I love sharks. That is to say, I have such a wealth of respect (and fear) for them that I enjoy watching them with a healthy amount of space and industrial glass between us. You can imagine how sad I am at how few games there are involving sharks. They are perfect for silly fun or just outright horror. As soon as Tripwire announced Maneater I knew it was a game I had to play. I wanted to be the apex predator of the sea and munch on tasty beachgoers. The munching is good, just not as good as I had hoped.
Maneater was developed and published by Tripwire Interactive. It released on May 22, 2020 for Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and PC via Epic Games Store. The PC version was played for this review.
Blood In The Water
Something I didn’t anticipate a game about playing a bloodthirsty shark to have was anything resembling a story. Maneater was a welcome surprise in this respect. It isn’t much, but it is enough to keep the whole thing together.
You play as a Bull Shark pup whose mother was captured and killed by a menacing fisherman. After being scarred by the cajun captain, you are left alone in a shallow bayou. Tiny and angry, you vow to take revenge on the fisherman…and maybe nom on some other humans while you’re at it. Again, we aren’t working with Shakespeare here, but it gives the game a focus.
The manner in which Maneater is told is also entertaining. While dealing with its human characters, Maneater tells their story via a reality show similar to Deadliest Catch, interviews and all. When playing as the titular shark, there is a near constant voiceover like you would expect from Shark Week. Sometimes informative, often hilarious, the narration gives a spark to what could otherwise become a very quiet swim through the water.
Jaws’ Pro Maneater
While playing Maneater I kept thinking, “This feels familiar.” But, as I said before, there aren’t really any other shark games…so why does it feel familiar. The answer surprised me just as much as it may surprise you: The gameplay loop is just like Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater. That is a crazy thing to say, I know, but hear me out. The world of Maneater is broken up into sections. In order to move on from one section to another, you have to level and up and grow larger, but you must also complete a task list.
Many of these will be things you might expect from a shark simulator. Eat ten catfish here, harass twelve humans over there, or fight this other apex predator. However, there also things like discovering caches of nutrients (more on that later), finding hidden locations, and even eating license plates. In order to move on, the game requires you to complete a percentage of these tasks, which is very Tony Hawk to me. This is also Maneater’s biggest problem.
These tasks become extremely repetitive and fast. It was pretty apparent by the time I got to the end of chapter two that this was going to be my experience for the rest of the game. That’s not to say I was bored by then, far from it, but it did make playing for more than an hour or so a bit of a chore. In short little bursts I could have some laughs, but before long I just started to wish I was doing something else. The only thing that really keeps Maneater from becoming entirely stale are the shark hunter encounters. Much like a wanted level in Grand Theft Auto, the local gun owners start to notice you after eating one too many men.
Before too long you will have a small army coming at you with spears, guns, and even dynamite. Taking care of them usually requires some fun out-of-water acrobatics to pull them from their boats and jetskis. The more of these hunters you kill the higher your threat level becomes. As the threat level goes up you will be forced to deal with professionals who come to claim the bounty on your head. I absolutely adored these fights. They were challenging and are truly the shining stars in Maneater’s sometimes dull repetition.
I’m glad these encounters are fun too because they are an essential part of leveling up your Bull Shark. After completing some of these bouts your shark will receive an evolution. These evolutions act like upgrades and abilities to your organs, fins, body, and teeth. Eventually, my shark was covered entirely in bone that made me look like a monster straight out of my own worst nightmares. These evolutions can be upgraded even further with the use of nutrients which can be obtained by eating the wide array of sea creatures, and of course humans, you come upon. There isn’t too much variety in these evolutions, but there are enough to have some fun seeing what kind of horror show you can send into the sea.
Maneater’s graphic design is pretty decent as well. While the human character models aren’t spectacular, the underwater creatures look great. The sharks in particular move believably and have very subtle physics for their gills and bodies. It makes sense the underwater environments would be the focus; at least 80% of the game takes place there and it really is fun to explore. There were even moments where my fear of all things underwater made me a little nervous when diving into the dark blue depths.
On the other hand, there are far too many areas that trap you into relatively shallow and narrow spaces. Part of the fun of being a shark is exploring the ocean, but when so many of the areas are near shallow docks and golf resorts I started to feel really hampered and claustrophobic. This normally isn’t too much of an issue, but as you explore you start having to fight new and larger predators. Fighting crocodiles and other sharks in tight corridors is a pain that quickly moves away from challenging towards irritating.
Outside of that, Maneater is a well-put-together game. The HUD is clean and only shares vital information, the map and quest log are simple to navigate, and the evolution and upgrade system is clear and easy to understand. There isn’t much music to speak of in Maneater, and the show is mostly stolen by the wildlife documentarian who narrates around your shark’s escapades.
The controls are pretty decent too. Underwater movement is usually the worst part of any game that has it. Maneater does a good job making you comfortable in its space. Despite a few moments of lunging in the wrong direction or missing a strike on a fisherman, I felt pretty confident in my play. The biggest issue I can see for PC players who choose to use a mouse and keyboard (not recommended by the developers) is the possibility of carpal tunnel. Bull sharks thrash to help kill their prey, and shaking your mouse side to side quickly becomes painful.
A Decent Bite
Considering the largely uncharted waters (sorry) of the shark simulator genre, it is hard to fault Maneater for its flaws. On the other hand, open world design has been a staple of gaming for over a decade and it is a shame to see such repetitive quest design. Along with a few too many claustrophobic environments, I have a hard time giving Maneater a blanket recommendation. That being said, I had a lot of fun playing it, and I think there is a lot to like if you can deal with a few annoyances.
Review copy provided by Tripwire Interactive for PC. Screenshots courtesy of Tripwire Interactive.