I’ve never had to wrestle with a controller as strenuously as I do in Maneater. Sharks might be efficient killing machines, but trying to play as one can be hell on your hands and your DualShock. Every time I try to munch on an alligator or mako I have to beat my controller into submission, pounding on the shoulder trigger to take a bite, and then immediately smashing the right joystick to flip around and keep my prey in sight. When we’re evenly matched, these little duels can go on for minutes; when I’m trying to eat up a beast that’s bigger or stronger than me, I have to resort to guerrilla tactics, ambushing them from out of the seaweed, and regularly making short tactical retreats to swallow down some grouper or catfish to regain strength. Maneater reinforces the life-and-death struggle of these undersea squabbles by making me really feel them. These shark fights are the best thing about this weird, ambitious, and inconsistent game, which can veer from disappointing to exciting within seconds.
The star of Maneater is a bull shark ripped from her mother’s belly as a baby and left to fend for herself in the wetlands of the Gulf of Mexico. As she cuts through the murky swamp water, feasting on docile wildlife and occasionally battling with more aggressive species, she grows larger and more powerful, one level at a time. Eating turtles, barracudas and other creatures earns her not just experience, but an array of other collectibles, which can be used to power up various skills she unlocks as she matures. She can even access an in-game map, which helpfully marks every goal and item with a different icon. She swims around tackling different missions and sidequests based around the mechanic of eating, unlocking new parts of the Gulf en route to an inevitable showdown with the shark hunter who gutted her mom.
Yes, it’s an RPG. Starring a shark. Feel free to make whatever puns or jokes would make you happy.
This deeply conventional structure can be a blessing and a curse. Always knowing where I have to go and what I have to do can keep me focused and on track. When I want to get moving and see what comes next, I can check out that map, power through a few missions, and be on my way. I never feel lost or like I’m wasting my time, unless I intentionally want to waste time.
Of course, wasting time is the best thing to do in Maneater, and all the responsibility dotted over that map can get a little exhausting. Swimming around, scuffling with gators, exploring the waterways and the sewer systems, gracefully slicing through the water—simply existing in this space feels freeing, in a way that few other games do. It spoils that sensation a bit when the game reminds me of all these things I’m supposed to be doing, like eating 10 humans on a beach, or slaying the area’s apex predator. The shark also has a detective instinct, like a Batshark, that pings everything of interest within a certain radius; again, it’s useful when I just want to make progress, but it’s at odds with what the game does best.
There’s a common complaint about this type of game—action RPGs, if you want to call it that, or whatever your term of choice is for games that closely follow the Ubisoft template as seen in Assassin’s Creed and Far Cry games. They become less about the experience of playing them, and less about the story and the world, and more about just checking things off a list. They become mechanical, repetitive, unimaginative: do this, then do this, then do this, for about 40 hours or so, until all the doing has been done. Maneater is mercifully shorter than that, by a significant degree, which is one of its strengths, but it’s still too easy to fall into that rigid pattern when playing it.
Speaking of the game’s world, Maneater isn’t just concerned about life in the water. Port Clovis, the fictional coastal city it’s set in, is developed through the frequent narration of Chris Parnell, of Saturday Night Live, 30 Rock and Rick and Morty fame. It’s a cartoon stereotype of a sprawling Southern city, a New Orleans or Houston where class divisions are stark, everybody’s selfish and thoughtless, and concern for the environment is nonexistent. This cynical humor recalls the noxious attitude of the Grand Theft Auto games, although it’s not nearly as oppressive and all-encompassing here. Some of it’s legitimately funny, no doubt in part to Parnell’s delivery—he’s always excelled as the sober, serious authority figure who confidently announces complete nonsense. Some of his lines repeat too often (although nowhere near as bad as that sea bass joke in Animal Crossing: New Horizons), and many of the jokes are total groaners or tedious stabs at South Park-style satire, but Parnell adds a vital bit of charm to the game. And although it’s never subtle, and rests too much on hillbilly and redneck cliches, Maneater saves more than enough of its all-purpose scorn for the wealthy parts of Port Clovis and its wide expanses of golf courses, McMansions, and private boat docks.
Despite that hint of class consciousness, don’t expect any thoughtful analysis of politics here, or any discussion of the environmental crisis, animal rights, or urban planning, beyond cynical jokes. There’s a framing technique based around a TV reality show about shark hunting, and it tries to add a bit of emotional depth to its star (who’s also the shark’s main rival), but otherwise Maneater wants to keep it light. It wants to be able to mock anything that gets in its way without having to really think about any of the issues it touches or the underlying causes beneath them—to make fun of the world it’s created without acknowledging how it connects to the real world. It doesn’t assume any responsibility for itself beyond entertaining its audience. In other words, it’s a videogame, for better or worse.
Maneater isn’t great. Some of it isn’t even all that good. It is great at one thing, though, and fortunately it’s the one thing that was most important for the game to get right. All the complaints I might have—the formulaic structure, the bad jokes, the attempts at GTA-style attitude—drift away when I’m swimming gracefully through the water. And when that elegant line gets tangled, and the game abruptly shifts into a brutal fight for survival, it becomes something truly great and exhilarating. Maneater is a fantastic central concept around which an intermittently enjoyable game has been built. It might not be a classic, but it’ll be hard to forget, and that’s the kind of game that typically seems better as time goes by. Expect to see this absurd bit of bloody, barbaric business pop up on lists of cult favorites for years to come, and deservedly so.
Maneater was developed by Tripwire Interactive and published by Tripwire and Deep Silver. Our review is based on the PlayStation 4 version. It’s also available for Xbox One and PC.
Senior editor Garrett Martin writes about videogames, comedy, travel, theme parks, wrestling, and anything else that gets in his way. He’s on Twitter @grmartin. He also lives like three miles from Tripwire’s headquarters, apparently.