Maneater has a killer premise. Pitched as a ShaRkPG, you play a baby shark (doo doo doo doo doo doo) cut out of her mother’s stomach by a vicious reality tv shark hunter named Scaly Pete, and marked as the trophy for a future episode. During the course of the game you hunt prey, both finned and two-legged, and build up your shark into a giant powerhouse of the deep to exact revenge on Scaly Pete and reclaim your rightful place at the top of the food chain.
Maneater technically makes good on this idea. You do indeed take control of a baby shark (doo doo doo doo doo doo) and grind it up into a mega predator in order to avenge the mommy shark. You eat a lot of sea life and people, discover hidden caches of protein and various landmarks around the relatively compact open world, and even get to do a little customization of your shark along the way. The problem comes with how shallow the whole thing is, pun intended.
Maneater feels like an overly faithful remake of a PS2 game, which is ironic because the most famous PS2 era shark game, Jaws Unleashed, is a much better game in many ways. Everything works in Maneater, and on the PS5 it can look lovely at certain points, but the game is overly simple and doesn’t change substantially from beginning to end. In the first area you swim around, complete a set of straightforward objectives like chomping a bunch of a specific type of fish in a specific area, flopping up on shore to kill some humans, locating landmarks or whatever, until you complete a list of objectives, trigger a cut scene featuring Scaly Pete, and then move on to the next area to repeat the process. Each area has a slightly different array of aquatic life to eat, a different aesthetic and theme, and a boss “apex predator” of the area, but it all plays out the same way. If you kill more than a few humans at a given time then hunters will descend on your area like cops in a GTA game, and if you kill enough of them you’ll get a named hunter with a short intro cut scene to fight. Certain areas require advancing up enough infamy levels to kill a specific hunter in order to advance, though you can lure them out and kill them whenever you want. The boats and weapons the hunters use change as you advance your levels of infamy, but their behavior and the strategies you use against them don’t, except for a total of three boss battles, all of which feature the same basic added mechanics.
The sameness would perhaps be less of a problem if the game had a bit more complexity, but the RPG elements are minimal here, with a basic leveling system that I hit the cap of by the 7th of 8 areas in the game, and a set of “evolutions” that function like equipment, with upgradeable bonuses to specific attributes like bite damage or the amount of health you get from eating, which function more or less like equipment in a light RPG game. What you don’t get are any new skills, aside from certain evolutions giving you the ability to use a chargeable super move that doesn’t do a whole lot, or changes to how your shark plays. You can swim, thrust forward, bite, tail whip, jump out of the water or on land, and dodge and that’s pretty much it. It’s a small move list and combined with the simple and monotonous enemies and repetitive gameplay scenarios it makes for an experience that doesn’t change much as you play.
Of course Maneater isn’t the first shallow action game, but it’s also surprisingly bland for a game about a killer shark. Jaws Unleashed played the material absurd and over the top, but Maneater tries to be a bit more serious…most of the time. The game has a narrator who is ostensibly narrating the reality show Scaly Pete is on, but while most of his comments are sarcastic there’s also a bunch of material about the ecological problems humans provide and a few shark facts. Then there’s the story of Scaly Pete, which is violent and tragic and it’s not clear if you’re supposed to hate Pete, pity him, laugh at him, or some combination of the three. The vast majority of the game’s locations are realistic and a little dull, and then you stumble on Spongebob Squarepants’ house and any pretense of the game being serious goes out the window. Which is fine; it’s a game about a shark taking revenge, but it raises the question of why the game doesn’t go even further over the top. Why are all the bosses so boring? Why not kraken or at least a giant squid to fight? Why are all the sewer tunnels and caves you explore full of nothing but garbage, normal enemies and food fish, and collectables? Why are there no halls full of hazards to avoid, or puzzles to solve, or just something to do other than swim through yet another pipe to collect yet another license plate collectable? Why is there basically no music? For a shark game you might expect a big bombastic score but this game just has diegetic sound and a little bit of ambient music.
A lot of Maneater’s issues probably come down to its budget. It’s a nice looking game for a lower cost release and there are some impressive touches, including a fair amount of narration, but the humans are GTA III level NPCs in both looks and behavior, and every enemy is just a reskin. Despite the relatively small open world I experienced loading times on the PS5 not just when fast traveling but when passing between certain areas in the open ocean. I don’t remember the last time I ran into a loading screen while just traveling around an open world, but the game can’t be well optimized if it’s doing mid map loading screens on the PlayStation 5. Combat is sloppy and tactics amount to fighting for a while and then running off to find prey fish to heal, or spamming dodge and chomp and hoping you can out last the enemy. Trying to play carefully with good timing and dodges is very difficult because the battles are in 3D space and the camera often doesn’t show the enemy even if you’ve locked on to them. Just swimming up to a whale or a boat and slamming the bite button until your wrist starts to hurt (something that almost never happens to me in games) is not very satisfying, even if enemies lose their fins after you get past a certain point of damage and then explode into chunks of meat that you can gobble up for extra upgrade currency. On the other hand those boss battles that change up the mechanics are not a lot of fun, so perhaps keeping things simple was better than trying something more ambitious but not having the time or money to get it right.
Despite these flaws and limitations Maneater is still a mildly enjoyable time. It’s not the first shark game or underwater game, of course, but it’s a motif that hasn’t been done to death and hasn’t been done for a while, so swimming around chomping on stuff is still a fun novelty. The sarcastic narration made me chuckle a couple times. Like in any game with RPG elements there’s satisfaction when the numbers go up and you go back to an old area that felt dangerous but are now trivial. Flopping around on land as a giant shark covered in bone looks funny and while the land controls are intentionally bad it can be kind of satisfying to fling yourself into position to chomp that last person or collectable. The game is relatively short; it took me 9 hours to roll credits and another 6 and a half to get the platinum, and that’s with spending two hours swimming around aimlessly because I didn’t see that there’s an objectives log in a menu that told me what I was supposed to do. If you used a guide for the collectibles you could do it much quicker, but I think this game is at its best as a podcast game, just sort of swimming through the environments looking for collectables and trying to find your way through the mazes or platforming necessary to grab them. I think I might have enjoyed the very relaxed post game than the much more combat-filled (though still very easy) main campaign, which would explain why I bothered getting the platinum in a game that I’m clearly lukewarm on.
When Maneater was announced it looked like an interesting game, but mediocre reviews kept me from pulling the trigger even when it went on sale. As a “free” PS Plus game for PS5 it was much easier to take the plunge and I’m not sorry I played it. They’ve announced some DLC and a sequel seems likely given that the game sold a million copies. If they go further over the top and introduce some more variety in the gameplay with more interesting enemies, equipment, or environments then I could see myself playing the DLC or, more enticingly, a sequel built from the ground up for next gen.
In the end Maneater is a disappointment but not a bad game. It does just enough to give players a fix of the gory shark action it promises, and is in a space without a lot of competition. For the low low price of free I definitely recommend checking it out. But it’s also frustrating because there’s nothing wrong with it beyond being a little bare bones. There’s a ton of potential that wasn’t ruined by missteps or bad design decisions, it just wasn’t realized. Maneater, in the end, is more goldfish than shark. It’s harmless and inoffensive, but it failed to make the big splash I was hoping for.