There isn’t a lot to choose from when it comes to video games about controlling sharks. Jaws from NES, Jaws Unleashed on the original Xbox, and that’s about it. ManEater from TripWire studios takes what should be a simple gimmick game, and deepens the plot and makes it a much more interesting game than I originally thought it was going to be.
The game is centered in the fictional city of Costal Point and it’s narrative told through an fictional ingame reality TV show called “Maneaters vs Sharkhunters” This episode focuses on a sharkhunter called Scaley Pete. Pete catches a large shark and finds that it’s pregnant, so he marks the new baby shark with a large scar and in turn the newly born shark bites his hand off. You are that baby shark.
The game takes place over what seems like a decade or so, as sadly the game does a poor job of showing time pass. The cutscenes with Pete and later his son Kyle are decent enough, getting me more invested as time went on throughout the game, but even then there is a large disconnect with what I’m watching in the cutscene and what I’m actually doing in the game. I’m the shark, I’m tasked with terrorizing the deep, and the land. Murdering hundreds of people and thousands of animals, while the ingame cutscenes happening in the TV show are focused on the human hunters. Who am I supposed to root for?
Scaly Pete is an odd character and would definitely be a breakout icon for TV if he was real. His thick Cajun accent can be a bit hard to understand though, and the TV show narrative does a good job emulating that type of show, with included Channel Watermarks and even hashtags of what someone said popping up in the bottom right corner of the screen to get viewers to “join the discussion” did get me to giggle a bit. It’s a well done trope, but a tropr none the less.
It doesn’t help either that the Scaly Pete character is the bad guy, but the story halfway through tries to make the audience feel sympathy for him, even though he’s acting like a lunatic near the end. And I understand his motivation, he watched his son die after this single shark who has a vendetta against him jumps abroad his ship and causes a fire (The shark actually did nothing but eat his leg).
The game itself was a lot more enjoyable than I was originally thinking it was going to be. When I originally saw the game at E3 a few years prior, it seemed interesting, but when I saw it on launch day, it seemed goofy and stuck in that weird gameplay loop of “Here is our gimmick, now do the same thing for the next ten hours”. I wish I spent a bit more time understanding the game, but I guess I just needed to try it for myself, because once I got my hands on it, I quickly had a hard time putting it down.
Controlling the shark feels natural and fun, knifing through the surface of the water as a silent killer further adds to the atmosphere of feeling like an assassin. Stalking your prey and breaching the water at the exact moment always feels amazing, and even if the goofy unrealistic nature of jumping on land and flopping about while munching on beach goers looks odd, it still feel like you always have the upper hand in the situation.
The game has a large map with plenty of collectables, and I thought I was going to be overwhelmed with, but when you grab most collectables, you get a little bit of flavor narration by the TV Show host (Voiced by Chris Parnell) and it adds to the enjoyment of searching around for these little items. Each item adds a bit of collectable material that you use in your homebase called The Grotto, to upgrade your shark. Eating fish, humans and other animals results in nutrition, fats, protein and radioactive waste, that accumulate into spendable currency for upgrades.
The Upgrade system is fairly basic, allowing you to upgrade different parts of your body. Killing Apex Predators, one in each section of the map, grants elemental body parts to be grafted to your skin. The Shadow Fins allow you to shoot poison fin darts at enemies, while the Bioelectric upgrades provide electric shockwaves being sent out when you take a bit of damage. You can also upgrade your internal radar that lets you seek out more distant collectables, or you can add more health or health regeneration attributes. You get to make your shark a bit more customizable. I stuck with the Bone armor and shadow fin near the end of the game as it just allows for more damage to be dealt.
The main story of Scaley Pete vs The Shark is sadly wasted. It’s a story you’ve seen many times before, and is so short and small in between the hours and hours of swimming around, you usually forget about it until you are forced to engage with it. It does however break up the monotony of swimming around for collectables and eating creatures, which is nice, and caps off a completed story area, even if it lets you go back in the open world and explore wherever you want. Leaving certain areas closed off until you upgrade/get older was kinda a bummer, as those blocked off areas were never holding anything of value and there was no reason to block them off in the first place. I would much rather have been able to 100% the area the first time through instead of having to go back to the older areas near the end of the game when I have become an elder/mega shark.
The game was originally a $40 game, and it does seem more like a budget title, but that’s not a bad thing. This is a great little title worthy of your time. It does something new and exciting, allowing you to fully be a Jaws like shark with incredible powers and much on humans until your heart's content. Causing too much chaos, like any good open world game, will bring in some authority to put a stop to you, and you can deal with them or outrun them. It borrows from a lot of different games, but also makes itself stand out as the rest. The collectables are tongue in cheek enough, and the Location Collection was my favorite, as it has little nods and references for each one. Coming across a submerged wooden kiosk of a banana brings up the “There’s Always Money Here” location and a brief acknowledgement of what you're looking at by the narrator. It’s that sort of budget wink and nod that doesn’t try too hard, but does just take memes and other media to spread out a bit of the game to make it feel more full.
While I certainly don’t feel like the game is the greatest one I’ve ever played, it does enough new things, and also places enough collectables around for me to feel like there is more than a simple game with a single gimmick. It feels like a game that could have been made in the early 2000’s and would have thrived as a hit rental from Blockbuster. I would have loved to pick this up with my buddy on a Friday and spent the whole weekend laughing at all the people running on land away from a gigantic flopping shark in the middle of a golf course sand trap.