Games like Maneater are my jam — absurd ideas no triple-A studio would touch. Who’s ever made a shark role-playing game? So when Tripwire Interactive announced it at the Electronic Entertainment Expo in 2018, the idea hooked me.

Not only do I dig unique RPGs, but I also enjoy sealife. Sharks both fascinate and terrify me (as an 8-year-old at Universal Studios, my fear of Jaws resulted in me nearly climbing over the people in the row ahead of my family), and I’ve long read and watched everything I can about them. The prehistoric throwbacks have survived hundreds of millions of years of evolution and upheaval. Major extinction events haven’t killed them.

But humanity may. Many shark species are endangered thanks to overfishing (sharks get caught up in nets and discarded), finning, environmental encroachment and destruction, and our fear of these creatures. How is this relevant to a review about a shark RPG? Well, all of this was in the back of my mind as I played Maneater, which debuts today for PC (Epic Games Store exclusive for now), PlayStation 4, and Xbox One. Maneater is absurd, silly fun. It has a great deal of humor, and Tripwire and Blindside Interactive (the studio who sold the idea to Tripwire) have pulled off a game that engages your curiosity as well as your funny bone. Environments and creatures show a distinct care when it comes to their designs and appearances.

Tripwire casts the story through the lens of Maneater, a reality show following noted shark hunter Scaly Pete. As you gain infamy while you chow down on the Gulf of Mexico’s finest fish and folk, you encounter Pete. These interactions take a dark turn, sending poor Pete down the path of Captain Ahab and Quint from Jaws. It results in a most unexpected denouement that pits man vs. beast … and a relic of World War II.

I played on PC (Tripwire recommends a gamepad, but I found the controls to be more responsive with a mouse-and-keyboard setup), and over 20 hours, I found a game that made me smile from beginning to end. But you have to buy into the joke to get the most out of it.

What you’ll like

Above: McMansion pools offer shelter from shark hunters.

Image Credit: GamesBeat

It’s utterly absurd

Maneater is funny and doesn’t take itself seriously. You have a mission to eat mafia members, and under the water, you swim along their victims wearing concrete shoes. Many quest names are puns (such as “Hungry, Hungry for Hobos”). You collect license plate-like signs that can be in some odd places, like the third-story deck of a yacht or on the performance stage inside an abandoned SeaWorld-like park. You also visit landmarks, signs that point you to some hilarious areas. In the Gulf, you find some great statues and Greek buildings. Someone, it appears, decided to build an outdoor museum … underwater. One of the shark hunters chasing you is a mob queen with a supercar of a speedboat. You find shrines to elder elemental evils as well.

Yet nothing’s as absurd as playing a shark who mutates and eats everything in sight. As you grow and devour victims (be they apex predators like Rosie the Alligator or shark hunters such as Mama Maybelle), you obtain mutations. One gives you bio-electric fins, which stun and damage prey (or humans). Bony jaws and plates help you rip through boats, fishing vessels, and Coast Guard command skiffs. You can upgrade these as well with resources you obtain from eating fish, turtles, nutrient boxes (the “shark loot”), and people.

As I write this, my shark has bony jaws, armor, and fins, with a bio-electric head. Mutations have heightened its swim speed, digestion (so it gets more resources from what it eats), sonar, and health. At this point, the shark looks more like a beast from The Abyss in a Dungeons & Dragons monster book than it does a terrestrial predator.

The environments offer plenty of places to hide from hunters as you feast on humans, and a few made me chuckle. Sure, you can hang out in a sewer pipe or find a hard-to-reach cay while your foes blast shotguns at you, or you can dive into the pool at a McMansion or hang-10 in a … skate park.

It’s all corny, and even the easy dumb laughs made me smile.

I think this is what it feels like to be a shark?

Exploring is cool. The shark can glide through the water, and clicking the mouse to chomp with your jaws feels natural (and cooler than just hitting a button on a controller). You can explore several different environments — a bayou, lake-as-toxic waste dump, a planned community around that most natural of shark environs (a golf course), bays, and the Gulf. Dotted all over these are grottoes for exploring and evolving and sewer systems with tasty fish and “shark loot” (containers of nutrients and mutagens). And as you grow, you find going back to the older areas is a good idea if you want to.

Nice variety of animals

Grouper, catfish, muskie, mahi-mahi, king mackerel, seals, turtles, sharks, alligators — everything you’d expect to find in these waters besides rays (which I miss). Fish do more than help you evolve — think of them as health potions whenever you’re fighting a gator or a hunter and need to heal up a bit. Eating is life, and it gives you life.

And even when you’re an Elder shark, bulked up on turtle shells and human blood, the sea still throws you some challenges. Watch out for orca and sperm whales. They can turn you into lunch even when you’re evolved to the gills.

What you won’t like

Above: I’m a leg kind of shark.

Image Credit: GamesBeat

What does it say about sharks?

You do learn about the bull shark, and it’s clear Tripwire put care into learning about this species. It’s one of the few species of sharks that can live in fresh and salt water. It’s a voracious eater. It relies on senses besides sight and smell to hunt. But I worry that some will see this as a “sharks are human’s enemies,” when I don’t think that’s the intent. While you do eat a lot of people — my toll must be in nearing 1,000 at this point — you never get a sense that Tripwire is trying to tell you that sharks are bad and worthy of slaughter.

Yet I do feel like Tripwire has lost an opportunity to dig more into the negative effects of shark fishing inside Maneater. I would’ve enjoyed more Easter eggs talking about the predator’s place in the ecosystem, and how humanity is threatening many species of sharks. I would’ve also liked a discussion about the effect super-predators such as this mutant shark can have on ecosystems.

But Maneater isn’t an educational game. It’s about over-the-top humor and eating as many fish, humans, and reptiles as you can find to grow and mutate.

Bad to the bone.

Above: Bad to the bone.

Image Credit: GamesBeat

Storyline triggers need more clarity

More than 16 hours in, I found myself unsure of what to do. A message onscreen told me to fight Scaly Pete, but the story quest queue had nothing in it. The map didn’t show any quest triggers. Turns out I had to do some of the “eat humans” tasks, but Maneater didn’t tell me these are related to attracting Scaly Pete’s attention. I thought this had to do with killing all the bounty hunters. I did, and still, Scaly Pete didn’t appear.

Turns out I had the right idea — kill more humans — I just wasn’t doing so in the right place. I had to eat people in the areas with sidequests for killing humans. I figured it out, and look at that — I got back-to-back Scaly Pete events. But I wish this was more clear.

Joke may wear thin for some

To enjoy Maneater to its fullest, you gotta buy into the joke — the fun of playing an absurd, mutating shark and eating everything in sight. Now, some are going to buy into this hook, line, and sinker (sorry, I couldn’t resist). But I can imagine how others either won’t get it or tire of this humor after a while. And that’s OK! I have a hard time finishing action-adventures and shooters — I just get bored with them. And some folks might get bored with exploring and eating in Maneater, or they may just tire of the playing the same joke over 20 hours. But I’m not tired of it, and I’d happily play more games like this in the future.

Conclusion

Maneater is unique — tell me the last time you played an open-world RPG as a mutating shark. Its sense of humor winks at you. It’s challenging without being difficult. And it’s hard not to enjoy the absurdity of being an armored shark that can destroy 10 or so boats as hunters are shooting you with automatic rifles and machine guns and throwing TNT at you.

I would’ve liked a bit more clarity on the storyline quests, and it would’ve been nice if Maneater would say a bit more about the imperiled state of sharks in our world. And if you don’t get the joke, you’re not going to get this game.

Otherwise, Maneater is just the thing I’d recommend to folks looking for the kinds of experiences only games can provide.

Score: 81/100

Maneater is out now on PC (Epic Games Store exclusive for now), PlayStation 4, and Xbox One. It’ll release later this year for Nintendo Switch. The publisher sent GamesBeat an Epic Games Store code for the purposes of this review.