As someone raised along the stretch of New England coastline where they shot the first two Jaws movies (and, yes, part of the fourth, but we don’t talk about that one), Maneater has been on my radar since it first burst onto the stage at E3 2018 like it was hungry for some Robert Shaw.
Since then, we’ve been given a pretty good idea of what to expect from Tripwire’s open-world Shark RPG. There’s a large open
world ocean to explore, ranging from brackish backwater bayous to polluted lakes, ponds and coastlines (even what looks like a Sea Wolrd-esque amusement park), plenty of sea life – and any humans unfortunate enough to get too close to the water – to devour, and an evolution system that drives your progress through the game forward, all tied together (successfully, based on what I’ve seen) a reality TV series narrated by veteran voice actor Chris Parnell. Recently, I got a chance to swim through the opening hour or so of Maneater, and even though it wasn’t all smooth sailing, I’m eager to get back in the water for more.
Okay, those are all the ocean puns I’ve got, I promise.
During our demo, I was able to play as both a powerful adult bull shark and then later her orphaned pup, which is the shark that you spend the remainder of the game controlling. The unbridled power fantasy of the full-grown shark was, perhaps unsurprisingly, the more immediately satisfying of the two; but the younger, weaker shark had its own intriguing elements as well, and it was clear that transitioning from one to the other would be a fun process. As a (surprisingly adorable) pup, and later as a “teen shark*”, I found the world much more dangerous. Even a small garfish can pose a threat, and while it’s relatively easy to take on smaller prey like grouper or turtles, the way you have to approach fighting more aggressive enemies is far more tactical than you might expect.
“The combat felt a little stale initially,” admits Tripwire’s CEO and Co-Founder John Gibson, looking back on the early stages of Maneater’s development. “The shark would swim through the world and just bite. You know, it was a bit like PAC man… but when we added some movement, some lunges to those attacks, then it started feeling like a knife fight.”
It was a fair comparison – once I got the hang of it, a fight with another sea creature was more reminiscent of a sword fight or a boxing match than the typical “freight train with teeth” violence we usually associate with sharks. When the Tripwire team demoed it for us at last year’s GamesCom, they jokingly called it “Shark Souls,” and while relating a game to From Software’s hugely influential series has become something of a meme, it’s not an entirely incorrect comparison. Especially when punching above your weight class – in this case, I thought it would be a good idea to pit by tiny little shark pup against an adult alligator, for example – every attack, dodge and counterattack felt important, and each error I made was a lesson learned, and a mistake to avoid next time. “Every battle has a cadence,” Gibson says. “That was the moment where the light bulbs came on.”
That said, the most enjoyable – in the guiltiest of pleasurable ways – was, of course, when I took the shark to the surface to terrorize the human population of the region I was in. As both a teen shark and an adult, wreaking havoc among boaters and beachgoers was intensely – and horrifyingly – satisfying. Being able to latch onto a diver and drag them, screaming, through a crowd of panicked swimmers or breaching from below the surface to slam down onto an inflatable unicorn raft and pop it, bouncing more potential food into the red-churned waters, was gleefully wicked fun. In those moments, it didn’t feel quite like an action or reverse horror game, along the lines of GTA or Carrion, but more like the shark a variation on House House’s mischievous goose, if the goose devoured people for nourishment instead of just stealing their house keys.
To be clear – it still controlled like an arcade/action game, through and through. Single buttons control each function, from chomping down on a fish or foe to whipping your tail around to stun them. When I’d gorged myself on enough swimmers, local shark hunters would arrive (to claim the bounty that inevitably gets placed on an animal that kills a bunch of humans), and these simple controls worked well to let me bring the fight to the cocky fishermen. Often literally, as the ability to hurl the full weight of my shark body onto their boats and eat whoever was standing on deck was a strategy I enjoyed far too much and employed often.
I didn’t get to spend much time with the evolutionary end of Maneater’s “Eat, Explore, Evolve” gameplay pillars, but based on the info I gleaned from the dev team and by exploring its starting areas, there are plenty of interesting ways to shape what my shark can do over the course of Maneater’s 8-10 hour campaign. As your shark gets older and larger, it will evolve from a pup to a teen, then adult and eventually become an Elder shark – and that’s when things get especially wild, it seems.
While there are certain abilities you can pick up early on, like a unique form of echolocation or the tail attack mentioned earlier, late-game evolutions include bizarre mutations absorbed from toxic waste dumps or by hunting and defeating each region’s mutated apex predators, like a chitinous bone plating that offers more protection in battle or bio-electric fins that deal bonus electricity damage. Gibson says that finding taking the time to find and unlock everything it has to offer can take well past 15 hours, and that’s not including all optional objectives or their post-launch content, which will likely include “different areas and new gameplay”.
I thoroughly enjoyed my initial time with Maneater, and I’m eager to explore more when it launches this May. “[We’re] taking what is something that people are familiar with and that they know, but taking it somewhere really unique so they can experience a genre that they love but in a way that they’ve never experienced before,” says Gibson.
While there were a few small issues that made my demo a bit clunky – the UI might have benefitted from a tutorial explaining the distinction between dodge indicators and counter-attack indicators, for instance, and there were some interesting collision hiccups – but those are small and easily remedied problems, ones that I trust Tripwire to address by the time they launch. And after all, aren’t all the best shark adventures a little rough around the edges? The issues weren’t enough to sour me on the shark-sperience, by any means; if anything it just made me wish for a longer demo; you could say learning its intricacies really made me want to sink my teeth in.
Okay, that was the last last one, I swear.
*I’d 100% watch a Teen Wolf reboot where they replace lycanthropy with whatever disease those dudes on Street Sharks had.