Something went a bit wrong at Supermassive Games. After the long development that led to the eventual success of Until Dawn, currying a lot of favour in the process, the company changed direction, leading to a string of indifferent and disappointing games where the novelty of being in VR or using PlayLink couldn’t mask the flaws.
It wasn’t working, and so it’s great to see Supermassive going back to what they got right: scary games. Man of Medan is what they hope to be the first in a long series called The Dark Pictures, an anthology format letting them conjure up new and intriguing tales each time. They’ve already got clear plans for the first few, with the intent to keep making them until people stop wanting them.
Man of Medan also sees Supermassive stepping out from the sheltering wing of Sony’s platform exclusivity, penning a publishing deal with Bandai Namco. It means that the game is multi platform, but has also forced them to jump between game engines, trading in Guerrilla Games’ Decima engine for the much more ubiquitous Unreal Engine 4. Man of Medan instantly recaptures much of the look and feel of Until Dawn, though that’s certainly helped by the horror genre’s predilection of darkness and isolated lights.
The demo started with a “previously on” style introduction, getting loosely up to speed on the game’s overarching plot. Where Until Dawn was a bunch of teens taking off to a mountain retreat, this time around it’s a group heading out to sea on a jolly – with Shawn Ashmore the biggest star, it’d be tricky for them to pull off the teenager vibe again. Horror game is as horror game does, and the tranquil waters of the South Pacific turn for the worst with stormy weather and a mysterious ship emerging out from the rain.
Naturally it picks up with them onboard this abandoned WW2 freighter and things having got decidedly weird. For this segment we were in control of Fliss, who had been piloting the party boat, but she was joined by the shy and nervous Brad, both of them being shoved and directed by a guy with a flashlight and a gun.
He’s shoving you around, breaking up times where you can look at the surroundings and try to take things in, and it’s clear that he’s on edge for reasons I can’t know without having played the start of the game. And then he completely flips out. Coming to the end of a corridor, he starts acting even weirder than before, looking right on the brink of sanity before he steadies himself and races around a corner firing his gun. Fliss and Brad are about as baffled as I was.
Still it gives me more freedom then to explore at my own pace. Fliss picks up the flashlight, and I returned to some of the things that I hadn’t managed to inspect before. There’s decaying corpses, photos framed on the wall and other little clues. A sailor’s hat reveals part of the name of the ship, for example, the USS something-Medan.
The game pulls some of the classic horror genre tropes now and then, with a hand reaching out to grab Fliss’ shoulder as a flurry of strings swell in the atmospheric soundtrack. It’s Brad being an ass and you can choose between two responses, head or heart, to reassure him or tell him to stop being a prat.
Then the properly weird stuff kicks off, and it’s clear what made the guy with the gun flip out so hard before. A hand suddenly grasps Fliss’ foot out of a puddle, reanimated corpses suddenly surround her and start grasping as I hurriedly mash the buttons the game tells me to and try to free her. There’s a clear psychological twist here, as they suddenly dissolve back into the puddle they came from, and the butterfly effect of choices you can make shows itself when choosing between running or trying to save Brad from a similar predicament.
Though this was really a short, horror trope-filled demo, it’s just good to see Supermassive righting their ship after a tricky few years. This is a studio that can make great, immersive, scary games, and Man of Medan looks set to prove that all over again.