Maneater is a lot like Bambi. Both see the protagonist’s mother killed by a hunter. Both carry a message about how humans are carelessly destroying the environment. Both feature the child of the murdered matriarch going on a bloodthirsty rampage. Admittedly, it’s been a while since I last watched Bambi.
In Maneater, you play a bull shark literally ripped from your dead mom’s womb by Scaly Pete, the shark-hunting star of a tacky reality TV show. You start as a shark pup and eat your way up to a shark elder, taking on hunters and rival fish alike, climbing up the food chain until your inevitable confrontation with the man who made you a toothy orphan.
Considering that sharks are effectively nature’s villains, it’s surprising how few games have let us play as one. The most notable up until this point was 2006’s Jaws Unleashed, a cross between Ecco the Dolphin and GTA. Maneater feels like its spiritual successor, letting you munch on unwitting humans and complementing the chaos with buckets of dark humor.
The first-ever ‘ ShaRkpg’
Developer Tripwire Interactive calls Maneater a ‘ShaRkPG,’ as you’re able to level up and upgrade your shark as you progress. Your abilities are confined to three evolution sets — Bone, Shadow, and Bio-Electric — with them granting your shark new buffs and skills. These evolutions also customize your shark, transforming it into a genuinely terrifying monstrosity.
In order to get your fins on these evolutions, you’re going to need to do a lot of eating. Maneater is set in an open-world that steadily expands as you complete objectives, taking you from the confines of the bayou to the deeper waters of the gulf. In each of these areas, you’ll be tasked with chewing on different creatures and taking out the nearby humans. There’s a lot of prey to hunt, but your shark is well-equipped to deal with the challenge.
Maneater‘s combat is raucously energetic, with your shark flinging itself between enemies with a press of the right trigger. When you get a hold of an enemy, you can also ping them across the map with your tail whip, knocking out any incoming fish or humans. You can breach the water and, defying all laws of nature, continue to propel yourself upwards with multiple “jumps,” gaining big air before crashing down on whichever unfortunate souls happen to be beneath you.
All three of the evolution sets are also equipped with their own activatable special ability, which are unlocked as you continue leveling up, and they each provide their own advantages. Bio-Electric is your go-to set for tackling underwater creatures giving its stun ability, while the Bone set allows you to ram hunter boats and the Shadow one inflicts poison damage. Each of them have a great design, but Maneater would have benefited from having more evolutions to choose from.
Watch out boy, she’ll chew you up
Maneater completely nails why we’d want to play a shark game. It feels good to grab a whole-ass swordfish between your teeth, thrash around with it, then send it hurtling towards a boat before picking off the drowning humans surrounding it. When you do so, waves of bounty hunters will arrive to try to kill you, and each bounty hunter boat you destroy will increase your infamy level. When you gain a level of infamy, a boss will show up, bringing additional challenges such as an electric field or bombs to evade.
Throughout this chaotic mauling, your bull shark is constantly growing in size, steadily mutating from a regular pup into a force of nature. Maneater is the ultimate shark power fantasy, as you pulverize everything from orcas to sperm whales until not a single living creature is fit to share the same waters as you.
But with great power comes not-so-great difficulty. Starting out as a shark pup, I was promptly dispatched by level 8 alligators, but after gaining a few levels I became way too overpowered, until I was eventually nigh-on unstoppable as an adult shark. Even the battles with Maneater‘s fearsome-looking apex predators are short-lived — it’s satisfying to promptly make fish food out of a great white shark, but it’d be nice if they occasionally put up a fight.
The lack of difficulty options also means that you can never ramp up the challenge, even as you’re handily maiming everything you come into contact with. On one hand/fin, being able to recklessly chomp away at humans, makos, sperm whales, and more without a care in the world is a ton of fun. On the other, the occasional stopping block that required a different strategy outside of dodge-rolling then hurtling towards my target.
Maneater‘s increasingly sizeable open areas are great indicators of how powerful you’re becoming. Starting off in the bayou and desperately trying to escape from alligators is a stark contrast to how you fare later in the game, when you’re able to fling yourself onto dry land and rip through a theme park. Considering that you spend most of your time underwater, Tripwire makes its seven regions unique and interesting rather than empty bodies of nothingness. In one area you’ll find a buried museum, while in another you’ll swim through a SeaWorld-esque arena.
You’ll receive additional objectives that ask you to explore these areas, with various landmarks and caches able to be discovered. Chris Parnell provides the narration for the game’s reality TV shark show setting, offering colorful commentary explaining your actions as you progress. It’s a unique premise, but it also feels like a missed opportunity — seeing Scaly Pete on his hunt for you feels like you’re Jaws watching the goings-on in Captain Quint’s boat, but there are only a smattering of cutscenes.
For better and for worse, this is emblematic of Tripwire’s entire approach to Maneater. The studio knows that we just want to tear things up as a shark, so that’s what it gives us. All of its objectives revolve around traveling to an area and killing the things in it, while its story is a game of cat and mouse that rarely makes an appearance. If you want a game that just lets you destroy everything as a nihilistic bull shark, then Maneater ticks that box several times over. At around 10–12 hours long, Maneater also never outstays its welcome, and there’s a lot to be said for that considering the needlessly repetitive 50+ hour RPGs we’re usually confronted by.
If you were rooting for the shark in Jaws, Maneater is the game for you. Tripwire Interactive delivers a game that makes you feel like an unstoppable underwater menace, to the point where you remain absurdly overpowered throughout its duration. It’s simple, fun, and effective, succeeding in what it set out to do despite not offering much more aside from that. This isn’t a summer blockbuster, but it’s a bloody enjoyable popcorn flick.
Maneater reviewed on PC via the Epic Games Store. Also available on PS4, Xbox One, and Nintendo Switch. Code provided by publisher.