Maneater is a novel RPG that encouraged me out of my comfort zone. 3D, open-world, nonlinear, action RPGs are not the kinds of games I’m particularly good at. If that isn’t enough, Maneater also features omnidirectional movement in underwater environments that completely discombobulate me. But despite all of that, I still wanted to play Maneater. Why? Its presentation.
Maneater’s presentation is one of the coolest I’ve seen in an RPG, putting it within the lens of a reality TV show called “Sharkhunters Vs. Maneaters.” While you’re doing your thing as a shark, Chris Parnell (of Rick & Morty fame) wonderfully narrates your “life” like an Animal Planet or Discovery Channel show. When the narrative shifts to cutscenes featuring those pesky human sharkhunters, the game looks and feels like a seafaring reality show in the vein of Deadliest Catch or Wicked Tuna. Framing video games within the concept of a reality TV show has been dabbled with conceptually in the past, but the use of this device in Maneater feels right.
The game is a more-or-less sandbox game, so there isn’t a tightly woven, overly involved narrative, but there are some interesting plot setpieces and Chris Parnell’s narration makes your bouts of meandering sound less aimless. Progression mostly consists of doing the usual sharky activities — eating, growing, and surviving — along with evolving in some unique ways based on the nutrients you consume. Eating on its own does not guarantee survival, though. Another key to survival is claiming dominion over the myriad regions by ousting each region’s highly stylized apex animal. Good luck getting to these apex animal bosses, though, because the common local wildlife has no qualms about attacking you, eating you, and/or muscling you out of their turf.
If the survival of the fittest nature of the animal kingdom wasn’t difficult enough, there are also bounty hunting boats filled with nasty humans waiting to spear you. As you wreak havoc (particularly against humans), you gain infamy, and gaining enough infamy brings out one of the ten elite sharkhunters the show follows. Each of these elite hunters has their own backstory explaining why they took up shark hunting, and defeating each of them brings you one step closer to your ultimate prey: Pierre “Scaly Pete” LeBlanc. Scaly Pete is the most notorious sharkhunter of them all and the one you want bloody revenge on like an inverse Moby Dick. Scaly Pete’s cutscenes are quite powerful and set him up to be an effective “big bad” you 100% want to rend and slaughter every time you encounter him. Unfortunately, none of the other sharkhunters get any spotlight or development beyond their mini-bios in the main menu.
At about 14-16 hours long on average, Maneater is not an overly lengthy game. In fact, I thought the length was ideal, because the game’s often repetitive and grindy nature made it feel longer than it actually was. Consequently, I preferred playing Maneater in small doses rather than for epic marathon sessions. That being said, different phases of the game did their best to encourage different play styles. For example, during the early stages as a literal small fish in a big pond, I approached the game more like a stealth game (e.g. Metal Gear Solid) to avoid being taken out, but as my shark got bigger and gained more skills, I could take the offensive a little more. In addition, boss battles against the myriad apex animals most definitely required a different approach than fighting against the various human sharkhunters.
The game’s difficulty is often compared to the Souls series (Demon’s Souls, Dark Souls), in that it’s punishing yet never feels unwinnable. There is no easy mode, no hand holding, and no get-out-of-jail-free cards. I needed to invest time honing my skills and keeping my wits about me in hostile waters where even the beginning area quickly had me face to face with foes well above my weight class. Even some smaller animals pose a threat to careless sharks, and more aggressive animals are not above chasing you anywhere you go, including your safe havens. Simply put, button-mashing is the easiest way to Game Over. Reassuringly, the game autosaves quite often (there is no manual save feature) and when you die, you respawn with your earned EXP intact.
Would Maneater have benefited from an easy mode option? On the one hand, it would allow a wider audience to access the game by affording appropriate handicaps for those with meager twitch-gaming skills, or those interested in seeing how the story plays out without having to tediously grind. On the other hand, the lack of a “wimp mode” encouraged me to invest the time to get good and when I accomplished difficult tasks, the feeling of victory was that much sweeter.
For example, my most epic moment of the game happened during the early going when my shark was still a wee little knee-biter. I ran afoul of a big ol’ alligator that followed me back to my home grotto, trapped me inside, and broke its way in! I only had a sliver of HP left and thought I was going to die for sure, but using “stick and move” tactics and agility to hit the ornery varmint’s vulnerable parts while avoiding its massive jaws, I managed to kill it, sup on its tasty flesh, and triumphantly exclaim, “Damn! My baby shark is a badass!”
Maneater uses the tried-and-true WASD and mouse control scheme, with other actions mapped to hotkeys easily accessible with the left hand, though these key mappings can be changed to suit player preferences. You can also play with a gamepad and choose from a few selectable control mapping schemes. I was perfectly fine with the default settings for both keyboard and gamepad. Both forms of input offer smooth and fluid controls; players’ favored input will likely depend on whether they’re more of a console or PC gamer. That being said, I preferred the PC controls for the mouse’s precision and the keyboard’s flexibility of additional button-mapping options.
Because your shark has multiple dimensions of movement underwater, navigation can be disorienting, particularly during the intense and fast-paced combat that has you frantically flailing in all directions. There is a lock-on system, but it’s more of a “soft” lock-on that often threw me off my intended target. There is a “focus threat” hotkey to quickly reorient the camera and lock on to the nearest threat, but in multi-threat situations it did not always reorient me in the direction I wanted or target the foe I desired. While there are some skills that can be learned to compensate for this a little (e.g. a “bullet time” ability), I would have liked a more robust lock-on system.
Maneater’s visuals are clean and smooth, with wonderfully varied underwater environments from pristine oceans to brackish backwaters. The character models for humans are more stylized than photorealistic and animate somewhat stiffly. The animal models look and animate more believably, though your shark can potentially evolve in some very stylized ways (e.g. bones that calcify into external armor) and the apex predator bosses have some stylish, if unrealistic, features as well (e.g. the ludicrously quick, radioactively phosphorescent barracuda). Everything animates quite fluidly, particularly the water around you. I’m always impressed by good CG water effects, and the water effects in Maneater are quite nicely done.
Music is sparse and the tunes themselves are forgettable, but all are appropriately atmospheric and used for proper dramatic effect. For example, the “uh oh, you’re in trouble” drone of low brass instruments when a hostile enemy spots you and is about to attack makes those situations feel appropriately tense. Music aside, the beauty of Maneater’s sound design is the selection and usage of sound effects that make the environments feel alive, from the subtle sounds of reeds rustling as you swim through them to the threatening sounds of animal growls and cocked weaponry. Overall, Maneater’s immersive graphics and sound effects made me truly feel like I was navigating a living and breathing world.
Love it or hate it, there is no denying that Maneater is a game that stays true to its unique vision. Its difficulty level can be daunting and play does get repetitive, but it’s an interestingly presented game where you get to be a shark in a reality TV show. Maneater was a welcome taste of something different from my usual RPG diet and I’m glad I got to play it, but can only recommend it if you’re willing to overlook its flaws.