The creators of Until Dawn return with a multiplayer version of their unique brand of interactive movie, but have they found a story worth sharing?
Shouting at the screen, telling the idiot protagonist not to enter the dark, creepy house alone is one of the principal pleasures of every horror movie (unless you’re watching it at the cinema of course, in which case you’re an awful person). Everyone likes to think they’d cope with the same situation in a more logical manner and it’s giving you that chance that is at the core of Man Of Medan’s appeal.
The Dark Pictures is intended as a new anthology series by British developer Supermassive Games and as a spiritual successor to their PlayStation 4 hit Until Dawn. Anthologies are almost unknown in video games, with the closest thing being episodic games such as Life Is Strange. But each Dark Pictures game is its own standalone story and will focus on a different brand of horror, with its own unique cast of characters.
The only exception is The Curator, a mysteriously well-dressed librarian who introduces the story of Man Of Medan and pops up occasionally to give an indication of how well you’re doing and offer optional hints. Each game will be inspired by a real-world urban legend, although we confess we’ve never heard of the ghost ship Ourang Medan before. We’d advise you not to follow that link though, or try and find out more about it, until after you’ve played the game.
The game begins with a prologue set just after the Second World War, involving American soldiers transporting mysterious coffins to parts unknown. The main game though is set in the present day, with the primary cast being rich kid siblings Julia and Conrad, Julia’s boyfriend Alex and his nerdy brother Brad, and the cash-strapped boat captain Fliss. The latter has hired out her boat to the others in order for them to go diving looking for wrecks, with Brad having pinpointed the location of a previously undiscovered U.S. bomber.
It’s an hour or so until the ghost ship arrives on the scene, with the initial antagonists being a bunch of would-be pirates that board your boat during a storm. Assuming you get to the end, the story lasts around four or five hours but, much like Until Dawn, it can end up shorter if you get everyone killed too quickly.
If you haven’t played Until Dawn both it and Man Of Medan have the appearance of a standard survival horror, with a fixed camera perspective that is very reminiscent of the early Resident Evil games (particularly the often forgotten CODE: Veronica, the missing link between the early and modern games). There’s no combat though, or puzzles, and although you can walk around freely your only real interactions are simple QTE sequences and making a major decision.
Those decisions can be anything from choosing whether to come up from a dive without decompressing properly (because the boat seems to be on fire) or choosing whether to run or hide. There’s often not much to go on beyond your gut instinct but frustratingly just as many character deaths can be caused by missing a QTE button press as making a bad decision.
To even call them a QTE is to be generous, as most of the time they’re just one or two button presses that suddenly appear, without warning, on-screen and can ruin your progress if you mistime them. And that’s if you’re given the option of interacting with the game’s story at all. Many of the stupidest decisions – such as Conrad purposefully antagonising the pirates – are taken for you and you’re forced to just go along with them.
Although the explanation for what’s going on in the plot is unexpected, we didn’t find Man Of Medan at all scary. There’s virtually no gore (even less than Until Dawn) and while the graphics and sound design are very good, creating a tense atmosphere, the only release is a few simple jump scares. Some will no doubt find it scarier than others, but we also didn’t really like any of the main cast. Fliss is the most sympathetic but also the easiest to get killed, while nominal lead Conrad (played by X-Men and Quantum Break star Shawn Ashmore) is unlikeable from beginning to end.
Man Of Medan is a more focused and consistent story than Until Dawn but for us it’s a less enjoyable one, largely thanks to the cast. But what makes Man Of Medan more interesting is the one thing Until Dawn doesn’t have: proper multiplayer. Much of Until Dawn’s success was down to people playing it together and arguing about what decisions should be made. Man Of Medan, and presumably the rest of the Dark Pictures games, capitalise on this by having a full online mode.
There’s no matchmaking, so you have to play with a friend that’s going to take things at least semi-seriously, but it works extremely well, as you’re constantly worrying about what trouble they’ll get themselves into and whether they’ll ruin a QTE for you. Often you’re both doing different things, pairing up with one of the characters, so you’re not just following around after each other. It’s a great idea and it’s carried off extremely well – we just wish the story itself was more engaging.
There’s also an offline party mode where you get to pass the controller around as each person plays a different character, although this was less successful, in our experience, as it can take too long for each person to get a go. The concept is sound though and could easily work better with a different story.
Man Of Medan is an odd experience, because the underlining structure of what Supermassive has created is bursting with potential, not just for horror games but any genre of fiction. But Man Of Medan seems to almost go out of its way to underutilise it.
Especially when you realise, on going back to replay previous chapters and change characters’ fates, that in many cases the story doesn’t really make sense unless certain people are still alive. If they’re not the game just fudges the explanation and you only realise the problem after you see the same outcome with different people. (We’d be more specific but obviously that would involve spoilers.)
Despite our problems with Man Of Medan we’re still very interested to see what comes next from The Dark Pictures. But what even this game proves is that being in a horror movie isn’t as easy as it looks and that, actually, wandering off on your own and losing sight of the group is an easy thing to do, especially when you don’t know what’s really going on.
Man Of Medan is essentially a haunted house ride for the modern day, except rather than a top of the line one at Disney World or Universal Studios it’s more like the local fairground equivalent that isn’t scary and ultimately seems a bit pointless when you’re done. We hope for better from the rest of the anthology, but for now this isn’t horrific enough to either recommend or warn you off from.
The Dark Pictures: Man Of Medan
The Dark Pictures: Man Of Medan review
In Short: Combining Until Dawn’s style of mild horror with online multiplayer works great, but the actual story and characters fail to engage.
Pros: The online multiplayer is an excellent idea and has huge potential for the future. Impressive visuals and voice acting. Sensibly priced.
Cons: Unlikeable cast of characters and not very scary. Too little player agency, with QTEs having more influence on your actions than actual decisions. Branching story doesn’t always make sense.
Formats: PlayStation 4 (reviewed), Xbox One, and PC
Publisher: Bandai Namco Entertainment
Developer: Supermassive Games
Release Date: 30th August 2019
Age Rating: 16
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