As Supermassive kick off The Dark Pictures Anthology with Man of Medan, they’ve plunged their hands deep into a bucket full of horror tropes. There’s an undeniably good looking cast of young adults, a home invasion scenario, and a rusting, ghost-filled ship, all of which has been mixed together with Supermassive’s movie style branching narrative that worked so well for them in the past. It should be great, but it doesn’t quite reach the brilliance of Until Dawn.
We join the cast as they set off on a dive somewhere in the South Pacific Ocean, meeting brothers Brad and Alex, Julia, the girlfriend of Alex, Conrad, her cocky brother, and the ship’s captain, Fliss. Dialogue options reveal a little of their back story – Fliss is in financial trouble, the couple are having some sort of relationship difficulties, and Shawn Ashmore’s character Conrad is just a bit of a jerk.
Heading off to dive the wreck of a World War II aeroplane, tensions rise between the cast before something occurs that forces them to work together and try to escape the peril. By now where heading towards the third hour of a game five to six hour long game and we still haven’t reached the ghost ship. To paraphrase Jurassic Park’s Dr. Malcolm, “Ah, now eventually you do plan to have ghosts on your, on your ghost ship, right?”
It takes forever before our team of gorgeous young things to start getting the willies put up them and when that eventually happens they don’t react naturally. This a pre-Scream horror story, without the self awareness of the 1996 movie that went out its way to highlight all the stupid things people do in horror films. In one section Fliss is attacked by ghostly hands grasping at her from a puddle on the floor, then zombie sailors, then a zombie version of Brad, and then finds a sumptuous ball room which mysteriously isn’t a wreck like the rest of the ship. On the stage is a coffin full of blood from which another hand attacks her, after which she turns around to discover the ball room is indeed decayed and decrepit. She should be out of her mind with terror, but merely comments “This is too weird.” A few moments later when she meets up with Brad, she doesn’t mention the events at all. That just doesn’t work for me. If I had been attacked by zombie sailors, I’m pretty sure I would screaming “Get the hell outta here, there’s zombie sailors!” to my mates rather than having a casual chit-chat.
As in previous Supermassive games you can get premonitions of things to come by looking at pictures on the wall, but you may never get to those scenes as the plot is partially dictated by your actions. There also quick time events which come in two forms, the first being the standard ‘press a sequence of buttons’ type to successfully complete an action, whilst the second has you thumping the X button in time with your ever-increasing heart rate. These feature more frequently as the game goes on, and once you reach the final third of the game one mistimed button press can lead to the death of the character. That feels a bit cheap after spending hours making decisions and exploring the ship, only to have Brad be offed because you didn’t press X in time.
Man of Medan is definitely worth multiple playthroughs though, and I actually felt it’s a game that gets better the second time through. The ending is the same (unless everyone dies), but you can try to get there with more survivors, and explore more of the branching narrative that Supermassive have created along the way.
The dialogue choices you make can have a real impact, as scenes play out differently and characters change quite dramatically. I felt that my second story was far more enjoyable than the first and the dialogue flowed in a more natural manner. Taking a few risks also seems to make the game a lot more interesting than trying to play it safe to save everyone and also helps broaden the characters and make them a lot more likeable. Multiple playthroughs also give you hindsight to fill in the gaps in the story that occur on your first go.
Despite some of the annoyances there is clearly a good game here with some great performances and some Oscar-worthy sound design. My favourite part of the game is actually meeting The Curator, played by the fabulous Pip Torrens. He appears to be the Crypt Keeper of The Dark Pictures Anthology, with the game cutting to him in his study at various points where he critiques your progress and offers you a hint or two. His wry comments often raise a chuckle as he notes down your decisions in his book.
Man of Medan (and the rest of The Dark Pictures Anthology) features an interesting set of multiplayer features that tie into Supermassive’s new “Don’t Play Alone” slogan. Although you can obviously enjoy the game’s branching story and horror as a completely solo experience, there’s also the option to effectively share the story online with a friend or via matchmaking with a stranger. You exist in the same session though you’ll both be controlling different characters within the scene, seeing events unfold from their perspective and both contributing to the complex branching narrative.
Along with that, the game also has a five player pass-the-pad ‘movie night’ mode, and this is where the game really comes into its own. With five people each taking a different character, making their own decisions and, more importantly, having a laugh together at the jump scares, it’s a really fun night in front of the television. At just £25 the game is considerably cheaper than five tickets to the cinema, but the five to six hour play time is probably too long for one evening’s play.
The game does look stunning; it’s essentially one massive interactive cutscene and by limiting the camera angles, Supermassive have managed to make an incredibly gorgeous title. There are some great scenes with the camera being placed in odd locations such as under stairs or peering through a hole in a wall, creating the spooky feeling of being watched. Unfortunately the graphical fidelity comes with very occasional, but serious performance issues even on PS4 Pro. Frame rates can plummet, desyncing the audio from the visuals and juddering the screen, and the game has a very annoying habit of hitching for a noticeable few milliseconds when transitioning from one shot to another. Add in some badly timed, if quick, loading screens and the tension the game has built can get crushed by these technical hiccups and loading bars flowing across the screen.
The game concludes with a whimper rather than a bang, ending with no real finale. It just finishes rather abruptly, and with a twist that you should have worked out within the game’s opening prologue. It’s practically got a sign hanging above it with “Look at this, it explains everything!” flashing in neon yellow.