Horror is a diverse but difficult genre, which can magnify both the positives and negatives of the movies, books, TV shows and short stories that utilize its tropes. When a scary movie is good, it’s achieved something that is hard to accomplish, and deserves credit. Meanwhile, bad horror movies are a dime a dozen; so much so that the genre is sometimes watched for laughs, because it’s fun to giggle at the dumb decisions that characters make. This is especially true of crappy and super cheesy slasher movies, of which there have been many over the years.
Whether you’re a fan of horror movies or not, you’ve likely found yourself yelling at the screen while watching one on at least one occasion. It’s common to wish that you could control the characters in these movies, but it’s unfortunately not possible. After all, they aren’t choose your own adventure stories.
The same cannot be said about Supermassive Games’ most notable efforts. This is because, well before Until Dawn released back in 2015, those involved with the studio decided to do something different, by providing gamers with choices as to how a horror movie would play out. The result was a choose your own adventure styled masterpiece, which was easily my favourite game of that year. Hell, it still remains one of the best games I’ve played this generation, and has cemented itself as one of my all-time favourites.
In Until Dawn, players controlled several different characters during a very perilous night, during which death frequently threatened them. The idea was pretty simple on paper, but was surely very complex in terms of development, coding and execution. While being forced to make difficult decisions, you would attempt to finish the story and survive the snowy nightmare without losing a single character. Of course, this was easier said than done, and during my two play throughs I’ve never managed to keep everyone alive. I have, however, come pretty close, and got mad at myself when I let someone die the second go around. If I hadn’t been so lazy, and slow to respond, it wouldn’t have happened.
After working on some PSVR titles, including an Until Dawn spinoff, Supermassive Games is back with another more traditional game. However, unlike its memorable predecessor, this one takes the budget priced route, and does so while offering a short and somewhat sweet four to five hour campaign. Entitled The Dark Pictures Anthology: Man of Medan, it’s the first of several planned installments. Eight, it seems.
Man of Medan begins during World War II, then shifts to a modern sunny day. At that point, two brothers board a boat that is destined to take them out on the South Pacific Ocean, where they will dive into the depths in an attempt to find and explore a previously undiscovered wreck. Their modest, but still somewhat expensive expedition has been funded by one’s rich girlfriend, who plans to tag along with her brother, the latter of whom is portrayed by actor Shawn Ashmore. Yes, like Until Dawn, this cinematic outing uses real actors and involved motion capture to deliver a movie style experience. Shawn Ashmore just happens to be the most notable member of the cast.
What seems like it’ll be an exciting adventure takes a turn for the worst, however, when the group’s vessel is boarded by sea pirates. Things get even worse, though, after they come up alongside a World War II ghost ship. Deciding to leave their boat for the potential safety and many unknowns that await them on the larger craft, the (up to five) allies disembark and venture into the darkness with their captors in tow. What awaits them will depend on the choices you make.
Taking a lot of inspiration from its predecessor, Man of Medan is full of button prompts, quick time events, time-based mini-games and tense choices. The idea is that, by being forced to choose the actions each and every one of your characters undertakes, you’ll assume ownership of and create your own unique tale within this narrative. It works, too; at least for the most part. Unfortunately, some actions are left out of the players’ hands, and those can have dire and unanticipated consequences. As such, this is not as tight or as well designed a game as Until Dawn was. That doesn’t mean it’s bad, though.
While controlling brothers Brad and Alex, wealthy siblings Julia and Conrad, and ship captain Fliss, you’ll attempt to make it to the end of a spooky story without losing anyone. This will involve being quick to the draw with far too speedy button prompts and quick time events, as well as tapping a button in time with a heartbeat in order to stay calm and avoid detection. You’ll also get to walk around, explore different areas of the ships, and investigate documents, clues and paintings that provide hints at what could happen later. A lot of this exploration is shown through a survival horror style behind-the-back camera, that is sometimes positioned a decent ways away from the character, and brings back a lot of nostalgia. It’s not always the best, and can leave you feeling like you’re controlling a character in a PS1 game like Silent Hill, Resident Evil or even Tomb Raider, but it does the job.
The free controls can sometimes be stilted, and the action prompts are occasionally too difficult and demanding for their own good. If your timing isn’t perfect, you may find yourself in a dire situation. I’d hope that the developers would look into this, and perhaps lengthen the timing for certain button prompts, but this may be how they intended it to be. If it is, Man of Medan was designed to be more challenging and less forgiving than Until Dawn.
As you explore the ship and decide what to touch, what to say and where to explore, you’ll reach many segments where what will happen next is very unclear. Sometimes you just need to use your gut, and play the way you feel you should. Doing this will develop the characters’ relationships and personality traits, while also either keeping them safe or sending them to their death. All the while, something mysterious haunts the ship, and causes hallucinations to boot. These hallucinations can then lead to dangerous encounters, where lives are put at risk.
Based on how you play, your experience will differ from that of your friends and those around the world. Decisions alter events, and can also change the chapters you’ll get to play through. For instance, Conrad disappeared for a long time during my first play through, and the decision that caused it led to me missing a notable narrative beat on the boat. Perhaps this is why it felt like the game jumped around more than it should have.
The relationships that the characters share and develop will also impact how things play out. If two of them dislike each other then they may not work together. Meanwhile, those who’ve developed strong bonds are more likely to have each other’s backs.
Of course, the way that Man of Medan has been crafted makes it the type of game that you’re supposed to play through at least two times. This is added to by enticements like co-op and a party mode that allows several people to each take control of a different character.
Playing this thing in co-op allows you to get a unique experience, with each of the two players controlling different characters. Through this design, it’s possible to either help or deceive each other after discovering clues, or perhaps even coming together during a dangerous hallucination. Needless to say, it’s an interesting touch and an incentive to play through this relatively brief campaign more than once.
The two player campaign co-op is online, while the party mode is played with five people in one room. At least, as close to five as you can get, since you pass the controller around.
Now, anyone who played Until Dawn will know how much that game excelled when it came to presentation. Not only was it beautiful and immersive, but it also looked, felt and came across as an interactive movie starring familiar faces. The characters were lifelike, the acting was solid, and the peril was frightening. With Man of Medan, a lot of the same efforts have been taken, and the result is similar. The characters all look quite nice, emote realistically and feel like they could be real people. Of course, this is helped by having professional actors and in-depth mo-cap in play.
The characters themselves aren’t as deep or memorable as those in Until Dawn, however, and aren’t always the most likeable people. Players are able to sort of make them their own, using the game’s moral compass dialogue system, but their personalities are somewhat set from the start.
This isn’t as polished a video game as its predecessor was either. It doesn’t feel like it had as much time in the proverbial oven as that title did, and suffers some of the consequences. For one, the animations aren’t as polished. You’ll also likely see the odd animation or visual glitch, and perhaps also have to deal with a bit of framerate instability. I didn’t experience anything major during my time with the game, so that was good.
Since this is a horror game, first and foremost, sound is important. Thankfully Man of Medan‘s audio does a good job of creating a sense of unease, and delivering tension when required. It will sometimes have you on the edge of your seat, waiting for something to pop out or happen. Its voice acting and the related dialogue aren’t as impressive as the overall sound design, including the music and sound effects, but they’re decent and above average for this type of thing. I particularly liked the Curator, who appears during interludes and comments on your progress, while also offering hints if you want them. His mysterious and foreboding nature helped the experience quite a bit.
At the end of the day, The Dark Pictures Anthology: Man of Medan is a solid follow-up to Until Dawn. While it’s not as long, polished or memorable as its beloved predecessor, it makes up for it with a budget price tag and interesting multiplayer modes. Certain parts can be frustrating and predictable, but overall this is a pretty good game that I enjoyed more than I’d expected to after hearing some early word of mouth. I’m even looking forward to going back in for one or two more play throughs.
This review is based on the Xbox One X version of the game, which we were provided with.
- Lots of choices, both moral and survival-based
- Interesting choose your own adventure meets horror format
- Looks and sounds quite good
- The story isn't as memorable or as impressive as Until Dawn's
- The main characters are kind of forgettable
- Not as polished as its predecessor