Tripwire deserves a lot of credit for coming up with a unique premise in Maneater, and a lot of it works really well. However, a large chunk of the gameplay comes from combat, which can be a prove frustrating at times. Still, there is some savage fun to be had here in a surprisingly effective open-world action-RPG.
As the title indicates, your job is to eat a lot of men. Also women, children and other underwater animals. The idea to make the experience an open-world adventure is an inspired one. In many ways, Maneater immediately reminded me of several different Ubisoft titles like Assassin’s Creed, Far Cry and Watchdogs to name a few. To that end, the level design is particularly interesting as it flips the script from the above titles. Verticality doesn’t come from climbing buildings or making precarious jumps but instead simply swimming up and down. This gave the development team a ton of flexibility in designing not just corridors to swing through, but spaces that are legitimately fun to explore.
Where the level design can get frustrating, and intentionally so, is that there is an entire world above the water. Docks, small islands and beaches all have objectives to find. Similar to many other open-world adventures, there are numerous things to be found, further encouraging exploration. Sometimes you find cashes of nutrients to assist in developing your shark, signs to smack your snout against (sort of a collectable to find), and side objectives such as killing a specific critter in a certain region. However, many of the goals require being up on land, and those just cannot be done early on. As your shark develops, you can spend longer periods of time out of water, and you gain more acrobatic abilities to make movement easier, giving the game a very light Metroidvania flavor as the unlocking of abilities gives you access to areas – albeit small ones – you couldn’t access earlier. However, it is a little frustrating at times when a small island of land gets in your way and you accidentally beach yourself and struggle to find your way back to water. Granted, this is usually my fault / completely avoidable if I was paying more attention to the map, but sometimes when I am just hauling with my shark skimming the service, I found myself more focused on getting from A to B than probably taking the proper / expected route as part of the level design.
Things start off in fantastic fashion, introducing you to the game’s mechanics and making your shark feel incredibly powerful and dangerous with a scripted section that shows off the controls and how to attack and survive. Then, your shark is caught and the game’s true villain is introduced and a revenge story of sorts is presented. The entire thing is ridiculously over-the-top. My wife just streamed Jaws about a week ago, so the timing of this game’s release couldn’t be better from my perspective. I hadn’t seen Jaws in probably more than twenty years, and while that movie attempted to be grim and serious, Maneater takes the same principle and often just decides to have fun with it. In particular is the narrator for the game, spouting numerous ‘facts’ throughout (most of which are complete bs, making it all the more amusing). Granted, most of the characters – especially the shark hunters – are little more than caricatures not meant to be taken at all seriously.
There is also a really nice sense of progression. You earn experience from eating things and finding collectibles – pretty standard stuff for open-world, action-RPG games. Eating certain types of things also gives you specified nutrients needed to unlock more skills and progression. Over time, your baby ages into adulthood, and eventually you progress into a mega shark. You learn new abilities along the way that can be unlocked as well. All of this is a perfectly good carrot-on-a-stick to keep you going.
However, the biggest issue with Maneater that I had was with movement. I kind of touched on it with accidentally getting beached, but that was by and large my own stupidity most of the time. In combat however, the issues manifest even further. The actions and general movements make sense given the nature of the game, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t find them highly frustrating at times as well. You have two primary attacks – a tail whip that can knock someone back and sort of stun / disorient them for a moment, and your primary attack – biting. Get something smaller and weaker in your maw, and you can thrash it back and forth to wear it down and kill it faster as well. However, even with the unlocking skills, the combat itself never really changes all that much, and it just feels clumsy in execution.
Your shark needs to be moving, so you chomp and swim (sort of like a hit and run). Then you wheel around and try to get them again and again. It’s an interesting mechanic in theory, and not unlike a shooting action-RPG in that you have a repetitive action used to whittle away at your opponent until you best them. However, in practice you never really get to make those incremental changes like you might in a shooter because your entire position is altered each and every time you try to bite. There is a loose lock-on mechanism, but I just feel that this needs to be tightened down on so there is less aimless lunging and missing or lunging and barely glancing. The confusion is only compounded when battling another underwater enemy, because they tend to attack in the same way. For better or for worse, most humans are somewhat stationary-ish in the way they shoot at you from above (though they are moving slightly while on boats most of the time, but it is a predictable pattern of movement, not herky-jerking-lunge-at-you movement).
That is not to say combat is particularly challenging. Once I evolved and gained some stat gains, I was regularly able to take things out stronger than me by a few levels or so. It required a lot of patience though, because we were just sort of clumsily lunging at one another, trying to bite hunks out of one another’s flesh. If I got dinged too hard, I’d go gobble down nearby fish to regain some health since I was generally faster than whatever I was fighting. I felt as though the issue was exacerbated by the ability to move in all directions. It would be like trying to jump and melee someone in an uncharted game who is five feet above you. It is clumsy and wouldn’t work very well – so that is why you shoot them. Here there are (rightfully) no ranged options, so you instead move up, down, left, right, forward and so on – often missing as much as connecting.
I think if the lock-on was used a bit more for actually targeting the opponent and taking some of the misses out of combat, making it a shorter, tighter affair, most of my grumbles around the combat would be better. I realize it is a hard balancing act with the nature of the content, but more often than not I felt like a blind, clumsy underwater log than a ferocious killer, and since the combat makes up a very meaty portion of the gameplay, it did worsen the experience for me at times.
Maneater is not a AAA title by any means, with water effects that do not look as good as many other contemporary games, but the underwater vistas can be almost enchanting to look at. I’ve always been fond of aquariums and underwater life in general, so to that end I am the target audience for this aesthetic. However, the water ripples on the surface and the shadowing / lighting effects under water did remind me that this was a slightly budget game. Music and sound effects were good, though some more voiced dialog to push the ridiculous shark hunters further over-the-top.