The Dark Pictures Anthology: Man of Medan
Supermassive Games / Bandai Namco Entertainment
Genre: Survival Horror Adventure
While I haven’t written about it quite yet, I’ve been pretty upfront about the fact that Until Dawn is my favorite game on the Playstation 4 and ranks among my top horror games period. As someone who has been entertained by horror for over half of his life, this may sound surprising, but it should also speak to the merit of Supermassive Games and the project that they put together. Horror is not an easy genre to navigate, and they found an interesting way to make a compelling story, interesting cast, and tense mechanics to bring the story of Until Dawn to life.
With that, it should be less of a surprise that when I ran into the Namco Bandai booth at PAX last year, my first stop was to see The Dark Pictures Anthology: Man of Medan, the company’s follow-up to their cinematic sleeper hit. While the demo was short, it got me excited to see how the game would play out and what the game would do to stand out from its predecessor. What I played, though, did nestle the game onto the list of my most anticipated titles from the show.
In interviews on The Dark Pictures and what exactly the anthology would entail, it has been explained that Man of Medan is the first of eight planned titles, two of which will be released each year meaning we will most likely see a title every six months. The weight being placed on the flagship game, in that case, is a great one then. While Until Dawn did surprisingly well, it seems reasonable to wonder just how well Man of Medan does to live up to Supermassive’s first game and to set up the remainder of a large undertaking for the developers.
As with most current games, I’ll do my best to avoid spoilers but be forewarned- there may be some bits here and there that could be considered “spoilery”.
During World War II, the Ourang Medan, a military ship carrying a number of soldiers from destination to destination, stops to pick up their next shipment of cargo and supplies. While nothing seems terribly out of the ordinary at first, a pair of soldiers who wind up detained for drunk and disorderly conduct awaken as the ship drifts into the ocean, unable to find their comrades with a macabre sense of dread in the air. What those two experienced, however, was both horrifying and lost to the sea, as the ship never made it to shore. The crew was never heard from, having all disappeared.
Looking for lost vessels and other debris beneath the sea is something that can appeal to thrillseekers, however. When brothers Alex and Brad get a lead on a ship that may not have even been explored before under the ocean, they jump at the chance to charter a boat out to its location to see what might be within the wreck. Along with his brother, Alex invites his girlfriend and partner-in-crime, Julia, who in turn invites her brother, Conrad, for the trip. Their captain, “Fliss” (short for Felicite) warns them about messing with shipwrecks without respect for those that died in them, however. It is believed that spirits will not soon forget these transgressions.
It isn’t long after they find the wreckage, however, that fate will find the five seafarers aboard a large ship, finding shelter from an unexpected storm. Something feels off about this ship, though. There doesn’t seem to be a crew, though there are plenty of signs of life prior to the group arriving. As the night continues on, the group will find the thrills that they were seeking- and they are going to have to fight to survive them while they uncover the mysteries of the ship to make it out of their predicament alive.
Man of Medan plays out through a series of exploration segments, putting the player into the shoes of one of the main characters that are predetermined by the narrative of the scene. Controller the character of the moment, the player can explore their environment, picking up items and looking for clues about the situation they’re in and about the events that happened during the ship’s journey. Using appropriate controls both through button input and motion control, the player can look through the ship’s interior and scour through drawers, lockers, and other areas to unlock clues that could become a key to survival.
Throughout the ordeal, characters will converse which may unlock more information or clues. When players are prompted during conversations, a number of options will appear on a radial pop-up for the player to hold a directional on the analog stick to choose one. These conversations can also affect the relationships between each character, meaning that if characters feel a certain way toward the one you’re playing or you make a choice that they don’t approve of, they very well might let you know it either through dialogue or through a lack of cooperation and trust. While the solution isn’t always to make people like you- sometimes it can be better to choose an option that is more forceful or averse to danger- it is worth keeping character relationships in mind.
When the action gets going, the characters are usually entered into a series of quick-time-events. Failure at these events won’t necessarily mean a game over, though multiple failures might. Succeeding may not always mean the best outcome either. Sometimes, it’s better may seem better not to take action, depending on the situation. In certain cases, the player may be engaged in a “keep calm” exercise, testing their ability to keep a steady rhythm with a heartbeat sound and the appropriate button while events are going on around them. There is also a rudimentary combat system, giving the player a point to aim at. If they press the button within that area in the right amount of time, they’ll hit. Otherwise, the scene will play out as they miss their attempt. The game works to keep players on their toes so keeping close attention is key- though losing a character doesn’t mean that the game is over. It will simply continue with the remaining characters until the end credits roll or your entire roster has died.
Man of Medan can also be played in three manners. The single-player mode is straightforward, allowing one person to engage with the story as they see fit. The second mode is a multiplayer session (deemed “Movie Night”) where two to five players can choose characters to control as the story plays out, receiving prompts between chapters to let them know who is up next in a version of survival horror couch co-op. The third option involves a shared online co-op wherein each person plays a different character with the events of the game playing out simultaneously. This may mean that each person is playing out part of a conversation in the same scene. It may also mean that they play different characters in different scenes that are taking place at the same point in different places. Both multiplayer modes bring the element of playing with friends and communicating about what you’re seeing, making the experience interesting to navigate in a different way.
The Good, The Bad, And…
To address the probable elephant in the room first, Man of Medan does a fantastic job of acting as a “lite” version of Until Dawn. Tension still exists in every choice, chase, and dialogue option and the twist (and yes, there’s quite a twist) is right on par with the company’s first game. Cashing in at about five or so hours of gameplay, the game doesn’t get as detailed about its characters or backstory. It still doesn’t pull its punches with your characters’ livelihoods, either. You’ll feel a lot of similarities with Until Dawn, though you may not feel the same magnitude of shock and fright in the game’s delivery.
One of the issues I had was that the characters in Man of Medan have a tendency to crack jokes or act “off-key” compared to the situation at hand on occasion. This feels especially dissonant when a character dies, as characters don’t seem to make much of it in some cases until one of the multiple endings comes into effect. While the atmosphere in the game is handled well about 95% of the time, the remarks and conversations that make up the other 5% bothered me and felt a bit out of place.
While it doesn’t exactly focus on the game itself, it feels like a genius move on Supermassive’s part to make give the game a multiplayer angle. Playing through the story alone was fine. It was a fun story with a decent cast of characters and some cool moments. Sitting down and playing with my friends, though, was probably the most fun I’ve had gaming all year. The game is short enough to finish in a night, and even when one of our characters died- and believe me, they did- everyone stayed pretty focused on the game and trying to urge the others on toward the end. If you had told me that Man of Medan could be a fun party game when I first heard about it, I wouldn’t have been completely surprised. Even Until Dawn was fun with folks observing and piping up throughout the story. Man of Medan far exceeded my expectations as a group activity, and it’s one I can’t wait to play with some more folks soon.
Looking at Man of Medan, the character models and environments are serviceable. The “actors in the game” model persists, though some of the models get a couple of unnatural or exaggerated movements. The aspiration for realism, even with the less-than-realistic visual pieces, is achieved far better than many games that make the attempt. The one real issue we ran into in one playthrough was that the graphics didn’t always seem to want to load, freezing the game and forcing us to restart- an issue that a few folks on the internet seemed to have but hopefully has been patched up since.
The game’s audio is also just above par. As with most modern horror games, the voice acting is strong enough to carry the plot, but I’d be lax not to mention that I’ve seen a few folks who feel like it wasn’t. All of the requisite horror stingers and crescendos are in place and help elevate the cinematic quality that the game strives for. Where they really nailed the sound design, though, was in the ambient noises once the gang reaches the ship. I never knew if what I was hearing was deliberately meant to scare me or if I was creeping myself out with the creaks and drips echoing through the hallways. As a fan of solid environmental ambiance, I was pleased.
If you’re coming to Man of Medan looking for another Until Dawn, you’re most likely going to leave underwhelmed. Everything that Until Dawn did, this game does in half-steps, though just as effectively. The scares lean on jumps rather than slow burns, the story and characters feel less detailed, and it had high expectations to live up to by comparison.
Taking Man of Medan as its own creature, however, it’s a solid horror game and sets a relatively high bar for the rest of the Dark Pictures Anthology. It could certainly have used another technical comb through given the number of folks who had issues with glitches on release, but it does more in five hours than most games in the genre achieve in double the time. There’s even more replayability when you consider playing through the game in different modes and the Curator’s Cut that allows players to go through the story with different points of view and characters as the story replays, offering new insights and pieces of the puzzle to engage with.
If you temper your expectations or can get a few friends together who are up for an interactive movie night, Man of Medan could easily whet your horror whistle until the next game in the series, Little Hope, is released. Personally, I’m excited to see where the rest of the anthology takes us.