In 2015, developer Supermassive Games’ surprised audiences with their tribute to cheesy horror movies, Until Dawn. Its branching story, cliche but likeable characters, and a deep understanding of the language of the genre has made it a modern horror game classic. After creating several smaller titles and spin-offs, Supermassive has come back to that successful formula with their exciting pitch for The Dark Pictures, a horror anthology series with shorter stand-alone games with their own self-contained scenarios in that familiar style. Man of Medan is the first entry in this series, and as exciting as the possibilities of this project do sound, Man of Medan isn’t the strongest series premiere.
From its split-second quick-time events, to its television style opening credits with a cover of “Oh Death”, it’s clear that The Dark Pictures: Man of Medan shares a lineage with Until Dawn. Taking place on the seas of the South Pacific Ocean, you follow the misadventures of five twenty-somethings as they head out on a vacation to remember until, as it so often happens, they find themselves trapped on a World War II ghost ship. What are the chances?!
As you try to escape and slowly unravel the mystery by discovering collectibles, you will have to make quick decisions that can cost you the life of your friends, or your own. Helping you make more informed decisions are portraits scattered throughout the game that give you a look into a possible future for your character ; many times they will warn you of a way someone could die. For some it will all feel very familiar, but it’s welcoming to play a new experience in this blueprint, and new players will still find novelty in Supermassive’s design where any character can live or die.
One key difference that separates Man of Medan from it’s not so distant relative is a matter of scope. Like an episode of the Twilight Zone or just one fifth of the film Creepshow, Man of Medan is a short story with its own characters and themes. Because of that, Supermassive naturally has less time to develop characters and there are fewer opportunities for your decisions to have an impact on the game’s events.
The best anthology stories make use of their limited resources to tell brief but strong stories that leave a lasting impression and stand out among the pack of what came before or after it, but much of Man of Medan’s four to five hours is middling. It’s characters are clear archetypes of horror roles, but none of them fit their given suit quite well, and that makes it really hard to care one way or another if they live or die. The game’s mystery on why the ship you find yourself trapped in is haunted, without going into spoilers, isn’t very gripping. The very fact that you are trapped on a ship where each section looks largely the same, apart from one or two stand out sections, makes exploring the environment rather dull. In a group setting, I found it can take some of the energy in the room. And while it’s true that this is familiar ground for Supermassive, the stitching that connects the branching scenes with the critical path scenes is much more apparent in Man of Medan. Characters can at times go from mourning the death of a character one minute, to deadpan loudly addressing the group the next. On PlayStation 4, it also has frequent, small performance issues that stop it from feeling like an immersive experience. My time playing Man of Medan partly on my own, and then playing through all of it with a group of friends, left me feeling disappointed and wanting something more. Fortunately the game’s multiplayer provides that something more to make the experience more compelling.
It’s apparent through Man of Medan’s two multiplayer modes that Supermassive paid attention as to how their players played Until Dawn. Movie Night Mode allows five players playing locally to enter their names at the start and then assign themselves a character that they will be responsible for in the rest of the game. The game will then let you know when a player’s turn is coming up and will also breakdown how your team performed as a whole with fun statistics. While I did play the game with a group of friends, I was not able to try out the Movie Night Mode. What I did try out was the game’s Shared Story Mode that has two players playing the game as two separate characters simultaneously, and it’s one of the most interesting features of the game. This mode includes scenes and moments that are exclusive to the second player experience. This makes playing through Man of Medan much more interesting. At times the experience can also be collaborative when two players need to communicate to avoid an unfortunate fate. While I can’t speak for the rest of The Dark Pictures series, playing Man of Medan with a friend online is how you can get the most exciting experience from it.
The pitch for The Dark Pictures series is a strong one, but its premiere with Man of Medan feels like a mid-season slump. While the recipe Supermassive has been following is still engaging, the characters, story, and setting of the game make it hard to really connect with. Thankfully, all of that can change the second time around as the series continues, but Man of Medan itself is unfortunately a b-tier horror movie without much of the charm.
This game was reviewed on a PlayStation 4 Pro system with a review code provided by the publishers of the game