It was like music to my ears.
At the E3 2018 PC Gaming Show, Blindside Interactive revealed an open-world action-RPG starring a shark. Everyone’s first thought was to draw comparisons to Jaws Unleashed (2006). When Tripwire Interactive released more footage, it became clear that Maneater wasn’t a rehash of the linear title. To deliver the first ever shark action-RPG, or shARkPG, the developer sprawled the game across seven environments; developed a leveling system; gave the shark equippable boosters, abilities, and items; and made enemies increasingly difficult.
As a recently orphaned pup bull shark, players navigate the cruel Gulf Coast in search of your mother’s killer, gruff shark hunter Scaly Pete. The narrative unravels through the events of a reality TV show that follows Pete Leblanc and his bumbling son, Kyle. So you’re not traveling without companionship, the series’ host, voiced by Rick and Morty actor Chris Parnell, fills the silence. He’ll pop in with facts about the shark, the environments, and the delicious wildlife.
Parnell’s presence adds personality and helps flesh out the world without shoehorning in awkward cutscenes, though he repeats himself quite a few times. Scattered Landmark Locations also bring life to the murky depths by creating small bits of lore to locate and gobble up. Neither alter the game much, save for the unlocks that finding landmarks provide, but they keep the world from being too one-dimensional.
The waters are full of edible snacks and aggressive predators, so you don’t necessarily need the distraction of world-building. You’ll be too busy evading alligators as you try to munch on crunchy turtles or going toe-to-toe with try-hard mako sharks. There’s always something at your fin trying to make a snack out of you, so it’s good that this pup isn’t a pushover. Quite the contrary, actually. He comes equipped with several evade maneuvers, some sharp teeth, and a powerful tail. These come in handy in your travels, especially when you square off against the craftier and much stronger apex predators.
Combat in Maneater is surprisingly deep. If you try to gnaw your way through your foe, you’re sure to go belly up. When pressed for a fight, you must learn your aggressor’s attack patterns and strike when the time is right. It takes a little bit to get used to this dance at first, but once you master it early in the game, you’re good to go. That is until you’re flanked by many predators.
Generally, these moments are exciting, but it’s easy to get frustrated when certain gameplay elements work against you. These pitfalls are entirely expected going into the game, though. The camera is Maneater’s biggest detractor, often getting in the way and putting you at a disadvantage. It’s especially evident in earlier environments where water levels are low and your shark breaks the surface at inopportune moments. You’ll become disoriented, but on-screen prompts do their best to keep you focused. Sometimes, there’s too little room and the cramped space makes fights against alligators the game’s first real annoyance. Yet each new environment improves upon Maneater’s core gameplay to rectify some of these camera issues.
Also improving upon what could have been a stale experience are the customization options. You can alter your shark to become a mutated terror of the deep. You know, like sharks in the real world. Tripwire makes you wait a bit before you can start customizing your jaws, head, body, fins, tail, and organs with Evolutions and Mutagens, but once you do, you won’t want to go back to being a boring ‘ole shark.
You can beat Maneater without equipping anything, but the options are too much fun to pass up. Mix and match Evolutions to build a custom shark or stick to specific sets and benefit from the perks offered. I particularly enjoyed the bio-electric fins, which enhanced my shark’s evade and left enemies stunned. When paired with shadow teeth that siphoned health and bone armor, I was unstoppable. Mutagens alter the shark’s organs and can provide stat boosts or unlock abilities like a very useful sonar.
Many of your Evolutions and Mutagens will unlock as you play the story. The best, however, are tied to side quests, collectibles, and your threat level. The more humans you eat, the more infamous you become. Draw enough attention and hunting parties will come for you. You can run and hide, or you can be the man-eating shark you were born to be and fight back. Survive for long enough and a named hunter will seek you out. Not only will they make a nice snack, they unlock a new alteration for your infamous beast.
As fun as it is to break out new Evolutions, complete all side quests and raise your infamy meter, Maneater does suffer from a remarked lack of mission creativity. As the game revolves around one gameplay element – eating – that’s pretty much all you’re going to be doing to progress the story. Maybe you’ll eat 10 catfish or devour 12 humans. Or you may travel back three environments to scope out eight groupers. Apex predator battles change things up a little, but they’re not quite frequent enough.
Since gorging on fish provides you the nutrients needed to upgrade Evolutions and Mutagens, it’s clear the game wants you to strengthen your killing machine. Unfortunately, it’s not quite enough to justify the stale missions. This was something Tripwire likely knew would be a problem, which is why the game isn’t incredibly long or too difficult.
I dove into Maneater expecting my childlike giddiness to be the only factor keeping me playing. To my surprise, there is a pretty solid RPG waiting in the depths off the Gulf Coast. Though a bit shallow at times like the murky swamps of the bayou, your patience is rewarded. Trudge through the early game content and you’ll find yourself immersed in a frantic good time well worth the 10 to 15 hours it takes to complete.