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Games starring animals tend to end up being meme games. They trend well on Twitter or have the ability to go viral elsewhere because our furred/feathered/scaled companions are funny, but not often fun to play as. Maneater, an upcoming game where you play as a shark, is not only positioned to shake that sometimes punitive label; it’s likely going to tear it to shreds.
Maneater is an RPG — or a “Shark-PG” the team lovingly refers to it as — and not a simulator or some other low-effort nonsense meant to crowd the Steam storefront. It’s got an open world that lets you swim around, complete missions, gather resources, find collectibles, gnaw on the wildlife, and, of course, feast on anyone foolish enough to be near the water on a warm summer day. Maneater even tells a full story through the lens of those bad History Channel reality shows that has a shockingly well executed intro that lays out the stakes and establishes your shark’s — and the antagonist’s — motivations.
Maneater Preview | The will to make a “Shark-PG” instead of another RPG
The perspective of an aquatic predator is definitely unique — it’s not a crowded genre — and that’s precisely what developer Tripwire Interactive was looking for. John Gibson, CEO, co-founder, and co-owner of Tripwire, spoke about how the team came to the conclusion that a shark had to be their next protagonist.
“A big part of it was really wanting to make some very unique and to take a genre that people know — the open-world action RPG like Far Cry and Breath of the Wild — and do it in a completely different way so it was really fresh again,” he said. “A lot of people have this fantasy of doing things you can’t do in real life and so many people are fascinated by sharks. It just seemed like something really interesting to tackle.”
Maneater’s unique qualities are immediately apparent once you gain control. Swimming around naturally gives movement an extra dimension and the inability for the shark to wield traditional weaponry mean that both traversal and combat are inherently different. Gliding around the ocean is pretty self-explanatory, but unique nonetheless as swimming usually isn’t the primary method of transportation in most games. And the shark’s teeth and tail can chomp and fling enemies to and fro and comically high velocities, respectively, which aren’t standard attacks in other titles.
It’s a simple array of moves yet that doesn’t mean there isn’t depth. While you can just chow down on smaller fish, duels between other bigger creatures play out like a fencing match. Dodging and counter attacking are key to keeping your apex predator status and that tempo changes with every animal.
The dance does take some getting used to since your attacks don’t have much range and the game lacks a lock-on feature. Given how quickly enemies can dash off the screen, it can be a little frustrating to locate your prey after you’ve dodged an attack. Gibson stated locking on made the game too easy as you could just constantly push the stick forward and mash out attacks. It’s not a baseless claim so hopefully that assertion holds water within the context of the full game.
Maneater Preview | “Shark Souls”
Despite that slight, possibly temporary hiccup, there is something to the fencing-like nature of its underwater melee combat. Gibson referred to it as “Shark Souls” and while that moniker comes with a lot of baggage, it makes sense on a basic level. There are a limited amount of tools, yet the game presents different ways to use the same abilities. Flinging around humans is fun in the beginning, but, according to Gibson, you end up having to use that skill for tougher fights and solving puzzles. Dodging and parrying may be the same each time, but different attack patterns will require that you adapt with each new incoming threat.
There’s potential for complexity within its simplicity and Gibson admitted that that balance was hard to strike. He even said the team was a little cocky in the beginning before realizing how biting as a shark was not instantly fun.
“When it started out, it was just two fish going up to each other and biting until one died. And that was no fun,” recalled Gibson. “So we looked back to games of the past and likened it to Punch Out where each person that you fought had different tells and timing you had to use. And then we looked at modern games like Dark Souls and added depth and tactical elements, which is where it found its footing.”
Maneater Preview | Baby shark
The game is an RPG, meaning that the combat will evolve along with your character. And, like its gilled protagonist, even that evolution is handled in a unique and more literal way. Progression is relegated to stages within a shark’s life. The baby shark represents lower levels while eating and leveling up lets you develop into a teenage shark and then adult shark.
Physically representing growth like that is unique and even changes up the gameplay. Small fish that would have given you trouble in your early phases can easily become dinner once you hit your adult stage. It’s novel and hopefully that will lead to a natural and consistent pace as you gradually explore more dangerous waters.
Other forms of progression are far more fantastical. Maneater’s evolution paths let you slap different gear on your toothy beast from bone armor to bioelectric fins and each have unique abilities tied to them. Customizing your shark is visually appealing — the gear looks great — but it has bigger gameplay ramifications as it can give you new moves and more things to upgrade.
Maneater Preview | Breaching into the realm of fantasy
Even if the number of things you can upgrade ends up being underwhelming, dipping into the science fiction realm is a brilliant choice because of how it opens up the game. Violently leaping out of the water as if propelled by a small rocket yields more ways to attack and is just a ridiculous sight. Flopping onto land gives you more freedom and is, once again, hilarious to see. It’s a level of camp that’s also functional.
A realistic shark with realistic abilities wouldn’t be as fun (and probably wouldn’t be fun, period) and Tripwire’s ability to lean into that stemmed from a few different places.
“Part of it is wanting the game to have depth so that you can enjoy it 10 hours in,” said Gibson. “Part of it was tailoring the evolution to how we were seeing people play the game. But we wanted to have fun with it. Like where could we take this? It made it interesting to be able to take it into different, wild places.”
Playing as a shark is naturally going to put you in a wild place but it doesn’t guarantee people will want to stay in said wild place and play around for multiple hours. Other games starring animals, for all of their successes, often have that issue. But Maneater appears to have all of the bullet points of a solid RPG, independent from (but strengthened by) its protagonist. The upgrade paths, novel narrative framing device, and inherent unique qualities give it the appearance of a deep game, but only the full game can prove if this shark truly has teeth or not.