E3 2019: Man of Medan Is More of Exactly What I Wanted

Lessons learned from Until Dawn shine brightest in this dark tale.

The Dark Pictures isn’t just a game. It’s a planned anthology series, with each installment focusing on a different horror sub-genre. The first installment, Man of Medan, is also an obvious follow-up to Until Dawn: Supermassive Games’ surprising horror hit from 2015. That’s the sense I got during my E3 2019 preview of the game. Both are third-person adventure games with dark and supernatural twists. Besides the setting, my Man of Medan preview felt like a whole lot more of the same. And that’s a very good thing!

Until Dawn put you in the shoes of a group of shitty 20-somethings alone in a cabin for one night. You moved them around, pulled off quick-time events, and occasionally made life-or-death decisions. Man of Medan features nearly all of that, too. Although the game itself is set on the high seas, and focused on the titular ghost ship that is apparently full of “Manchurian gold.”

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Dialogue choices are simple — like picking between being optimistic or concerned — but feel like they could have a meaningful impact. In fact, since this is another Supermassive Games project, I’m confident they will. That’s because Until Dawn worked best as a standalone story. VR prequels and spin-offs didn’t interfere with that game’s bonkers consequences. Literally every character in the plot could live or die, wildly changing each individual players’ choices. Since The Dark Pictures is an anthology, and Man of Medan won’t necessarily tie into future installments, there’s plenty of room for things to get buck wild.

My demo started with the aforementioned 20-somethings under attack. They had apparently pissed off some fishermen earlier in the game. Although the trio that invaded our boat seemed more like pirates than anything. They hoped to hold the young doofs for ransom: that is until the pirates learned about that Manchurian gold.

What followed was basically a series of quick-time events and 50/50 choices. Until Dawn had a number of brief scenes where you controlled your character directly. I didn’t see any such sections in Man of Medan, though. And that seems smart. By jumping from one hair-raising choice, or last-second QTE to the next, Man of Medan kept its pace fraught more than it could if I was allowed to futz around. Maybe future scenes — ones where you’re meant to take a break between the action — will offer more control. As I clung to the side of a tipping boat, though, just barely managing to keep the demo’s sea captain character aboard, I actually appreciated the restraints.

Man of Medan Preview E3 2019

Trading Faces, Changing Places – Man of Medan Preview E3 2019

I did not appreciate the facial animations nearly as much. Don’t get me wrong! Man of Medan looks great: moody and briny, with photorealistic faces. It’s just that that same photorealism also leads to some seriously uncanny valleys. Characters’ expressions never really reach their eyes. So even as their mouths move with tons of energy and emotion, the stiff upper halves of their faces look stone cold creepy. It’s less noticeable when the camera sways and cuts with the action, but sticks right back out during quieter scenes, where the camera is tight and steady on a grad student’s face.

Speaking of faces, one of my playable characters got messed the hell up during the preview. It turns out that talking back to pirates isn’t good for your complexion. The offending sea dog took a knife and cut off part of my dude’s ear as recompense.

But even early on, the changes seem more dramatic than that. After being captured, the cast concocted a plan to get my inadvisably brave hero onto a speedboat — in order to search for help. I took a… circuitous path to my objective. Instead of just making a run for it, I decided to grab one of the captors and hold them at knifepoint. The protagonist’s girlfriend understandably shouted “What are you doing, you idiot?” Sure enough, a Mexican standoff ensued. And we were quite literally outgunned.

Man of Medan Preview E3 2019

Consequences Will Not Be Damned – Man of Medan Preview E3 2019

So I stowed the courageous act, pushed my kidnapped kidnapper into his buddy, and leapt for the speedboat. A couple of successful QTEs kept me from getting shot on the open water; the “hero” escaped. That’s when — in a very Until Dawn fashion — I took control of a different character instead. As the sea captain, I played things a bit safer, and told a friend who radioed in to check on us that everything was fine. It wasn’t, of course, but the pirates were happy with my response.

Maybe that’s why the leader of our captors helped me when I missed a very important quick-time event. A rogue wave nearly splashed my captain out of the boat. I held on… at first. But I didn’t expect a second QTE to push me out even further. Naturally, I missed it, and figured my character was doomed. That’s kind of how these games work, after all! But instead the lead pirate grabbed hold of me at the last second.

“Everything is better when we work together,” he said. I’m not sure I believed him, but it did make me think that I would be toast if I hadn’t cooperated earlier. And that kind of branching narrative is what makes Man of Medan so potentially impressive. It made Until Dawn impressive, too. I’m extremely excited to see just how impressive it is this time around when The Dark Pictures: Man of Medan releases on Aug. 30, 2019.

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Steven Strom

An obsessive writer broadcasting to you live from the middle of nowhere. Thinks cute things are good, actually.

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