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Ever since Steven Spielberg’s JAWS burned its way into the collective pop-culture subconscious, sharks have become a major mainstay in aquatic villainy. If for no other reason than the fact that they look menacing. Joining the dogpile is Deep Silver’s MANEATER, a game that is like a love letter to Spielberg’s classic if it were penned by Eli Roth.
It must be a shame for MANEATER that UNTITLED GOOSE GAME already wrote the best possible plot description for this type of game. That particular piece of hilarity described itself simply with: “It’s a lovely morning in the village, and you are a horrible goose.” Change goose into shark and you’ve essentially got MANEATER in a nutshell. Sure, there’s a haphazard plot that has something to do with a deranged hunter killing your mom, prompting a JAWS 4: THE REVENGE -style plot across a quasi-Floridian landscape, but it’s mostly an excuse for some old fashioned carnage.
Said carnage can be fun, make no mistake. At its best, MANEATER evokes some of the gory thrills that made audiences scared to go back into the water. Stalking unsuspecting swimmers from the depths never gets old, and the game even tips its hat towards the iconic score by John Williams at opportune moments. As with the seminal shark movie, MANEATER is strongest when the action slows down to the tense seconds before the initial attack. As the world expands to encompass the deeper parts of the gulf, it delivers ample moments of spine-tingling Thalassophobia.
These moments sadly are a drop in the bucket and do not make up the majority of the gameplay loop. Most of the playtime is spent repeating menial tasks across increasingly similar areas, only a few of which are even remotely fun in the first place. Activities include eating people; hunting for license plates; thinning the local wildlife numbers; and battling shark hunters. While fun in short spurts, none of them provide long lasting appeal. Especially fighting the hunters gets old really quick, and it’s one of the more prominent pastimes in the game. It’s not that any of these things is inherently bad on their own, but they’re side-quests at best. Small distractions to occupy you from the real meat. Yet nothing like that ever materializes, and MANEATER settles for chum.
Tonally the game tries to go for both horror and slapstick, never truly settling for either one. The aforementioned JAWS-esque moments are genuinely wonderful and, at the risk of sounding like I need to be committed, there is some perverse pleasure in dragging unsuspecting swimmers into the depths. It’s a horrific act, made all the more terrible by the vicious sound design. Victims will scream, fight, and eventually gurgle as they perish beneath the waves. If there’s one thing that MANEATER gets right about sharks, it’s their sheer power and mythic nature we’ve built up over the years.
The other half of the action is much more slapstick, meaning your mileage will vary wildly based on your tolerance for it. Attacks on beaches, golf resorts, and entire cruise liners are more akin to the 2010 gore film PIRANHA 3D, directed by Alexander Aja, than any shark movie. MANEATER takes a distinct pleasure in the silliness, even pushing the player to explore dry land more with new skills and hidden items in the most obscure places. Admittedly the first time you surprise rich golfers with a shark attack on the 18th hole is absolutely hilarious, but that same joke is then repeated over and over for the rest of the game. Had the design emphasized the unexpected places a shark would never attack you (only to inevitably do so), the game could at least ride the absurdist wave far longer. Instead, most of these scenarios are very much cut from the same cloth: Find a beach/resort/neighborhood, leap out of the water, flop over to the humans and eat away. Sharks naturally can’t breathe on land, but that doesn’t mean that entrepreneurial sea dogs won’t find a way.
None of this is made any easier by the controls which, to put it kindly, are fiddly at best. The camera has a hard time concentrating on any one thing at a time, and the tracking mechanism is useless. There is a sonar ability that highlights important enemies, fish, and items in the vicinity, but it’s of little use during a hectic fight. Combined they make much of the combat feel like an absolute chore and less like an experience of a powerful killing machine the game wants you to feel.
Much of the humor doesn’t stick either. The narration by RICK & MORTY regular Chris Parnell is delivered with the expected perfection the actor is known for, but the content is thin. Most of the jokes are cheap shots at easy stereotypes, like shooting fish in a barrel, and there’s little wit to be found anywhere. Not that something as big and broad as this was going to deliver much of that in the first place, but around the time you get the sixth repeat of a meth-dealer joke of the same Floridians, it just gets old.
Still, I was never truly bored with MANEATER. In the increasingly niche genre of oceanic simulators it’s among the better ones. The ocean, while a dinky little puddle here, has some surprises in store; and the few deep parts of the gulf are truly awesome. Stalking your prey is terrific, and the game is a blast in short spurts. But it could have been so much more. Kind of like JAWS 2.