow, you’ll find yourself breaching the water before launching yourself at a holiday maker on a paddleboat, and then dragging them to the depths and thrashing the limbs off of them.
Better still, if you’re feeling creative, you can grab one human and wind up a charged throw attack, launching it at a hapless lifeguard perched atop his tower for maximum hilarity. Or do what I did: grabbed a seal, launched him as far into orbit as I could, only to try and catch it before it hit the water again. I couldn’t, it was bloody difficult, but it was quite funny to try.
You’ll need these combat skills though, for as you evolve, so does the challenge. Under the water, barracudas and alligators can take some serious chunks out of you in the early hours if you don’t keep on the ball. Thankfully, you don’t start fighting other sharks until a bit later, but don’t underestimate anything else that comes nipping at you. Being in a full 360° environment, it’s very easy for foes to appear on your flank for a dig.
Yet the real heftier obstacle to overcome is in battling the human hunters. For as I said, building notoriety will bring hordes of them down on you in a flash. Even before you reach the peak of a named hunter after you, you’ll be pitting your wits against groups of gun – and spear – wielding southerners more than you’d like to.
You can get the upper fin, thankfully, as you’re able to vault and spin away from incoming fire as you hone in on the boats they inhabit. Yes, it is somewhat unrealistic to see an adult shark suddenly barrel roll to the side in mid leap, but Maneater isn’t going for realism. It’s going for “You are a shark, the ocean is your kingdom and you’re here to rule”. Combat is fun, it wants you to pull off these ridiculous stunts and tricks as you show everyone and everything who’s the boss. There’s no Burnout-style combo counter, but there is copious amounts of carnage and claret to keep oceanic hemophiliacs happy for hours.
Life, Uh, Finds a Way
One aspect I wasn’t expecting to find in this game, yet am pleasantly surprised about, is the RPG element to our shark’s growth. When I saw the level system, I just took it as “Oh, I’ll earn new moves when I reach a particular one” and thought no more of it.
What Maneater actually does is give you a whole host of customisable options and loadouts for our maturing Megalodon-in-training. As you progress, you’ll unlock new body part enhancements. These start of as simple as a sonar detection, before you branch out into new teeth and health options. Whilst some let you upgrade them in a linear manner, like your sonar, others branch out into different “builds”, as it were.
Like your teeth, for example. Now, you might be thinking, “But Greg, sharks just have lots of teeth that grow with them, why mess with that?” and honestly, I thought the same thing too. But then, after I’d unlocked a couple of pairs, it started to make sense. For you see, there’s more to it than “just teeth”.
You can have, in a roundabout way, EMP teeth that stun things and anything nearby when you bite them. Or, if you prefer brute strength, you can have some mighty gnashers that help you chew through boats and skifs easier and faster. It’s not just teeth, it’s the whole set of “armour” that you can start to play around with and upgrade. And like Kingdoms of Amalur or Monster Hunter World, there are bonuses to having a complete matching loadout.
So, as nature and game progress, your shark can be sleek ball of electricity or an absolute brute, and the choice is entirely up to you. Of course, you don’t have to conform to a set style. You can have stone-like skin and electric teeth, should you wish.
This is where eating all of the things comes into play, as it’s more than just a clever gimmick. Whilst chowing down on a turtle will give you a generic experience increment, it’ll also give you one of the four varying resources necessity for evolving these mutations. Fortunately, each enemy shows you what type you’ll gain from chowing down on them, so you can always see which ones you need to stock up on.
Honestly, it pays to invest in your evolution and mutations. Being a certain level is one thing, but as is the case for most RPG’s (or games with RPG elements) the beauty and versatility in finding out what suits you is what makes the game shine.
So by now, you’ll be thinking you’re a veritable powerhouse of death and destruction to both aquatic and human life, nothing can possibly stop you, right? Well, sadly, Maneater isn’t all smooth sailing…
Looks Like They Did Get a Bigger Boat
It would, naturally, be too easy if you could absolutely dominate everything with no real challenge. But then, there’s a challenge… and there’s some downright unfair AI behind your enemies.
Forgive my ignorance in all manners scientific, but how exactly can a laser targeting system accurately pinpoint where you are, especially in cloudy, muddy water? Yet hunters can, and at any one point you can five beads on you, dealing massive chunks of damage before you know it. Whilst the crosshairs do tell you when something is about to fire, you’ll only get it for one of them, not the other four. It can kill the fun of the battle if you have to slip away and munch on a turtle without being spotted before cautiously charging back in.
The same can be said with the underwater adversaries, too. You can be on a low level mission to eat ten Gulpers (a kind of fish, I am told by Cyril Figgis) and without warning, a high level barracuda/alligator tag team will catch you unawares. Whilst there may be no penalty or permadeath in Maneater, it can be a pain in the gills if you spent ages finding the mission spot, only to be sent back to a grotto some half a kilometre away.
What also baffles me is whilst I get that enemies have a level indicator above their respective heads/whatever part of a barracuda is its head, why does the game need to include a numerical indicator of the damage you deal? Streets of Rage-style damage degradation works just fine, it doesn’t need that much of an RPG system implemented. Like a shark’s going to worry about DPS…
There’s Definitely Something In the Water, and It’s Here to Stay
Niggles aside, Maneater is a fantastic answer to a game nobody really asked for. Jaws Unleashed failed to set the niche genre alight back in 2006, and besides a handful of VR titles and some portable apps, I don’t think anyone was expecting this one.
But luckily, we’ve got it anyway, and it’s very welcome. Maneater isn’t going for realism, it’s going for carnage and raw aquatic fury as you mature from pup to Megalodonic monster. It may not be realistic to grab a canister mid-leap and fling it back at the tosser, but it is fun, and that’s all we want.
The biggest surprise is in how deep the game is, and that’s not an ocean pun. Once you’ve scratched the surface and uncovered the versatility of customisation and progress, it transforms it from “arcade shark game” to surprisingly engrossing shark simulator.
The pseudo-factual history and marine biology lessons from Chris Parnell make this a riot to listen to, as you defend the waters from those that seek to hunt you. There’s a wealth of collectibles to find, from treasure chests to license plates that grant you experience that helps your evolution, as when a completionist’s dream of extra missions to do.
The combat can be a bit overwhelming at times, especially if you feel under-equipped or under-leveled, but like most games, nurture that drive to continue and you’ll start gaining the edge in battle. Like most action/RPG’s, the joy is in building up your own powerhouse of a character, be it man or shark, and coming back with that righteous fury and intent to lay waste to those that wronged you.
It may only be single player, but treat it more like the Witcher than a party game: you are the shark, this is your time to rise as queen of the ocean. It may have a slightly bumpy start, as most games of this style do, but once it opens up the world is your… well, ocean. That sounds less dramatic when it’s literal.
It looks glorious and violent, but comes with the price of a fiddly combat mechanic. Once it opens up, though, Maneater is a dominating force of a game.
Maneater is available now on Xbox One (reviewed on base console), PS4 and PC, and a Nintendo Switch port will be available later this year.
Developer: Tripwire Interactive
Publisher: Deep Silver
Disclaimer: In order to complete this review, we were provided with a promotional code from the publisher. For our full review policy, please go here.
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