Release Date: August 30, 2019Platform: PS4 (reviewed), XBO, PCDeveloper: Supermassive GamesPublisher: Bandai NamcoGenre: Interactive Horror Game
The latest release from Supermassive Games, the makers of the horror favorite Until Dawn, is an intriguing offering called The Dark Pictures: Man of Medan. It’s a horror game set at sea, which allows the player to control various characters that get caught up in a creepy incident on a ghost ship. It’s a decision-based, choose-your-own-adventure game that will make you think of Telltale, but with a few great tricks up its sleeve.
Although the game has an attention-grabbing premise and some snazzy visuals, those aren’t the most interesting things about Man of Medan. The game is envisioned as the first in an anthology series, for one thing, which makes you imagine heaps of future titles that could use the same tricks and gimmicks. And for another thing, you can experience this adventure in multiple dways: there’s a traditional solo mode, an online two-player co-op mode, and a 2-to-5-player “Movie Night” mode that utilizes pass-the-controller-style couch co-op.
Whichever way you choose to play, the game will plague you with tough decisions and encourage you to explore environments and try to keep your characters alive. The game kicks off with a prologue in the World War II era, before jumping forward to the present to focus on a group of five youngsters who set off to investigate a sunken wreck. Playing through both sides of the story, and working out how they connect, is a mostly-satisfying way to spend some time.
The main campaign takes around six hours to play, but the beauty of this game is how much it makes you want to play it through again and try different things. This sense of replayability is heightened by a perma-death mechanic, which means that making the wrong conversation choice or failing to complete a quick time event can consign your favorite character to a watery grave.
However, although it’s nice to see such serious consequences in a horror game, the actual gameplay experience here doesn’t feel fully refined. The flow is a bit off, with quick time events popping up very suddenly and giving you only a couple of seconds to get them right. This becomes frustrating rather than scary, with characters dying before you’ve had time to fully comprehend what you’re meant to be doing. You might find yourself adjusting the accessibility settings, which gives the quick time events a bit more leniency, if you do come back for a second playthrough.
Another way to work around the very harsh quick time events and the perma-death they cause is by making the most of the “scene selection” mechanic. Much like what you’d find on a DVD, the main menu of Man of Medan allows you to go back and replay scenes you’ve already completed. (Side note: you’ll also find some insightful featurettes on the menu, including some unlockable ones, which adds to the sense that Man of Medan wants to be thought of as a cinema-standard interactive horror experience.)
You can overwrite your previous save or start a new one if you do want to try a scene again, which is a bit fiddly and time-consuming, but it can be a serious help. Doing this does make the pacing feel a bit odd, though, as does the waiting-for-other-people-to-make-decisions mechanic that you’ll experience in the Shared Story co-op mode. And you can sometimes see the seams and stitches in this branching narrative, especially when you reach a point where your earlier decisions result in different conversations being edited together.
The game feels a bit jumbled at points, but what it lacks in pacing, Man of Medan more than makes up for in terms of atmospheric scene-setting and genuinely scary moments. Environments are framed from weird angles, which gives the whole experience an unsettling vibe, and there are jumpy moments and visual scares peppered liberally throughout. We don’t want to get into plot specifics, but the things you witness here will stick in your mind, and the sense of dread will remain with you long after the credits have rolled. And the depth of the narrative is impressive, as well, making you want to go back and collect more of the lore-explaining scraps.
There are also likeable characters and strong performances across the board, with Shawn Ashmore’s cocky turn as Conrad and Chris Sandiford’s nerdy nervousness as Brad as particular standouts. Pip Torrens also brings some serious charisma to his role as The Curator – a British bookworm who acts as something of a narrator/explainer – even if his cutscenes do take you out of the action and contribute to that disjointed pacing. Despite this, we hope to learn more about The Curator in future installments in The Dark Pictures Anthology.
We would certainly return to this fledgeling franchise. The watery horror of this game made a really strong impression (a splash, you could say) despite the teething problems with the gameplay. Walking through the creepy environments, trying to build relationships between characters, struggling to keep everyone alive, steeling yourself for the scary bits and trying to master the quick time events is an altogether enjoyable experience. With a bit of refinement, this formula could deliver worthwhile scares for years to come.
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