I’ll let you on a little secret of mine. The PlayStation 4 has seen a fair share of critically acclaimed multiple GOTY winners, such as Uncharted 4, Horizon Zero Dawn and God of War, but none of them is my favorite Sony exclusive. It’s Supermassive Games’ interactive horror adventure Until Dawn that remains the best thing I can play only on my PS4. Rendered like a teen slasher movie, it had doses of self-irony, jump scares, and goofy plans of action that would make you dead in the real-life. A couple of miscellaneous and mostly forgettable PSVR and PlayLink titles later, Supermassive Games turned multi-platform and is back doing what they know best; a movie-like interactive horror adventure. Gone are camp and laughs, though, as Man of Medan, the first title in a planned The Dark Pictures Anthology, is a more serious take on horror.
The game is based on a legend of 1940s Dutch freighter SS Ourang Medan (translated into English as titular Man of Medan) which was discovered adrift after an obscure distress message. The crew of the ship were all found dead with no visible injuries. However, the frozen expressions of corpses hinted at something more sinister. It’s like they had dropped dead out of pure, unexplained fright. Before Ourang Medan could be examined further, it suddenly exploded and the secret of its demise sank along with it. Now, it’s under debate whether Ourang Medan even existed in the first place because no official records of the ship, its construction, its voyages or even the attempted rescue operation have been found. But if it was a real history, what terrible fate befell it? There have been various theories; weaponized hallucinogens in the cargo hold getting loose, a carbon monoxide poisoning the crew or perhaps a paranormal phenomenon, like aliens attacking the ship or vengeful spirits scaring everyone dead. Anyway, it’s a great stuff for ghost stories and you get to the experience the fall of Ourang Medan firsthand in a chilling prologue of the game.
Man of Medan hints at all major theories but sticks with one of them, as friends gathered for a deep diving adventure will eventually find out. Wealthy siblings, Conrad, a carefree rascal and his plucky sister Julia, come to meet brothers Alex, who is Julia’s fiancé, and nerdy Brad who secretly suffers from not being as cool as his big brother. The party of five is complemented by a feisty and uptight Fliss, the captain of Duke of Milan they have hired to take them to a previously undiscovered wreck of a WWII-era plane lying beneath the seas. On-deck partying and frolics turn into fight for survival when pirates board the ship. And not any peg-legged comic reliefs scented with rum and rugged parrots sitting on their shoulders but ruthless cutthroats of modern seas. Of course, the game wouldn’t be called Man of Medan if the heroes, heroines and their captors alike wouldn’t get marooned at the wreck of Ourang Medan, eerily anchored in the middle of nowhere.
If you didn’t like Until Dawn, you wouldn’t like Man of Medan either, because their gameplay is almost 100% identical. You wander about in the surroundings and pick up clues to patch together some meaning to the ordeal the group is living through. Totems of Until Dawn, which foretold often deadly promotions, are replaced with paintings that work in the similar manner. There’s a lot of narrative, punctuated by dialogue choices and decisions to make. Repercussions aren’t always immediate but can come into play much later so be careful what you choose. Not easy in panic situations when decisions have to be made hastily. There are less quick-time events than in Until Dawn and that’s why they occur suddenly, keeping players in their toes. You really don’t want to scratch your nose at the wrong time!
And so, the party of five will become less and less if you make bad decisions, choose wrong courses of action or fumble Quick Time Events. Idealistically, all five can escape but that’s easier said than done as occasions where the characters can die are plenty – and unexpected, too. In-between chapters, a mysterious Curator will keep a record of the story as it unfolds, giving feedback of your performance and even hints if you are up to for some mild spoilers (I didn’t, though, because I wanted to trust my own instincts).
It’s perfectly acceptable that it’s down to your actions whether characters will survive or not. However, it’s not cool when it’s up to performance issues in the most inappropriate times. At least basic PS4 version suffers from occasional frame rate issues and slight freezes, and in a game like this, even a slight is long. Near the very end during my first go at the game, a serious stutter hampered critical button presses and ended up in a freeze. When the play abruptly resumed, there was no way I could react to the next prompt anymore and it broke my heart when fair Julia was crushed under the weight of a cargo door. For the consecutive playthroughs, I went to the accessibility options and gladly disabled timeout from quick-time presses and opted to hold button instead of mashing it. After completing the story, a scene selection is unlocked where you can pick up from any scene of the game and continue from there to fix unwanted events.
It’s pretty remarkable how much the narrative branches by your choices and by who lives and who doesn’t (for example, the cargo door scene never happened in my next playthroughs - thankfully!). The game also nicely stands in for fallen cast members so much so you wouldn’t guess there are some scenes missing. It works the other way around, too, as there’s a lot to do for those who could have died early on (experience speaking here!). Man of Medan is considerably shorter than Until Dawn so characters can drop out surprisingly early and pretty densely, too. To make up for its limited running time, the game is dramaturgically tight. It’s disciplined and doesn’t needlessly drag on.
An interactive movie works exceptionally well in the horror genre as your own decisions and actions will influence the fate of the cast. You don’t need to helplessly swear when the pretty blonde you fancied is needlessly killed or scream for no avail to command dumb characters not to do that or go there. I put this thesis to a test by watching a cheesy horror movie with a bit similar premise, Ghost Ship (2002), I happened to pick up a few weeks ago from a jumble sale. Sure enough, playing a horror story is much more intense and immersive than watching it. It’s further enhanced by the fact that actions the characters make in Man of Medan are credible in given situations and not some superhero stunts. These are common people like you, flawed and thus likable and easy to relate to. They just happen to end up in a shitty situation.
Man of Medan has an exciting – and pretty simple – multiplayer concept for a mutual experience. As of pre-release, I didn’t get to play a two-player online variation where its participants share the same story. An offline multiplayer up to five players is just like how games were played among friends in the past – by passing the controller! Characters are assigned to the players who then take turns playing them. It doesn’t change the game in any fashion but more like works in a way of shared horror being less terrifying (or worst case, quite the contrary when all scream together!). After each chapter, the players’ performances are playfully evaluated, like if they have preferred romantic traits (the characters’ emotional state that fluctuates by their actions) or perhaps showed more analytical approach.
To complete the movie-like experience, the game has to look good and Man of Medan certainly does so. Framed completely in a 2.35:1 widescreen aspect ratio, well-thought compositions, meticulously crafted sets, dynamic lighting and really deep shadows and blacks lend the game an intense cinematic nature. In exploration parts, the camera is always positioned in the right place to give an uncanny feeling walking through a movie you can actually control. Character models are fashioned after their actors and look convincing enough, save few odd expressions and movement. I hope that the trend of using real-life faces for game characters continues and is developed even further as that will always give better results than patching together ill-fitting features and preposterously calling those beady-eyed, wrinkled and stiff made-up mugs photorealistic. This year, Resident Evil 2 Remake, Devil May Cry 5, Mortal Kombat 11 and now Man of Medan are best examples of how the game experience is enhanced by transferring faces as they are to make game characters more natural and relatable. Shawn Ashmore who plays Conrad (and whose digitized self was already featured a few years ago in Remedy’s Quantum Break) is the biggest star of the cast alongside British TV-veteran Pip Torrens as the Curator. Other actors’ resumes include small roles here and there, but they all look the part and give solid performances. Jason Graves’s score supports the atmosphere by playing the right horror notes but never comes in the way.
Nowadays it’s often thought that the bigger the game is and the more it allows you to do, the better it is. I think that a game that does its own thing within a limited framing is not any less accomplished. It’s a good thing that Supermassive Games has stuck with its own comfort zone and hasn’t branched out in uncharted directions. Like in Until Dawn, the gameplay and the story beats become one without either being emphasized over the other. Supermassive Games wants to scare you and Man of Medan surely succeeds in it, too. Anticipations play a big part in the horror the game presents, both concretely and at the meta level. The characters see and hear things that simply can’t exist and that’s the trick Man of Medan plays around. Some of the views and scares are really not for faint of heart.
For a title of 30 dollars asking price, Man of Medan is not something you could call a long game, a few hours’ worth of entertainment at the first go. However, the replay value is immense because of the wildly branching narrative. After all, you want to do your utmost to make everyone survive – or perhaps go psycho and try to kill them all off! Whatever you fancy, it adds hours and hours of replayed scenes to the experience. Supermassive Games has found a magic formula to make interactive fiction work. High production values, carefully measured gameplay, an ordinary, relatable cast and a well-founded mystery amount to an exciting movie night you get to play yourself. Man of Medan kicks off The Dark Pictures Anthology so elegantly and chillingly that you just can't get enough of that lovie-dovie stuff.
Video game nerd & artist. I've been playing computer and video games since the early 80's so I dare say I have some perspective to them. When I'm not playing, I'm usually at my art board.