How do you follow up one critically-acclaimed horror game with another? For Supermassive Games, going bigger and bolder with Man of Medan, the first entry in their Dark Pictures Anthology, was the answer. It’s strange to say that Man of Medan is bigger than Until Dawn — the latter was a longer game after all — and it isn’t without problems, but Man of Medan offers an improved interactive horror tale with some excellent additions to the formula.
Building on Success
Man of Medan puts you in charge of five individuals who, after stumbling upon a ghost ship during a diving trip in the South Pacific, fight to escape a terrifying supernatural force inadvertently unleashed decades earlier. Aside from a new cast, location, and intriguing plot, Man of Medan plays the exact same way that Until Dawn did. You progress down linear paths, navigate Quick Time Events during major action sequences, and unearth secrets and collectables that either offer hints about how to survive or expand on the game’s story.
Graphically, Man of Medan is far superior to its predecessor. The advances in technology over the past four years — especially from a mo-cap perspective — mean that facial animations have never looked so good. The reactions, mouth movements, and general gameplay motions look and feel much better. There is still a certain clunkiness to navigating particular spaces, such as getting stuck in doorways, but it’s a minor issue in the grand scheme of things.
Man of Medan feels more cinematic as well. The camera placements help to up the tension when you move down certain corridors, while the decaying, rust-covered environments lend themselves to the creepy, ghostly feel of the ship. The in-game lighting is particularly impressive, and areas that are shrouded in shadow offer a sense of foreboding that helps to add to the fear factor as you press on in your efforts to escape. They help with the jump scares and, certainly during your first playthrough, will give you a fright.
The dialogue options are back too alongside the “butterfly effect” branching narrative that Until Dawn used to great success. There are more of them to choose from in Man of Medan, and increasing the amount of decisions means that each Solo Mode playthrough can be vastly different. You aren’t completely alone in Solo Mode, however, with the omnipresent Curator appearing at junctions to offer you hints over how to proceed. You’re not obligated to accept his help, and declining to do so actually makes it more fun and frustrating when you inevitably mess up.
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Going it alone is fun, but it’s in its multiplayer modes where Man of Medan really shines. Shared Story Mode, in particular, is unique in how it plays. The two-player online mode gives each player a different character to control — in separate or the same sequences — and, as a result of the choices each of you makes, can lead to lively debates. One player’s decision can inadvertently lead to the death of another player’s character and set up humorous grudges that take effect further into the game. It adds an intriguing layer of subtext to a co-op mode and means that you may think twice about how you’ll impact your partner, or each character, before you act.
The replayability factor is big enough in Solo Mode, but it’s even more prominent in Shared Story Mode. Playing through sequences you wouldn’t ordinarily see, and making choices that affect your progression, enables you to play Shared Story over and over again with different partners and end up with different playthroughs each time.
There was the odd occasion where I was left waiting on my co-op partner to make their choice to move the story along, but this was to be expected. Playing online can lead to a very slight delay as the game’s servers register what decisions have been made. Unfortunately, this is the least of Man of Medan’s issues.
Out with the Fun, in with the Frustration
Man of Medan isn’t without its problems. A game with so many branching elements is never going to blend together perfectly, but it was frustrating when certain parts of the jigsaw just didn’t fit.
One such example saw one of my group die and, as expected, another character was inconsolable in the scene immediately afterwards. But as the story progressed, the mourning character made no mention of this traumatic and devastating development again and seemed unaffected by it by the game’s end. It made the incident feel inconsequential and dampened the blow of losing this character so early in that playthrough.
Speaking of losing characters, it was difficult to know when someone had actually died. During another playthrough, I presumed one character had bitten the dust as I hadn’t checked in with them for a while. Almost two hours after my last interaction with them, however, I was surprised to find them alive. A brief sequence allowed me to control them again before the inevitable character switching mechanic kicked in. It wasn’t until much later in the game, though, that it was revealed that this character had now, in fact, died despite being in no danger when I left them. It wasn’t until the Curator confirmed this that I knew for sure. Man of Medan prides itself on its “anyone can live or die” element, but there needs to be a better indication of when you’ve screwed up and lost someone instead of finding out hours down the line.
The game’s branching mechanic didn’t bode well for the smoothness of certain scenes either. There was considerable lag and stuttering during different playthroughs that resulted in the audio and visuals being out of sync. It pulled me out of events on a couple of occasions, and for a game that needs you to stay focused to give you the best cinematic experience, was extremely frustrating.
Man with a Plan
Man of Medan gets The Dark Pictures Anthology off to a solid start. It builds on the best of Until Dawn and is a unique multiplayer horror experience. It’s a title you can get your non-gaming friends and family into and its accessibility — in terms of easy control mechanics and cinematic feel — help in this regard. Its issues do let it down though. It’s admirable that Supermassive Games gives players so much choice with its branching gameplay, but the sheer scope of the game leads to narrative and logistical problems that sometimes make for a less enjoyable experience.