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Shark RPG’s clumsy controls diminish Maneater hype of being the apex predator

A bull shark is out for revenge against Scaly Pete in "Maneater."

TRIPWIRE INTERACTIVE/TNS

By GIESON CACHO | The Mercury News | Published: June 10, 2020

No matter if it’s “Jaws,” “The Meg” or “Deep Blue Sea,” we secretly root for the sharks. Sure, the humans are the heroes who eventually slay the primal creatures, but it’s the monsters of the deep that catch our eye.
 
All teeth and muscle, they fascinate us. The fins knifing along the water grab our attention like a train horn. Their breaching above the water is like a fireworks show blasting out of the sea. Maneater takes that innate attraction to sharks and lets players live out a power fantasy as the predator.
 
In this open-world shaRkPG — that’s publisher Tripwire Interactive’s reference, not mine — players take on the role of a female bull shark. A hunter named Scaly Pete kills her mother and scars it. In retaliation, the bull shark pup bites off Pete’s hand and escapes into the bayou.
 
From there, players control the fish as she survives in the wild. The bull shark has to constantly eat. Her initial prey are catfish, grouper and box turtles, and this diet provides nutrients, fueling the shark’s growth. Chowing down on wildlife is how the pup matures into a teenager. From there, she can attack bigger animals such as alligators that would have given her problems in the beginning.
 
The whole process makes Maneater feel like a fishy answer to Pac-Man. The developers, Blindside Interactive and Tripwire, block off early areas behind this idea of growth. Players need to level up their shark into adulthood before she can destroy grates and other obstacles to explore the wider city of Port Clovis.
 
The bull shark’s goals are twofold. The first is that she wants to be the ultimate apex predator of the sea. That means growing into a megashark that is feared by sperm whales and orcas in the gulf. The other driving factor is revenge. The bull shark has one target in mind — Scaly Pete, the larger-than-life fisherman who gutted her mother.
 
Despite its intriguing premise, Maneater will have problems keeping players’ interest beyond the novel first hours. It’s fun to be a shark and watch the animal’s growth, but the mission design is pedestrian and monotonous. Most of the time, players have to either devour humans, a fearsome rival or the favorite food of an apex predator. In addition, players will come across collectibles such as license plates, nutrient caches or landmark signs.
 
Some of these side quests have upgrades that give the bull shark such essential evolutions as shadow fins and bone tails. These act like pieces of armor and gear that the shark dons while in different grottoes, which are safe zones in each region of Port Clovis. The bone set is geared toward defense while the shadow series is all about attack power and speed. The bioelectric gear excels at stunning enemies that swarm players.
 
The bull shark can mix and match its evolutions or it can use a full set for a bonus that makes it unstoppable in certain scenarios. When paired with three of the right organ upgrades, players can overcome any adversary on the seas. The bull shark can even tumble across land, chowing down on humans who venture too close to shore.
 
Another problem with Maneater is the controls, which are clumsy at best and frustrating at worst. Controlling the shark feels cumbersome, as players change the shark’s swimming angles by looking in a particular direction. It’s comparable to the controls system of Air Combat titles, but clumsier and with the added dimension of fighting on the water’s surface. That’s evident in the chaotic battles against hunters who go after the bull shark after she dines on enough humans. Trying to breach and slam atop boats isn’t the smoothest of moves, and diving down into the depths for safety and another attempted breach is awkward.
 
The locomotion and traversal lack fluidity, and those issues spill over into ocean life combat. Battling cetaceans, other sharks and gators involves dodging attacks when enemies blink yellow and then counter-attacking. It’s not the most complex system and can be unwieldy, especially with the lack of a hard lock-on.
 
Maneater’s flaws are smoothed over partly thanks to the narration of comedian Chris Parnell. The narrative is framed as a Discovery Channel-type nature show, and as the game follows the bull shark through her adventures, Parnell chimes in with nautical facts and biting critiques on humanity’s relationship with nature.
 
This smart commentary is partly carried over to the locale of Port Clovis, which is a fictional gulf city that’s part Louisiana and part Florida. The opinionated narrator stabs at the excess and weirdness of both states. It’s almost enough to make players look over the control issues and mission design that hold Maneater back from being a great open-world title.
 
Platforms: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC, Nintendo Switch

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