The Jaws theme is renowned for how much it does with so little. Driven by two notes, repeated at a hastening pace, John Williams’ famous theme suggests the slow approach and frenzied attack of a stalking shark. The legendary composer creates dread, anxiety, fear. Two notes.
The minimalism that defines Maneater is not nearly as compelling. The open-world RPG, out today, casts players as the hungry and homicidal fish in question. It’s a novel take on a familiar formula and there’s a lot here to like. But, to borrow a metaphor from another generation’s blockbuster, it feels like too little butter scraped over too much bread. Even accounting for the hundreds of limbs you’ll sever with razor-sharp teeth, it feels like something’s missing.
Maneater has attracted plenty of games media attention on the strength of its unique premise. What if you were the killer shark terrorizing a beach? What if your presence ensured that it wasn’t safe to go back in the water? What if you were the reason they were gonna need a bigger boat? And, Maneater does a pretty great job of making this fantasy a reality.
Swimming is simple and intuitive, and I never got tired of breaching the water’s surface for a front flip and cannonball splash. Maneater makes your mouth the gun — with distinct, bite-y lunges bound to each trigger — and the resulting actions feel, appropriately, like a speeding bullet finding its mark. These actions feel best when you are the predator, stalking your prey. Less so when your target can fight back. Combat — both with other carnivorous sea creatures and with human hunters — consist mostly of lunges and the camera often struggles to keep up. I don’t think I lost any battles because of this, but I consistently needed to take a moment to reposition my viewpoint.
Those problems aside, Maneater’s brand of marine melee mostly works. As you grow from (ahem) a baby shark into a massive monster, you can take breaks from the main quest to chew through a hierarchy of named hunters. To draw them out, you’ll need to cause mayhem, GTA-style, chomping innocent beachgoers and splintering waves of the hunter’s stooges. Thrash long enough and the hunter will make an appearance.
The resulting battles are easy at first because, as it turns out, no human is much of a match for a bull shark’s mouth full of knives. After a lengthy bout turning the water red, I was surprised how simple it was to leap into the air, lunge at the hunter, and X them off the bracket. As your infamy increases, hunters will come prepared with better defenses, which make these fights harder and more rewarding. Though, given that there are only 10 named hunters, I do wish that each battle was more unique. That said, one of the coolest things about these fights is that you get to decide where they take place. Losing repeatedly in the open ocean? Take the fight inland. The honeycombed tunnels beneath one of the game’s Venice-like port towns proved much more friendly for sharky stealth than the expansive gulf.
Hunter battles are a highpoint among the activities on offer here. Elsewhere, Maneater suffers from its campaign’s lack of focus. There is a story — our shark is on a quest to avenge her mother’s death and take down the hook-handed Cajun reality star fisherman who murdered her — and the little that is here is pretty good. The problem is, there are no story missions. Instead, you’ll complete a checklist of bog-standard open-world quests — kill 10 turtles, eat 10 humans, sink a hunter’s boat — until the game decides it’s time to dole out a bit of narrative. As many games do, Maneater treats cutscenes as a reward. But, I’ve rarely seen a reward so disconnected from the process of earning it.
What Maneater lacks in story or structure it makes up for in the simple joy of Chris Parnell’s presence. The comic actor, of Rick and Morty and “Lazy Sunday” fame, serves as narrator, dishing out real shark facts and fictional behavioral details on the “Florida Man” archetypes who hunt her. Some of these border on low-hanging fruit classism, but generally Parnell’s running commentary punches up, skewering the wealthy who demand beachfront property and the land developers who ensure they get it, habitat be damned. The folks at TripWire have loaded the map with interesting details and dioramas to find, and I enjoyed knowing that Parnell would always have something to say about whatever I found.
And Maneater’s setting ensures that the process of exploration is consistently rewarding. The world’s coasts, creeks, and canals are populated by real-world creatures that are often a thrill to encounter. As your shark gains mass and levels, aquatic lifeforms that once seemed fearsome become fodder. I loved returning to early areas and tearing the alligators that harassed my baby self into scaly ribbons. Though, the game’s gore does become slightly less palatable here. While years of violent games have numbed me to the sight of a virtual mutilated human corpse, seeing the bloody stump where an orca’s dorsal fin used to be made me feel bad.
Still, this highlights what makes Maneater unique and, more generally, is how it manages to find the fun despite its structural issues. You may have played a million open-world games. You may be sick-and-tired of checklist design. You may have been sick-and-tired of it for a decade. But, Maneater is just different enough, and just funny enough, and just gory enough, that for a while, you may manage to forget that it’s otherwise beached in the shallows.
Maneater review code for PC provided by the publisher.
Maneater is out now on PS4, Xbox One, and PC via the Epic Games Store.