The “Jaws effect,” named after Steven Spielberg’s terrifying shark-murder-fest, refers to the way that Jaws transformed an entire generation’s perception of these teethy sea beasts into something resembling horror.
Ocean conservationists have been battling against misconceptions around sharks since the release of Jaws in 1975. Despite those efforts, this deeply ingrained fear of sharks remains undefeated, with most people turning a blind eye towards their rapidly declining population.
In 2020, TripWire’s Maneater stood as a direct satirisation to the “Jaws effect” and the misconceptions it wrought, presenting a world teeming with aggressive sharks and even more aggressive shark hunters. Now that game’s being released on Nintendo Switch, and I get to tell you whether it’s worthy of this new audience.
Maneater places you in the shoes (fins?) of a shark. After a brief introductory sequence, you’re introduced to Scaly Pete, an infamous shark hunter, who slaughters your high level tutorial character before discarding her child. You play as this child for the rest of the game, growing stronger as you patiently wait for revenge…
Maneater’s most compelling idea is in this premise. You start out as an infant and hunt down increasingly dangerous prey to evolve. Each evolutionary stage introduces new customization options for your shark, allowing for some notably creative outcomes.
By the end of the game I was emitting pulses of electricity and hardening my skin in combat. It’s a tried and tested RPG loop, creating a real sense of growth in your character as you increase your stats and unlock delightfully unrealistic abilities for your shark.
But it’s within the core of this loop that Maneater falls apart. The player is forced through endless combat sequences that are shallow at best and utterly frustrating at worst. During the higher level encounters against Maneater’s “Apex Predators” I would feel like my success relied more on luck than any sort of skill.
Maneater’s primary attacking action, a lunging bite, lurches your character forward. Upon performing this move, your shark will often be on the opposite side of whatever enemy you were facing before. Without any proper lock-on option besides an awful “snap to enemy” function, Maneater’s camera is dead-set on disorienting the player, forcing their attention away from whatever enemy they’re supposed to be fighting. Even worse, the field of view was so narrow that I’d end up disoriented even outside of combat.
The lack of polish in Maneater’s gameplay takes its darwinistic themes of adaptation to new heights, forcing the player to exploit its awful combat to survive with an unbroken controller. It would be genius if it wasn’t so annoying.
The game’s structure is typical open-world fare, with optional collectibles dotted between key objectives, however it became apparent too quickly that the line between “main” and “side” content was entirely arbitrary.
The majority of Maneater’s quests are basic kill-objectives, identical in structure and gameplay to the side quests. In fact, after a certain point Maneater starts demanding that you complete these side quests as well, preventing you from progressing until you touch enough shiny stuff, or kill enough humans. Multiple times throughout the game I would be tasked with three identical “kill ten fish” quests in a row, and these were considered main quests.
The only meaningful side content I encountered within Maneater was climbing the notoriety chart. Similar to Grand Theft Auto, killing people puts you in a “wanted” state, where you face off against waves of hunters. If you last long enough, one of ten unique bounty hunters appears, who you can defeat to unlock a new accessory for your shark. These unique customization options felt like a worthwhile reward for putting up with Maneater’s awful combat system.
Contributing to this mess of gameplay are the typical limitations of a Switch port. The game looks surprisingly sharp on the Switch’s handheld display, but more intricate details like human faces or shadows are sacrificed in favour of performance. It’s unfortunate, then, that the performance suffers too – with framerate drops that became increasingly frequent as I progressed through the game. It’s very much playable, but if you’re dead-set on playing this game I’d recommend any other version before this one.
It’s a shame that the technical and mechanical aspects of Maneater are so lacking, because the peripheral details are utterly charming. The game’s world and presentation are lovingly crafted, with the fictional Port Clovis serving as an excellent satirisation of shark-mania. My favourite collectibles in the game were “landmarks,” which triggered referential or satirical voice lines from Archer’s Chris Parnell upon collection. In its best moments, Maneater’s presentation is genuinely fun, which is why it’s such a shame that the gameplay isn’t.
It’s clear that the developers at TripWire put sincere effort into the presentation and mood of Maneater, and far be it from me to dictate how they make games, but I can’t help feeling like the gameplay should’ve been a higher priority. The failures of Maneater are most heartbreaking to me because it’s so clear that the developers were in love with this premise. The tone here is pitch-perfect, but the realities of being a shark are pretty miserable.
Developer: Tripwire Interactive
Publisher: Tripwire Interactive
A review copy was provided to Shindig by the publisher.