Tripwire Interactive’s Maneater really does have itself a pretty killer premise. Letting players loose on its open world setting of Port Clovis as a deeply scarred bull shark in search of revenge, it’s an unashamedly silly, hyper violent and completely throwaway experience that should make for a pretty great videogame. It delivers in giving you the motivation, the tools and the playground with which to exact your bloody retribution, gets the tone and the setting of its shark vendetta just right, but then fumbles its execution, delivering a procession of dull missions, janky combat and an ever-increasing laundry list of the very worst kind of open world busywork. In the end, what should have been a riotous revenge fantasy ends up feeling rather toothless.
Kicking off with the murder of your mother at the hands of celebrity shark hunter Scaly Pete (who’s hand you bite off in the opening scenes) Maneater wastes no time in flinging you into the fins of a newly orphaned baby shark (please don’t sing it) [Sing what? - Ed] who you must now commandeer through the eight regions that make up the game’s open world map. Here you’ll eat everything you see, be it man, woman or seal, in order to evolve into a flipping mega-shark — an apex killer with the skills and abilities to face off against your hook-handed nemesis and avenge your momma once and for all.
It’s the framing of the narrative here that’s really Maneater’s strongest element, with Scaly Pete the star of a wonderfully grotty reality TV show that follows him and his rebellious son, Kyle, as they search the waterways of Port Clovis for the bull shark that chomped his hand off. This allows for a constant narration of not just every plot point and ludicrous cutscene, but pretty much every action you take as you swim around the lakes, beaches and bayous of Port Clovis. With Chris Parnell (of Rick and Morty and SNL fame) on narration duties here, the game is instantly lifted out of the mire that is its actual gameplay, with plenty of laughs to be had, movie and TV references to knowingly jab your finger at and a playful B-movie feel to the whole thing that it’s really quite hard to dislike.
If only the gameplay wasn’t quite so lacking though, eh. As much as evolving your shark here is fun enough in and of itself (adding tiger skin, advanced sonar, electric teeth, shadow fins, armoured plating and so on to a body which continues to grow as you move from childhood into adult shark life), the actual threats you take on and missions you’re tasked with are just very disappointing overall. Besides the boring filler side quests that never mix things up even once across the entire duration of the game — constantly tasking you with eating ten of a certain type of fish or killing a fixed number of super dumb humans — the apex predator fights, hunter boss battles and various face-offs that further the story along also suffer on account of the game’s rather weak and janky combat.
In terms of abilities during a battle, your bull shark can whip its tail, bite, jump out of the water and dodge incoming attacks... and that’s about it. While peaceful traversal throughout Maneater’s world is always pretty satisfying and just swimming around and gobbling up fish for their nutrients is almost therapeutic at times, once a proper scrap starts — once you’ve got the attention of a worthy adversary — the frustration starts to kick in. As there’s no lock-on during fights here, with a press of the right stick only recentring your focus on an enemy momentarily, you’re constantly in a struggle with the game’s camera when things get hectic, especially in small areas where you’ll likely be tempted to smash your controller.
Dodging is almost impossible to time well, too, especially when you can rarely get a good sight of your foe due to those camera issues, and in the end most face-offs very quickly degenerate into unsatisfying button-mashing, getting a few bites in then swimming away to regenerate health by munching some nearby fishies before getting back to slowly whittling your enemy down. It’s all a bit tiresome and disappointing.
Human foes aren’t much better, either. As much fun as it is to tear them from their jet-skis and yachts, ripping them to bloody shreds as they scream out in terror, when you’re up against hunters it’s a similarly disappointing story of janky controls ruining the party. Escaping the red line that indicates a hunter’s incoming gunshots is a real hit or miss affair here, destroying their boats a button-mashing chore, and no matter who they are — the game features a host of celebrity hunter bosses to take out — they all die in exactly the same manner; so much so that we didn’t realise we’d even killed the big name hunters most of the time.
Maneater also has a very weird, and very bad, habit of making you go on dry land in order to attack human enemies; one upgrade path actually increases the time you can spend out of the water. It’s such a terrible activity from a gameplay point of view, flopping miserably around as you attempt to chow down on some golfers or Hampton types. We get that it’s meant to be funny, perhaps it was the first dozen times, but it grows so tiresome and exacerbates everything we dislike about the combat here, it seems like keeping the shark in the water at all times really would have been a better way to go.
Even with a rather short running time of around about ten hours, by game’s end we were well and truly done with most of what Maneater has to offer. We’d collected enough car licence plates, eaten our fill of fish and humans alike and chomped through more than our fair share of secret caches and points of interest – although at least Chris Parnell makes those points of interest pretty amusing.
Not everything here is bad, of course. Indeed, when left to your own devices there's a decent amount of fun to be had in just evolving your shark and role-playing the classic beach terror, emerging from the depths to swallow swimmers whole or flying out of the water to snatch some toff from the bow of his super yacht. We even developed a worrying habit of lurking around beneath groups of unaware swimmers, taking our time and deliberating over which one of them was going to get dragged screaming to the depths. It's just a shame the actual combat is so dull and open world mission structure so dated.
On a much more positive note, for those who are interested in taking this one for a swim regardless of its weaknesses, this Switch port is surprisingly solid stuff. Maneater originally launched back in 2020 with its fair share of bugs and problems — most notably a bug that wiped entire save files from existence — but here we’ve been treated to a smooth and visually impressive experience. Whether you’re sharking it up in docked or portable mode, beyond the now expected graphical downgrade on Nintendo’s hybrid console, this one performs pretty much perfectly, with a single instance of a glitchy Mako shark the only bug we encountered during our playthrough.
Maneater is such a good idea for an open world RPG. Evolving your shark from fragile orphan to mega-death bringer is a solid backbone for the game's action, tearing humans to shreds is never not hilarious and Chris Parnell knocks it out of the park as the ever-present narrator. It’s just a real shame, then, that the core gameplay here isn’t up to scratch. With a few tweaks to the janky, repetitive combat and the addition of side missions that actually provided a little variety once in a while, this one could have been a real good time. As it stands, it’s a pretty average action-RPG that’s a little closer to Jersey Shore: Shark Attack than Jaws.
Maneater is a great idea for a video game, a ridiculous shark revenge fantasy in an open world setting with plenty of humour injected through its unique narrative framing and the vocal talents of Chris Parnell. However, as much as terrorising beach goers and snatching hunters from the bows of their fishing boats is a pretty good time, and as much as we enjoyed watching our orphaned bull shark grow from helpless pup to apex predator, the whole thing is let down by poor combat and the very worst kind of busywork side quests. With a little more variety in missions and a few refinements made to combat, this could have been a killer action-RPG. As things stand, however, it's all a little toothless.