The Dark Pictures: Man of Medan Review
Reviewed on Sony PlayStation 4
Love it or hate it, Until Dawn raised the bar pretty high when it came to making choices in video games. A lot of the time - and I use Telltale games as a prime example - you are given the illusion of choice which ultimately leads you down a relatively safe path with little to no impact on the outcome. Until Dawn broke that mould by giving you eight characters that could live or die and it was totally in your hands.
Now, with Man of Medan, Supermassive Games are trying once again to deliver that same horror experience and depth of choice seen in Until Dawn. I’m not entirely sure, however, that they’ve hit the nail on the head this time.
Man of Medan is an interactive drama and a survival horror game rolled into one, mixing soft point and click exploring elements with quick-time events for any action sequences. The story follows five characters - Fliss, Conrad, Julia, Alex and Brad - who find themselves aboard an abandoned ghost ship in the middle of the ocean. Wealthy brother and sister, Conrad and Julia hire Fliss and her ship to take them all out to go wreck diving before hilarity ensues and they all get taken to the very creepy boat.
Cue - fun and games.
Man of Medan is not as good as Until Dawn. Simple. It has a lot to live up to and ends up becoming a lite version of it. Everything just feels stripped back and a little rushed. Until Dawn had plenty of development time and it shows. More characters, more choices and more consequences. In Man of Medan, I felt like there was little impact to the story from my actions with two of my deaths coming from miss-timed button presses.
In Until Dawn, the fate of at least two of the characters came down towards how they treated others which resulted in some shocking deaths. In Man of Medan, I got the feeling that it kind of didn’t matter what I was saying. The deaths were going to occur at key parts anyway.
Following in similar footsteps, you have the Bearing system which tracks “important” decisions you make. Much like the Butterfly Effect from Until Dawn, everything is tracked and can be viewed in your Bearings screen, showing all your major decisions on separate little boat wheels. Once again though, this didn’t seem to make much difference. On my first run, it was noted when I didn’t take my bang stick on a dive. I immediately thought `damn, I’m probably going to get eaten by a shark, now’. Thankfully, a shark went passed but never got involved. On my second play-through, I took the bang stick but the only purpose it served was enabling me to find an extra piece of unimportant reading material.
Like Until Dawn, you do have a way of avoiding dangers in the form of paintings. Until Dawn did this by placing mystic totems around the game which upon discovering, show a vision of an upcoming event, hopefully prompting you to make a good decision. The paintings serve a similar purpose and are mostly helpful. Some of them, however, don’t make a lick of sense with one of the visions not including any of the characters in the game. I’ll give Man of Medan the benefit of the doubt here as there are many branching paths and possibly characters I haven’t discovered yet.
As for the main characters, they bring to the table the typical stereotypes you see in all horror films. Fliss is the bold courageous one, Conrad is the young, brash, sex-addicted fool, Brad is the quiet nerdy one, Julia is the annoying girlfriend and Alex is the typical male hero. Development of these characters is sadly lacking. Characters shift rapidly from one demeanour to the next with little to no prompt or build-up making for some jarring scenes. This feels in part down to the length of the game. Until Dawn was fairly lengthy and there was a lot of interactions between the eight characters that saw people you initially hated turn into heroes you loved. The characters had proper time to grow over the course of the game which made losing them all the worse if you made a bad decision later that got everyone killed. Man of Medan’s five just don’t get that chance and are quite frankly not as well written, meaning by the end, I had little empathy for those I’d lost and couldn’t give two hoots about those that survived.
You only get three chapters which doesn’t feel like enough. In fact, the end is so sudden that it left me a little bewildered.
Wait, what? Is that it?
Until Dawn had a whopping ten chapters to sink your teeth into. Man of Medan is a fraction of the size and it shows. This is in part down to the fact that by design, it’s meant to be played through in one night, with friends. You can play the game solo but some of the best experiences with Until Dawn where had with a room full of people. Supermassive has seen this and capitalised on it with Movie Night mode. It’s a great idea and is, of course, the natural evolution of this style of game. At the start, everyone playing (up to five players) picks the characters they want to control and pass the pad around when characters switch. It lends itself perfectly to that whole Saturday night feel of a night in with friends, popcorn and scary movies. Only this time you get to play it. Failing that, if you can’t get everyone round for an evening of horror, then you can also play online with others which is a nice addition.
Supermassive executed this movie night style perfectly with Hidden Agenda, a thriller based experience, played with friends which can be completed in about three hours. Man of Medan feels stuck somewhere in between Hidden Agenda and Until Dawn, being too long to be completed in one night and a little too short to be a full-on game. If a game is going to be short, the writing needs to be bang on which in Man of Medan it is not.
Thankfully, the tension is there. Exploring the environment is as creepy as ever with plenty of jump scares waiting to be had. It helps that the game looks gorgeous with insanely detailed renders of characters faces and stunning backdrops that they explore. Tight camera angles hark back to survival horror games of old, creating tension when you can’t quite see around the corner. On the flip side, the game engine seems to suffer a lot from slow down and stuttering with the audio sometimes going out of sync and lines appearing on the TV that only reset when you changed the channel. This is, of course, stuff that can be fixed, but it was jarring when it happened, especially when you are trying to sink into the atmosphere.
In between chapters, you have Pip Torrens pop up playing the Curator of the Dark Anthologies stories. Peter Stormare’s Dr. Hill from the first game served as a major plot point during Until Dawn whereas, in Man of Medan, the Curator acts like the Cryptkeeper from Tales of the Krypt, popping up in between chapters, offering you hint’s and being generally charming - unlike the Cryptkeeper.