Supermassive Games broke into the interactive narrative scene quite explosively with Until Dawn, delivering this sprawling and rich choice-based story featuring some kids trapped in the woods with a rampaging killer. It was ambitious for its time, even though a lot of it was based on slasher horror tropes and clichés. However, its campiness was part of the charm and leading these unassuming teenagers to their early grave or salvation was compelling.
Their new venture, The Dark Pictures Anthology, aims to take what they did with Until Dawn and make bite-sized versions set in different wacky locales. The first entry, Man of Medan, sets us on a course for a ghost ship that some very unlucky vacation-goers get stuck on where a variety of spooks and scares are bound to happen. Choice is still a very important factor and each playthrough can vary wildly depending on which paths you take. With the pedigree of Until Dawn and an interesting premise, this one should be a knock out of the park, right? Well…
I’m on a boat!
Man of Medan follows a gaggle of rich and attractive twenty-somethings going on a diving adventure to an old World War 2 plane wreck out in the middle of the ocean. One thing leads to another and they all end up on a long-abandoned military ship that had a mysterious calamity strike the unsuspecting soldiers. Throughout this unplanned expedition into the heart of darkness, things start getting strange and you realise that sinister forces are afoot and things are not quite like they seem.
The story doesn’t score a lot of points for originality and you can pretty quickly suss out the mystery for yourself if you pay close enough attention. The ship is just a catalyst for some scares and a tense atmosphere and it serves that purpose rather nicely. However, I had an extremely big problem with our cabal of would-be heroes.
The spooky atmosphere is simply phenomenal.
Each member of your crew has their unique personality and as you go through the game, you’ll switch around each protagonist and make their choices and determine their actions. But these characters are just really unlikable. They follow a lot of the tropes of mid-2000s horror film characters which means they’re dumb, don’t have a lot of substance and their dialogue makes your eyes want to roll back so hard that you look at your brain for answers as to why these people are so insufferable.
It put a damper on my experience as the rest of the game, that we’ll get to soon, is truly compelling. But whenever these characters open their mouths, I just want to get up and run away from embarrassment. Some people might like that these characters are so campy since this was one of the strengths of Until Dawn, but for me, I just found them completely and utterly forgettable.
Since the game is so open-ended in terms of decisions, characters can die rather quickly if you mess things up enough. Some people did die on my playthrough and when they did, I felt absolutely nothing. They are so vapid that it didn’t feel like there were any stakes involved at all since I didn’t really care if they lived or died. There are ways in which you can make these campy characters work, but the game’s writing just made it impossible to care for these people.
Changing the course
Supermassive’s choice-driven narrative returns in full force in Man of Medan and each decision you make will wildly change the direction in which the game will go. Each interaction will have a butterfly effect, no matter how small, and you will develop relationships based on what you say to other characters. QTEs play a huge role once more and if you’re not quick on your buttons, people might die very prematurely.
While I’m not the biggest fan of QTEs, they made sense in this game and they were done well enough to be a compelling part of the experience rather than something annoying you have to go through. The UI is very well designed and stylised to the game’s aesthetic and it’s a fairly smooth gameplay experience throughout.
The choices are one of the game’s biggest hallmarks and each playthrough is a unique experience depending on what you decide to do. This makes for a lot of replayability as you’ll want to go through again to rectify your terrible decisions or to just sow chaos and have everyone die, which is definitely a possibility. It’s a good thing that the game is replayable since the experience only lasts for about 4 to 5 hours.
Ships and spooks
Man of Medan is an absolutely gorgeous game. The visuals are strikingly detailed and veer very close to photorealistic while the excellent cinematography gives it an immensely cinematic feel. Because of this, the spooky atmosphere is simply phenomenal. The ship takes a life of its own as you explore deeper into its terrifying belly and it’s a treat to just look around and admire the amazing detail and care put into every scene you go through.
The scares you experience are admittedly very cheap and also go in the direction of being cliché. Many times I fully anticipated when the game would scare me and that in itself is a crucial sin of horror. Some are really well implemented and make sense while others are just something going boo and running away while a piano falls on the floor.
The game ends extremely abruptly and you’re left stranded with a reluctant feeling of disappointment.
Many exciting setpieces also litter the ship which makes for an action-packed trek through terror. This is where the game has its most redeeming qualities as it’s just so exciting to be walking around, looking at old documents and having your hair stand on end as the music swells and the cinematography shines.
I also need to mention that the game does have some very interesting multiplayer mechanics and it’s definitely a game designed to be played with a bunch of people and popcorn, but unfortunately, I didn’t get the chance to play with others and just did a solo playthrough. One multiplayer mode allows you and a friend to take control of different characters in the same scene with each of you having vastly different perspectives on what is unfolding and each person makes their own decisions that will affect that other player. But yet again, I sadly couldn’t experience that for myself. However, this doesn’t change the problems I had with the core of the game.
The result of all of Man of Medan’s moving pieces is best described as conflicting. The palpable atmosphere and beautiful scenery make for an exciting and compelling voyage, but once the characters start being total unlikable idiots and open their mouths, the game maroons me on an island of frustrations. Deciding the fates of your characters is as well done as ever and it’s impressive how the game can keep so many moving parts going at one time, but the game ends extremely abruptly and you’re left stranded with a reluctant feeling of disappointment.
It’s a good debut for the anthology series, but several missteps made Man of Medan tragically flawed and its beautiful atmosphere was barely enough to save it from complete mediocrity. While I would definitely recommend it for some thrills and just the sheer beauty of it, I can’t guarantee that you won’t get a little seasick at one point.