Playing as a big evil monster that gets to gobble up silly little humans is a subgenre of gaming far too unexplored. Jaws Unleashed from 2006 is one of the few examples that come to mind. Or it used to be, until Maneater released in 2020.
Obviously, it’s a game about being a shark. You start as a lil’ baby shark, literally ripped from your mother’s belly by an overzealous hunter. Orphaned and stuck in unfamiliar waters, you’ll have to fight your way up the foodchain in order to get your vengeance.
Perhaps the issue with a power fantasy like this is that designing gameplay around it requires a lot of effort. Without the context of being a cool shark, Maneater is a barebones beat ’em up game. You attack enemies by spamming your one attack at them, while occasionally pressing dodge when they strike back. Sometimes you can grapple them or score a critical hit with a well-timed attack, but the difficulty is overall low enough that you can safely disregard strategy most of the time.
The game’s difficulty actually peaks at the beginning. When you’re a baby shark constantly at risk of being ambushed by level 8 alligators and their bigger variants. You’re weak, slow, and will die in a few hits. This quickly fades as you gain access to new zones, where the sheer amount of experience points you get outpaces the difficulty. I hit max level long before the finale, while the average foe was still stuck at around level 15 tops.
Complementing the game’s low difficulty is the brainless nature of most of its quests. Your only objectives are to go to a specific place and eat things there. Humans, fish, other predators, it’s the same deal just with different targets. New areas might bring some new critters into the mix, but whether you’re snapping up catfish or clownfish; gameplay boils down to the same loop every time.
And it gets dull fast.
Most areas have copies of the exact same quest multiple times. Go hunt down this level 15 alligator. Good job, now go to the other side of the map and hunt down a level 15 alligator. Or how about 3 quests back to back to go eat turtles in different spots spread out across the map. It’s blatantly just wasting your time.
Equally meaningless are the game’s collectibles. You can find landmarks with goofy lore, license plates, or open up caches with even more experience in them. These are hidden, but the game starts you off with a sonar ability that reveals their exact location. This can be upgraded to have an astounding range, at which point you’ll never wonder where to find anything ever again.
Not even acquiring them is that difficult. You just go to the place and pick them up. Some are stuck behind obstacles that you can only clear once you have reached a certain level, but that isn’t challenge. You just come back later when you’ve hit the arbitrary story flag where you’re allowed to get it.
The overabundance of experience you gain can be reinvested into body parts for your shark, which can then be upgraded like RPG loot. I do enjoy how blatantly silly this is. You just slap on a new tail or change your shark’s entire skin around. Now you can discharge poisonous clouds or emit electricity with your tailswipes. It’s absurd, in a good way.
However, it takes very long until you actually get to unlock anything. For 70% of the game, I only had the one body type you start with. You don’t get any new ones until you have completed some very long-running quests, for which objectives are again locked behind story flags. The same goes for other “equipment” like your organs, teeth, and tail. It’s a real grind to get even one of those unlocked, let alone having enough options to make meaningful choices about how you want to advance your character.
What I will give the game is that it’s very cathartic. Even if the gameplay is simple and way too easy, it’s pretty damn cool to tear into people and other animals. Blood flows freely and you can recreate some iconic shark movie moves once you pick up on the subtleties of how movement works. Snapping up some poor fool from below, then crash-landing on someone’s boat is nothing short of hilarious to pull off.
Likewise with animals. As repetitive as the fights get, it is really cool that you see gory damage on your enemies as you wear them down. Alligators with missing legs or rival sharks that are reduced to a spasming torso. The effects are very cool and actively make the enemies less capable in a fight.
Another potential selling point is the game’s narrator. The game is framed as a cheap documentary about shark hunting, with a witty presenter at the wheel. He comments on your progress and actions, spouts random nature trivia, and reacts to the collectibles you find. The tone aims for cynical satire, with the narrator often commenting jovially on the thoroughly polluted environments you find yourself in. As well as the corrupt politics that allowed it to get so bad.
There are also surreal elements to this when combined with the referential comedy. The narrator will comment on Eldritch Gods and pop culture references found in the environment as if those are perfectly normal. Stuff like finding Spongebob’s pineapple, only for the narrator to mention how the housing needs of sea sponges is pressuring the market for exotic fruits, or something like that.
Personally, I didn’t like this narration much. A lot of the jokes tap into the same material. You’re at a golf course and find a landmark; it’s a pile of golfballs discarded into the water. You swim a bit further and find another landmark; a pile of discarded golfclubs. Continue on, another landmark; sunken golfcart. It feels unoriginal and the lines from the narrator rarely add anything to the situation.
The referential humor is… there. A lot of them I just didn’t get and those that I did get just didn’t give me a reason to laugh. The game will point at some sea shells and allude to a funny scene from Demolition Man, but there’s no joke. It’s only reminding me that there was a joke in a movie from 20 years ago. Thanks, I guess.
Another issue is the frequency of the narrator. With the sheer abundance of collectibles and things happening in the game, he sometimes just won’t shut up. Sometimes you find stuff in such quick succession that his first line hasn’t even finished yet. Sometimes the dialogue then glitches out, at other times you get to enjoy both lines back-to-back. That’ll tide you over until the next thing happens 3 seconds later. Maybe it’ll even be a new line, as opposed to one you’ve already heard 10 times.
Overall, Maneater is barely passable. It’s satisfying to chomp away at people and other animals, which is presented with a spectacle of blood. The casual ridiculousness to a lot of the gameplay mechanics (i.e. upgrading your shark) was amusing and, to be fair, it’s a pretty good-looking game overall. My only concern is that I’d probably have never picked it back up again if I took a break. Its campaign is more like a list of chores. None of it is particularly challenging, but there’s a lot of it and many tasks need to be repeated constantly. Getting to the end of that list isn’t hard, it’s just a question of whether you have the patience to stick with the game for longer than you need to.