After the great cinematic adventure that was Until Dawn back in 2015, Supermassive Games seemed to diverge a little from the big budget narrative title and head into spin off VR games like Rush of Blood and Playlink experiment Hidden Agenda. They been far from quiet over the last three years, though the games have been aimed at limited markets. Now they’re heading into waters that they’re very familiar with, and with the aim to improve and innovate using what they’ve learned from their recent co-op efforts. The Dark Pictures Anthology: Man of Medan is ambitious as the first of eight planned instalments that are standalone horror tales based on urban legends, and have the potential to bring a unique story driven adventure for every player. Will this first one have them sail into calm waters, or off into the sunset?
It’s a story setup as old as the dawn of cinema – a boat goes missing in calm waters to be stumbled upon decades later by a group of young adults who are either:
- partying in a private boat,
- distrustful of each other,
- in trouble with strangers,
- all of the above.
Putting aside their differences they must traverse the old wreck and discover what’s happened to the original crew whilst not getting brutally slain along the way. Is it haunted? Is it a scientific experiment? What’s with the coffins in the hold? It’s all for the player to investigate and figure out. The hook with Man of Medan is that the story is dictated by your actions and decisions throughout. Every response to a question, successful or failed quick time event, and items picked up can have far reaching consequences.
This is familiar ground for anyone who’s played most of Supermassive Games back catalogue over the last few years, and always manages to intrigue as much as it confounds. In Man of Medan it takes it to the next level where relationships with people have to be managed for the best outcomes, and seemingly innocent actions early on dictate the fate of some of the characters. Of course, there are always threads running through that can be warped slightly, but not changed for the sake of keeping a structure; yet these seem to be kept to a minimum. Maintaining the aura of a teen slasher flick, the atmosphere, pacing and location design are well managed, and the cinematic presentation really enhances the feel. It draws the player in much more easily than most games, though that’s double edged as it’s just as easy to get thrown out of the immersion when things start to glitch.
Man of Medan’s gameplay style is strictly fixed camera angle walking exploration coupled with QTE’s. This produces the filmic feel and keeps the developers in firm control of the action, suspense and jump scares. It works for the most part, just expect to get used to some clumsy rotation and sluggish movement when trying to interact with objects or navigate around one of the supporting characters. Through the course of the 4 hour story you’ll play as each of the 5 main protagonists – headlined by Shawn Ashmore of X-Men and Quantum Break fame – and will most likely keep the majority of them alive without a huge amount of conscious effort. The branching story opens up extra scenes and sections to wander around (or locks characters off entirely), and triggering those can be as much about failing a section than passing it. Hitting the end and bringing up the secrets/collectables info highlights just how much is possible to miss without realising it. This in itself is impressive meaning that so much is down to player agency, but distracting for those just wanting to see a singular tale play out for themselves.
What you’ll have to put up with to get to the end though is lots, and I mean LOTS, of walking down rusty corridors and getting sharp loud noises chucked into the audio mix to make you jump. There’s a fair amount of exposition that takes place between the characters during these sections, so they act as links between more open areas… it just felt like it was too much slow plodding. There is a button to speed up movement, though it’s not running and it’s just marginally faster than you were going before. For the most part horror elements are missing too, as is the gore that we got used to in Until Dawn. This is a more subdued tale and wants to be more cerebral. It could have done with a few puzzle elements to help that part out, and the Curator that appears as a guide between acts feels a little bit limp with his suggestions of help. At least the performances are strong and the acting hits the right notes at the right times. Sadly it’s let down by the switch Supermassive had to make from the proprietary Decima engine to Unreal now they’ve gone multiplatform.
Man of Medan looks great, there’s no denying that, but the final presentation is just not as smooth as the team have previously been able to deliver. There are stutters and pauses as new areas are loaded in the background, and The Walking Dead-esque hiccups where decisions you haven’t made still appear and make it really hard to figure out what’s going on. I had one sequence where two instances of the same character appeared and performed both outcomes to the choice I’d just made; and an epilogue where a main player was suddenly wearing different clothes and looked battered and bruised. It’s a bit janky which is a huge shame given the pedigree and almost seamless presentation in the past. It’s possibly why movement and object examination is so slow too, because it’s not really there to ramp up the tension. Think back to The Order: 1886 for picking up items and it’ll give you some indication of what that’s like – interesting yet totally unnecessary. There’s also the very abrupt ending that makes it all feel like there’s been something go badly wrong and about half an hour of story has been wiped out. I reloaded a save after one ending to make a few different choices and check I hadn’t been infected by the ship’s madness. Nope.
It all ends up being a bit of a let down unfortunately. There’s so much effort gone into thinking about how to get the story right and have the outcomes mapped correctly that the actual payoff isn’t there if you’ve not made all the correct choices. Regardless of how you’ve decided to play there should be an ending that feels like there’s resolution, and that can be easily missed. It’s akin to foregoing a final act confrontation or desperate escape in any horror movie – that element wasn’t there in the playthroughs I had. At least they’ve got on board with the multiplayer sharing element and used the movie night mode as a pass-the-pad exercise in abusing your couch partners for bad decisions. That opens up some more interesting moments, as does the online co-op, yet it can’t fully make up the shortfalls in Man of Medan. It’s worth running through and seeing what’s being attempted, and I’m hopeful that the next episode will learn some lessons, otherwise we could see the Dark Pictures Anthology falling after the second hurdle.
The Dark Pictures Anthology: Man of Medan is available now on PS4, Xbox One and PC for around £25, and the next instalment, Little Hope, is due in 2020.