The Dark Pictures Anthology: Man of Medan Review
The Dark Pictures Anthology is a series of stand-alone, branching cinematic horror games that can also be played online with a friend. In Man of Medan, five friends set sail on a holiday diving trip that soon changes into something much more sinister.
Publisher: Bandai Namco Entertainment
Reviewed on: PS4 (Pro Model)
Also available for: PC, Xbox One
Cast: Shawn Ashmore, Ayisha Issa, Arielle Palik, Chris Sandiford, Kareem Tristan Alleyne, Chimwemwe Miller, Kwasi Songui, Russell Yuen, Pip Torrens
Developer: Supermassive Games
Screenplay By: Graham Reznick, Larry Fessenden
Game Director: Tom Heaton
After the love that the interactive horror game Until Dawn received when it released in 2015, the team at Supermassive Games went to work on not a sequel, but rather an idea. The Dark Pictures Anthology series was created, and with it a planned eight games with a release schedule of roughly every six months. The anthology format will allow the team at Supermassive Games to work on multiple projects, explore different horror genres and play with ideas and stories. Man of Medan is the first of the anthology to release, and I’m very happy to say that if you loved Until Dawn, this is the start of a truly special project.
Based on an urban legend of the SS Ourang Medan, a ship that was found in the 1940s with all of its crew dead with similar twisted expressions left on their face. The story of Man of Medan automatically began making me think of the 2002 horror film The Ghost Ship. Although they differ outside the core premise, I have a soft spot for that film and its setting, which made Man of Medan and its ghost ship setting very appealing.
The set-up up for Man of Medan is rather simple horror movie stuff. Julia, her boyfriend Alex, along with Julia’s brother Conrad and Alex’s brother Brad decide the rumour of a WWII wreck yet to be found is too good of an adventure to pass up. So the four hire a boat and the four of them, along with the ship’s captain, Felicity, head off in search of fame, treasure, or simply a good time. Of course, things don’t go the way they may have wanted and when pirates take them captive aboard the ghost ship, they discover it seems to be haunted.
My biggest gripe with Until Dawn, as good as it is, was that it featured too many characters for my liking and I felt like it went a little too long. Man of Medan -- and presumably all The Dark Pictures games -- features a smaller cast and a much tighter playtime of around four-hours. It means you can play through it like a horror movie in one sitting with ease and the idea of replaying it is a much more appealing idea.
Just like Until Dawn, how you play Man of Medan will affect the outcome of the story and which characters live and die. The shorter playtime also means characters can start dropping sooner than you think. But this is part of the fun. There are actual stakes to your every move. How you talk to characters may influence them into some bad decision making, or you may simply mess up a quick-time-event (QTE) and face the consequences.
The most recognisable cast member of Man of Medan is Shawn Ashmore, who has been the centrepiece of the game’s promotional material. And with the game’s rather fantastic, yet sometimes a bit doll-like, character models you can easily see it’s him. All the characters look fantastic from a distance, and much like Until Dawn the biggest issues only arise with their faces often looking a bit too much like plastic.
What had me most impressed though was the level of detail to the ghost ship itself. It’s sculpted well from a room-to-room design, feels fully planned out from a blueprint level, shines with details and looks fantastic.
The cinematic factor needed to direct the game within the small confines of the ship are done with style as the camera moves through different stationary positions to give an often claustrophobic sense. The camera placements also allow for some nice and spooky scares with ghostly occurrences lingering just in the corner as you move past them.
For the most part, the scares within Man of Medan are simplistic jump-scares, but they did work on me every time and the final one had me yell a loud profanity in my otherwise sleeping household.
One section does use a more interesting psychological set-piece to build up a sense of terror, but it’s short-lived and leaves you wishing there was more experimentation like this in the rest of the game.
I somehow managed to get all the characters I liked the most killed in my first playthrough, which was annoying, but I fully blame one of the deaths on a technical issue. For the most part, Man of Medan only suffered from a slight stutter when entering a new scene -- no big deal. But, twice the game seemingly froze, although sound continued, and for one of these times I was supposed to be mashing square in a QTE to save a character. Of course, by the time the video unfroze, I had a quick second to see this before I failed and the character died. I let out a huge sigh and continued, although justifiably annoyed.
When the final half-hour of the game wraps up it's kinda pieced together weirdly as it works out what decisions you’ve made and who’s alive and where to take you next. This leads to some characters not reacting at the right times to the loss of others and it’s like an oddly pieced together puzzle with annoying pacing.
Another thing that makes the pacing odd at times is the interruptions of The Curator a couple of times throughout the game. The character serves a similar role to the Psychiatrist in Until Dawn, they talk about what’s happened so far at different sections and either applaud your efforts in keeping so many alive, or poke fun at you for losing people. I understand this character is meant to be the through-line for the Dark Pictures Anthology, but I hope in future entries he’s used less. Opening and closing the story would be enough for me personally, like an Alfred Hitchock presenting tonight’s episode.
Given the high amount of co-streaming and co-op playthroughs of Until Dawn happening on Twitch and Youtube, Supermassive Games have added two modes to make both these things more fun. A local co-op mode called ‘Movie Night’ will have you passing the controller around the room with a friend(s), assigning each other character(s) to play as. This is the ultimate horror movie night with friends on the couch mode and although I can't try it out properly, I feel strongly this would be the most fun way to play Man of Medan if you can.
The online co-op mode lets you and a friend take control of characters the game gives you, with these changing, of course, depending on who’s died in your playthrough. This mode is a lot of fun, especially after you’ve already beat the game, but it doesn’t have as much variety and the ability to kinda make your own rules as the Movie Night mode does. Although it’s super impressive to see just how well put together the game is when you are playing in anything other than single player and how well the game works around multiple players’ choices.
I’m super excited to see the continuing tales coming out of The Dark Pictures Anthology. If Until Dawn proved that horror games being made in this cinematic style can work then Man of Medan shows that even at a smaller scale, they can still be a blast to play. Alone, Man of Medan can be a spooky night in the dark full of terror, with friends, a party game where you tease one another and discuss plans.
(The Dark Pictures Anthology: Man of Medan code provided for review)