I was not expecting Maneater’s best moments to occur on land instead of water. For a game where you play as a shark that can lunge onto land and snack on shark fin exporters playing a round of golf, swimming through lakes and aquatic parks to eat some turtles or fight a rival alligator is comparatively boring. The absurdity of many of the situations that this ever-evolving shark finds itself in are the highlights for what is otherwise a by the numbers open-world RPG.
Maneater follows the growth of a young bull shark from infancy to megalodon-sized terror of the ocean after it was cut out of it’s mother stomach by shark hunter and reality TV star Scaly Pete. He is one of three characters in this game, the others being his son, and the narrator of the reality TV show Maneaters vs. Sharkhunters, which Pete stars in. We check in with Pete from time to time in order to see how his shark hunting is going, as well as uncover bits and pieces of his backstory. These visits are so brief and so inconsequential they serve little purpose other than to set the stage for the events of the game.
Which is perfectly fine. There doesn’t need to be a lot of setup or story for a game where the primary goal is to become a gigantic terror of the ocean. Scaly Pete instead serves as a marker for progression, with each visit unlocking a new set of tasks to complete.
And to accomplish those tasks, you’re going to have to eat a lot of things. Maneater has a simple set of controls, that take some time to get used to and never feels entirely comfortable, with an equally simple set of actions. You will primarily bite to both attack and destroy obstacles, occasionally evading or using tailwhips to spice things up. The shark gains different nutrients depending on what it eats, and through that is able to upgrade abilities it acquires and level up. In the first couple of hours of play, these limited actions force you to approach every encounter carefully, as nearly everything is bigger and more powerful than you. Learning to time dodges, figuring out the best openings to counterattack; it’s in the opening hours where there’s a surprising amount of depth to underwater combat.
There’s also a morbid joy that comes from playing a stereotypical man-eating shark. Maneater thrives on leaning into the cultural expectations of sharks every time you sink a paddleboat or leap out of the water to grab someone off a pier. Upgrades, which can be changed out in caves where the shark makes its home, include bioelectric organs, bone armour, poisonous fins, and the ability to stay on land for, frankly, an obscene length of time. It’s bloody, over the top, and the main reason why Maneater is as enjoyable as it is.
However, that is in spite of the game’s design. There comes a point, roughly just past the third area, where most encounters become trivial. This is a result of not only the number of upgrades that you can attain at that point but because every predatory fish follows the same attack patterns. The difference between an alligator, a barracuda, and a mako shark is ultimately size, as they all behave similarly. While the ultimate goal of Maneater is to become a massive, unstoppable predator, I feel that point is reached far earlier than it otherwise should.
But what of humans? When you eat a certain number of beachgoers or fishermen, shark hunters will approach your position and try to kill you. And much like fighting fish, they are at first difficult to deal with. Yet no matter how big their vessels get or what weapons they use, they swiftly become mere nuisances. This includes the named hunters, who may have one or two unique traits but are rarely challenging. For example, one upgrade that you obtain through the story causes your evade ability to deal damage each time it is used. There is no cooldown for evad, and evade always dodges attacks from guns. Evade next to a boat for a short period of time and it will sink.
Just as its enemies exhibit the same patterns, so too does Maneater’s overall structure. You travel from area to area in your quest to get revenge on Scaly Pete, with each area featuring the same collectibles and mission objectives. Fish need to be culled, the apex predator of the region must be hunted, and humans must be eaten. The circumstances behind a mission may change — eating humans at a golf course vs. eating them at a water park — but there is never a surprise when it comes to a mission itself. Performing the same actions and completing the same tasks, again and again, becomes tiresome as a result.
Which is a shame, because some of the missions are ridiculous in context. Watching as the shark flops across bleachers at a SeaWorld knockoff while attendees run in terror is amusing, as is fighting a giant alligator next to a statue that represents the crocodile from Peter Pan. Maneater’s repetitiveness, however, takes away from that absurdity.
Yet, looking back, I still enjoyed playing through this ‘SharkPG’. Much of it is thanks to the work done by Chris Parnell, who voices the aforementioned narrator. While not all of his quips land, they are delivered at a reasonable pace and with a tone that emulates the best of trashy reality TV docuseries. Parnell’s work does much to elevate even the blandest missions, even if only slightly.
And again, being a shark and eating up humans is fun in how over the top it is. I just wish the design behind it all wasn’t so repetitive. Instead of opening up the world to gnaw and swim your way through it all, it constrains you with a small set of activities and actions. While there’s an inherent joy to be found here, Maneater plays it too safe time and time again.