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Maneater hands-on: Grow from adorable shark pup to adorable shark monster

You'll begin Maneater as a pup, but you won't stay that way for long. (Image credit: Tripwire)

If it were easy to make games about being a shark, I'd have played more than just Jaws Unleashed—a 2006 game Tripwire also played as it figured out how to build its shark-based RPG. With the caveat that there isn't much competition, Maneater may be the best shark action yet.

Sharks don't talk, which makes storytelling difficult. To solve that, Maneater is framed as a reality show akin to Deadliest Catch, and actor Chris Parnell narrates your movements in the water, explaining your shark nature as you defy it by devouring beach goers. 

You have a human nemesis, a shark hunter who's the star of this reality show, as well as underwater enemies, apex predators who've muscled into your gulf territory. It's time to restore some natural balance. Gobbling up fish is fun, but I felt the greatest joy from terrorizing the arrogant humans. I only wish they freaked out more when I lunged onto their boats, or even just when my fin appeared on the surface—they accepted their fates a little too easily.

One of the apex predators you'll fight is a sperm whale. A mean-looking one. (Image credit: Tripwire)

Other issues make a shark RPG tricky to design. How does a shark level up, for instance? In Maneater, you literally grow, beginning as a nimble pup and ending the game as a behemoth capable of tearing apart fishing boats. And if it wasn't clear that Maneater isn't really a nature documentary, you can also upgrade your body, forming a bony exoskeleton to bash ships with, bioelectric talents, or stealthy, vampiric traits. Organ upgrades, meanwhile, will give you passive bonuses.

The controls take some getting used to, and it's optimized for a controller right now—I imagine that'll be the best way to play when it releases, though it will support keyboard and mouse. Essentially, Tripwire has to design a melee dogfighting game. You move through three-dimensional space—at least until you breach the surface and start snapping at humans—and attack with bites and tail whips.

A degree of automatic locking-on makes it manageable. Aim nearish a fish, hit the right trigger, and you'll lunge into a bite. Tapping the right trigger chomps and swallows, and you can also wiggle the right stick to thrash your prey around and pacify it first. Better, though, is going full Looney Tunes and smacking your catch with your tail to fire it like a projectile—swordfish apparently make for good javelins.

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I didn't get to fight one of the apex predators, but Tripwire president John Gibson compares the battles to bouts from NES classic Punch-Out, in that your enemies will display tells that lead into big attacks which you'll have to dodge before throwing a counter-attack. He also mentioned Dark Souls as an influence, or as they refer to it, "Shark Souls," of course.

The fun in the tougher fights with apex predators and the Coast Guard—who appear as part of an armada that responds to your GTA-like infamy level—will determine if all the chomping and evolving is worth it, and Tripwire is confident that it's built more than a novelty fish sim. But just exploring Maneater's seven regions while Chris Parnell tosses out gags seems like a good time, too, especially if you enjoy marinescapes. It's definitely one of the prettiest oceanic games I've played, despite all the human-caused pollution.

Maneater is releasing on the Epic Store on May 22.

Tyler Wilde
Tyler Wilde

Tyler grew up in Silicon Valley alongside Apple and Microsoft, playing games like Zork and Arkanoid on the early personal computers his parents brought home. He was later captivated by Myst, SimCity, Civilization, Command & Conquer, Bushido Blade (yeah, he had Bleem!), and all the shooters they call "boomer shooters" now. In 2006, Tyler wrote his first professional review of a videogame: Super Dragon Ball Z for the PS2. He thought it was OK. In 2011, he joined PC Gamer, and today he's focused on the site's news coverage. After work, he practices boxing and adds to his 1,200 hours in Rocket League.