Toward the middle of my time with Maneater, my shark, now the size of a sedan and sporting glowing blue fins and whiskers to help it channel bioelectricity into the water around it, leaped out of a canal and onto the cobblestone dais filled with drunken revelers. As the folks enjoying the shoreline of Port Clovis screamed, my shark flopped after them, deterred by neither lack of limbs nor lack of oxygen as it chased down and chomped partier after partier unfortunate enough to think they could enjoy a gathering this close to Dead Horse Lake.
As I gained bloody vengeance against the residents of Port Clovis for their abuse of the marine ecosystem, actor Chris Parnell’s voice-over narration filled in some interesting details about the horse monument my prehistoric killing machine was defiling. One year, he explained, a Port Clovis-born horse placed 20th at the Kentucky Derby, creating a new holiday since the local population, known for public drunkenness and petty crime sprees, was eager to celebrate.
Maneater provides a lot of these kinds of moments, mixing ridiculous ichthyological carnage and reality-show absurdity to create something hilarious. It’s an uneven experience, due largely to technical glitches, frustrating marine predator combat, and repetitive missions. But the longer it goes on, the more fun Maneater becomes, and its presentation keeps it from getting stale.
That presentation is the most inspired part of Maneater. The game plays itself off as a basic cable reality TV show that follows Cajun shark hunter “Scaly Pete” as he patrols the polluted waters of the fictional Port Clovis. When Pete finds and kills a pregnant shark, the baby breaks loose of the hunter’s grip (by chewing off his hand) and escapes into the bayou, where it (apparently) vows revenge.
What follows is a vicious romp through various biomes, thanks to the shark’s apparent mutated ability to survive in both freshwater and saltwater, as you pursue the singular goal of getting huge and eating Pete. The whole experience is narrated by Parnell (of 30 Rock, Archer, and Rick and Morty fame) as if it were a cheap Discovery Channel nature documentary following the shark and its feud with the reprehensibly eco-unfriendly Pete. Parnell’s narrator mixes actual shark facts–or what sound like facts, at least–with plenty of gags at the expense of the drunk and disorderly Port Clovisians, wealthy shoreline property owners, the human propensity to exploit the ocean and its vast biodiversity, and particularly boring fish.
The comedy is a huge part of what makes Maneater work, because otherwise, living the shark life would probably be kind of boring, since you’ll mostly spend your time eating. You start as a small bull shark pup, gobbling up everything you can. Eating animals nets you nutrients you can use to level up your shark and upgrade mutations you earn as you complete quests, which help you get bigger and more ferocious.
You’ll swim around eating everything in your path, but predators eager to make a meal of you, also patrol the waterways. Enemies like alligators and Mako sharks will dart toward you and chomp down, requiring you to use a quick dodge ability to try to stay out of their way and get a few bites in when their guard is down or smack them with your tail to stun them. You recover health whenever you consume another creature, so victory is usually about beating strategic retreats and eating strategic treats to get back up to fighting strength.
Combat can be a fraught affair when you’re facing dangerous animals, since you and your enemies are darting toward each other like missiles and frequently passing each other. Pressing in one of the control sticks on console will zip the camera back around to the threat, but Maneater lacks a true lock-on system for some reason, which can make it easy to lose track of the creature you’re trying to take down or escape. Especially in shallower regions, combat gets messy as you lose track of enemies, the camera gets caught against nearby landmasses, or you accidentally beach yourself or take to the water’s surface, which locks you into an above-water view until you hit a specific button to dive back down. Fighting predators is a pain until you start unlocking cool mutations, which give you increased stats and perks such as stunning fish as you rocket past or returning health when you bite larger prey.
Once you get a bit bigger and a bit more mutated, things take on a fun, if somewhat repetitive, routine as you climb the food chain. Each region includes quests that are all basically “Eat 10 of X fish,” “Eat 10 humans at X spot,” and “Eat X large predator,” no matter where you are. But going after the humans indiscriminately has its costs–eat enough folks and a meter at the top of the screen that tracks how big a threat you present to Port Clovis will rise, causing the city will send shark hunters after you. These folks constitute your most dangerous adversaries most of the time because they carry everything from harpoons to dynamite to try to turn you into chum. Eating enough hunters and sinking enough of their boats raises your Infamy level, causing a boss hunter to join the fray. Eat the boss and you get a new mutation upgrade to equip, which makes taking down progressively tougher hunters a useful diversion from the main set of quests.
Mixed in with those quests are hunts for collectibles. Scattered throughout each region are crates of mutagens you can find and consume and floating license plates you often need to leap high out of the water to collect. There are also signposts that mark local landmarks both in and out of the water, which the game uses as opportunities for jokes and pop culture references, like the sunken wreck of a knock-off of the Bluth banana stand from Arrested Development. Seeking out the collectibles provides a nice, quick break from constantly chowing fish, with the landmarks and their jokes especially worth the effort of tracking them all down.
So while you’ll do the same things at each location, there’s just enough variety of activities that you won’t get bored, especially as you level up and get bigger and more powerful (and especially once you’re out of the way-too-shallow bayou). Completing objectives earns you specific mutations for each shark body part that can be mixed and matched to suit your play style, giving a bit of a tactical RPG component to your constant consumption. The three main sets of mutations focus on speed, debuffs for enemies, and higher defense, and picking the right mutations for a situation gives you an edge. The mutations don’t really change up the gameplay too much for most of the game, unfortunately, but once you start maxing out upgrades, they help create the experience that is Maneater’s beating, delicious heart: Making you into a huge, ludicrous, nearly unstoppable killing machine. You’ll still face challenging enemies like boats and predators, but you’ll usually get to choose when to have those dangerous encounters, leaving a lot more time for undisturbed mayhem.
That mayhem would work a lot better if not for the camera issues, the loose, panicky nature of the combat, and some minor technical issues we faced while playing on PS4. In certain biomes in particular, the frame rate would often take a dive, which was especially frustrating when trying to survive an onslaught of hunters or a pack of hammerheads. I also experienced a rare bug that caused me to lose my save file and had two collectibles straight-up not work when I collected them, preventing 100% completion and locking me out of one of the mutations. Publisher Tripwire says both the save bug and the collectibles issue have been fixed with a pre-release patch.
Issues aside, Maneater opportunities for shark chaos can be a lot of fun. The best parts of the game are akin to running around in a Grand Theft Auto game with a rocket launcher, indiscriminately wrecking everything you see as the cops come zooming in from all directions in a futile attempt to stop you. But instead of a guy running around with an arsenal of weapons, you’re a monster shark launching itself 30 feet into the air, barrel-rolling straight through a boat, and plucking some screaming dork right off the bow for good measure. With the sharply written, hilariously delivered narration and story beats to freshen up the experience as you go along, Maneater becomes a goofy, fish-flopping romp, with a good balance of limbs to sever, boats to wreck, and challenging creatures to render into bite-sized chunks. Maneater isn’t a perfect shark simulator, but it is a fun and funny one whose positive adaptations outpace its drawbacks.
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