Imagine playing a video game version of Jaws, but where you’re the shark and you’re halfway to understanding the strange concept of Maneater.
When you describe your game as a shark RPG it’s hard to know what to expect. A turn-based Final Fantasy clone with sharks instead of elves was probably never going to happen (although we’re sure there must be ample fodder there for an aspiring indie developer) and instead the game is a sort of open world exploration game, where you play a revenge-seeking shark as it munches its way through a costal town and defies the laws of nature by evolving into a megalodon.
As you might gather, Maneater does not take itself very seriously and is certainly not a simulation of any kind of real shark behaviour. Maneater is heavily inspired by 2006 game Jaws Unleashed, which was in turn an attempt to create an unofficial follow-up to the Dreamcast Ecco The Dolphin game, expect focusing on a more aggressive underwater protagonist.
There’s nothing even slightly realistic about Maneater but at the same time it doesn’t have any of the sci-fi elements of Ecco, so while playing the game as a man-eating monster does have its pleasures it’s a premise the games struggles to keep going for very long.
Maneater’s story initially casts you as a female bull shark who goes on a killing spree at a beach (in exactly the way that sharks don’t in real life). You’re caught by a highly unsympathetic hunter called Scaly Pete, who carves a baby out of the shark’s womb and seems only moderately perturbed when it eats his arm, before jumping into the water and escaping. The tone of all this is not exactly serious but neither is it very funny, with the game instead relying on the incidental comments of hapless swimmers and other side characters for its humour.
Playing as a shark is a lot of fun at first and the sheer novelty of the experience is enough to keep you invested at the start. The game works hard to provide a variety of underwater locations and a relatively large play area, with surprisingly good graphics while you’re below water. Eating everything in sight is essentially the equivalent of resource gathering, as you collect various nutrients – and mutagens – with the intention of growing in size, gaining new abilities, and trying to evolve into a megalodon.
Only Pokémon has a less realistic approach to evolution, but the strange concept is at least in service of some interesting upgrades, that range from electricity powers to a sonar ping. Each of the seven different areas has an apex predator, such as a giant squid or killer whale, which when defeated provide their owns special upgrade, a bit like an underwater Mega Man.
Without these additional abilities the combat is very basic and involves little more than charging at a meal or trying to whip someone off a boat or jet ski with your tail. Chowing down on a screaming human is fun the first dozen times but the controls are just a bit too clunky for the entertainment to last longer than that. Especially with a frustrating lock-on system that comes from the old tradition of managing to focus on everything but the enemy you were trying to attack.
The biggest problem with Maneater though is the most obvious danger in making a game about an animal: they can’t really do that much and even when you’re controlling a weird mutated shark with superpowers the game’s missions and gameplay loop soon take on a wearingly familiar cadence.
Eating animals, clearing beaches of humans, and fighting hunters is all you really do and the game is incapable of making any of the quests seem distinctive or anything other than busywork. There is an attempt to add some variety by repeatedly ending up on land for extended periods but flopping about like as a literal fish out of water is even less fun than usual.
To add to the problems, the game’s performance is poor, with lots of graphical glitches and slowdown issues, as well as missions where your target mysteriously disappears or the game just ups and crashes.
Maneater isn’t a very good game but the overwhelming impression you get is that it’s not merely the implementation but the fact that the whole concept is badly flawed. Maybe if it had more puzzle-solving (or extreme difficulty) like Ecco The Dolphin it could’ve been interesting. Or if the script were better then it could’ve worked as a straight comedy but all you get is a lot of dad jokes mixed in with tonally inconsistent attempts to portray humans as the real monsters.
Knowing that many species have been hunted almost to extinction because of being portrayed as relentless killing machines leaves a sour taste when you’re playing something as witless, and just plain boring, as Maneater. Maybe there is a way to turn a shark simulator into an interesting and compelling game but after two attempts we’re not convinced and there’s certainly not enough here to get your teeth into.
Maneater review summary
In Short: A shark RPG sounds like an unlikely idea for a video game and unfortunately the end result is even less entertaining, and far more repetitive, than you might imagine.
Pros: The premise is relatively original and as silly as it is the evolution upgrades can be a lot of fun. Attractive underwater visuals.
Cons: Highly repetitive from the first moment, with clunky controls and lots of bugs and glitches. Tonally inconsistent story that’s nowhere near as funny as it needed to be.
Formats: Xbox One, PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch, and PC
Publisher: Deep Silver/Tripwire Interactive
Developer: Tripwire Interactive and Blindside Interactive
Release Date: 22nd May 2020 (Switch TBA)
Age Rating: 18
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