I am irrationally afraid of sharks. Yes, even from the landlocked state of Utah, I get chills just thinking about the rubbery gray death tubes that are all mouth and teeth and fin. Sure, we’ve got things like mountain lions and other
majestic horrifying death-dealing creatures here, but there’s just something about the shark. Perhaps it’s the emotionless beady black eyes. Or that it virtually owns the depths of the water (a space that is, in and of itself, also quite terrifying). Maybe it’s the fact that it does what it does without hands or appendages. Again, all mouth. But with fear comes fascination.
That fascination with these deadly predators of the sea is why we have films like Jaws, Shark Week on Discovery Channel, and one of PSVR’s first experiences was a close encounter with a shark. And now Maneater puts you in the fins of a shark, letting me become the thing I fear most. But it’s far more than just that simplistic experience. Tripwire went above and beyond to create an entire…shall we call it “open-water shark RPG.” Maneater is the Grand Theft Auto of shark games; silly and campy, yet somehow also serious and realistic? It balances its elements well, never feeling like it’s trying too hard to be over-the-top.
The name of the game is Maneater—you’ll be eating a good bunch of humans—but you’ll also find yourself chowing down on a variety of marine life, from turtles and catfish to seals and other sharks, and even some larger apex predators of the sea. After all, a shark needs to consume a good amount if it wants to grow from a tiny little baby and reach “megashark” status to get revenge on the fisherman who killed her mama.
Wrapped in the aesthetic of a nature documentary/reality show you might see on Discovery Channel during Shark Week, there is somewhat of a story to drive the toothy carnage, pursuing the hunter around the Gulf and nearby waterways. The diversity of the environments is pretty amazing, well beyond what I was expecting to get for a game about a shark. From the swampy bayou to sandy beaches, there’s even an abandoned whale tank that’s been partially reclaimed by the ocean.
It’s all fantastically narrated by the docu-series lead, again in that perfect balance of seriousness and joking, never tipping its own hand at just how absurd it can be. Everything is a wry wink and smile; a little elbow nudge as if to say “if you know, you know.” Maneater is filled with too many pop culture references to count, most subtle and never overtly called out (and many of them specifically related to the Landmark collectibles you find in each region. After all, it wouldn’t be an open-world game without collectibles.
Maneater Review – Be the Shark
While underwater sections are usually the worst part of any game, Tripwire did an incredible job making the shark feel really good to control. It’s all helped along by the stunningly realistic animations as the shark glides through the water, hunting her prey. Consuming your food, whether a docile lunch or something that fights back, is appropriately violent as the shark clamps her teeth and thrashes it to bits. And on the surface? Big splashes and blood as the shark leaps and thrashes out of the water make a cinematic spectacle of combat with humans that would harm you. Blood clouds the water as surviving prey swims away. It’s really quite amazing how good it all looks. (I would have loved a photo mode, but alas, it is not to be.)
The surface of the water does create one of the biggest frustrations I had with the combat though. In order to achieve a right proper shark feel, you effectively “snap” to the surface of the water as you reach it. Your fin then does the classic slicing above the water, striking fear into the hearts of all those who see it. Though this works well in most cases, it becomes a very annoying feature while in combat with underwater enemies near the surface, particularly in shallow waters like the bayou. Battling an alligator, barracuda, or other predators also becomes a war with the mechanic, attempting to keep far enough under the water to prevent the “snap” that pulls you to the surface and interrupts the fight. Still, it’s a relatively small issue, and subsides as you move into regions with deeper waters, though does present some occasional fighting with the controls early on.
Tripwire simply made it fun to be a shark. You feel powerful, using nothing but your jaws (and the occasional tail whip) to thrash enemies into submission and consume them for growth. Completing various tasks and objectives rewards your with new mutations and evolutions that you can equip, not only granting new stats and abilities—like shocking teeth or a poisonous lunge—but also changing the look of your shark. Something about a shark with a glowing blue mouth and bone fins is really damn cool. And then there’s a catharsis in taking your shark through the waters and gobbling up anything in your way, perhaps flopping onto land every now and then to snack on a human or ten.
Maneater Review – Open-World Woes
While unique in the shark respect—there is no other game out there that compares—Maneater does fall into some of the same pitfalls that open-world games tend to. Missions are exceptionally repetitive, amounting to “go to place, kill certain number of specific creature.” Every region asks you to do a little population control on the local wildlife, exact revenge on the local humans, and then watch a story cutscene that often doesn’t directly involve your shark. It’s unique gimmick of being a shark manages to keep it interesting regardless, but the game doesn’t do much of anything to change up its formula before the end.
Both mission structure and combat barely evolve at all, presenting diminishing returns for those new evolutions and mutations you get. Even for the final battle, I effectively just monched and cronched my way through it with whatever evolutions I had unlocked, eating the occasional diver and nearby fish to restore health. That’s not to say it wasn’t fun—no, I had quite a blast for the eight hours or so it took me to beat the main campaign. But don’t expect any revolutionary gameplay changes. Once a toothy death tube, always a toothy death tube.
Beyond the main story, there are a bunch of collectibles scattered around the Gulf and its nearby waterways, but once again, these are pretty standard-issue open-world collectathon checklists. There’s no real “endgame” to speak of, so grinding out all of the collectibles and upgrades is going to be strictly for the completionists, not any kind of useful gameplay. That said, there are some entertaining Easter eggs hidden within the landmark collectibles, and a few of the license plates require a fun challenge to get. And as always you can simply monch and cronch your way to each of them, nibbling on whatever is between you and the next checkbox.
The place where Maneater really suffers is in performance, particularly later game when beset upon by multiple predators and hunters. at once. In intense battles, the framerate would often slow to a crawl, effectively being a slideshow of carnage and throwing all sense of “tactics” (as much as there is any) out the window. Fortunately, button-mashing the chomp button through battles works well enough, but it was a very notable issue that came up regularly in the back half of the game. I know that some performance issues could be attributed to my launch PS4, and I’m unsure of how the game runs on newer PS4 Pros or Slims.
Maneater’s bite comes from its stunning underwater animations, comedic notes spread throughout the game, and the fact that you get to play an entire game as a goddamn shark. There simply isn’t anything else like it, even if it does follow some of the more rote open-world playbook rules when it comes to progression and collectibles. A choppy framerate in intense sequences is really one of the only things holding the experience back, but like a fisherman without a hand—or a leg—it doesn’t stop me from heading back to the open water for more. Am I still scared of sharks? Hell yeah, more than ever, but at least now I can be scares and fascinates me.
Maneater review code provided by publisher. Reviewed on a PlayStation 4. For more information on scoring, please read our Review Policy.