If you were following us a couple of years ago then you may be aware that I thoroughly enjoyed Until Dawn and that I don’t do well with horror games but I think the fact it was more of a teen horror movie made it a little easier to handle. So when Supermassive Games and Bandai Namco announced The Dark Pictures Anthology, a series of cinematic decision heavy horror games, I was pretty delighted. So Man of Medan, the first in their series is here and I’m here to tell you about my first playthrough experience.
For those of you who have not yet played Until Dawn and may not be familiar with the game style, these titles are mixture of decision driven or branching narrative mechanics which have an impact on events later in the game and Quick Time Events (QTEs) in a cinematic horror experience. With some pretty good motion capture as a bonus, it gives it more of a make your own horror movie style game. This type of game also offers the replay factor for trophy and achievement hunters.
Man of Medan features a group of 5 people on a diving excursion whose vessel is boarded while in the middle of the ocean by unpleasant folk during a storm. Suddenly an old World War 2 ship appears and the friends are forced to climb aboard where all manner of unpleasantness begins. The game is loosely based on the real-life story of OSS Ourang Medan which had its own mysterious story following the unknown circumstances surrounding the loss of its crew. As the outcomes and scenes change depending on the choices you make, I am only able to comment on what I experienced during my solo playthrough and will try to keep spoilers to a minimum.
There is an introduction to the events that transpired on the ship before we meet the 5 unfortunate souls which gives you the basics of the controls for QTEs and decisions so you do get a little bit of an idea of the horror that you are going to face during the game. The introduction not only was useful for the purpose of getting you used to the controls but as a set up for the story, it gets you stuck in straight away rather than just dragging out the narrative.
After the Prologue we meet Alex and Brad, the brothers who have their different personalities but you can tell that they would look out for each other. Julia and Conrad appear, the rich kids who are brother and sister and Julia is dating Alex. The final character is Fliss, the captain of our small ill-fated vessel, The Duke of Milan, and while not a friend of the group as such, depending on your choices she might just feel included. Each character has different traits which give you an idea of the type of person they are and under the circumstances of the game, you may unlock new traits. There is also a relationship menu for each person showing you who is on your good or bad side depending on how you react and speak to other characters. Depending on how you want to play, you could try and get everyone to dislike each other or try and keep those friendships alive, either way it’s likely to impact the outcomes. You will play as all 5 characters throughout the game giving you an opportunity to find secrets, paintings that give premonitions of possible future events and explore. Fortunately, this swapping between characters works relatively well if you are looking to play through in one sitting however it can get a little confusing if you take a break for a day or two and come back part way through an intense situation.
As mentioned before, your decisions have an impact on the story and change the ‘bearing’ which you will see pop up occasionally when something happens. Your decisions are either head or heart based which I actually didn’t notice until later on in the game (I will also note there are achievements for only picking heart or head for the whole story) and even though there are images behind the choices, I was possibly too busy reading to realise. Initially some of these choices seem trivial in conversations but of course, relationships and traits also change and you don’t know how this will affect the story you are telling. You will meet The Curator at a couple of points during the game who will tell you how you’re doing and offer potential spoilers but I noticed him in the background a couple of times too when a character was possibly at their life or death scenario, while he doesn’t actively get involved he does have a way of making you feel concerned about your choices. The Curator was also the one who told me that one of my characters had died… which was a little alarming because I have no idea how that character died. They were fine when I left them to play another character and suddenly they were dead. While it was useful to have him make me feel guilty for this, I feel that the game cheated me a little by taking away an opportunity to save a character. I’m hoping this was just a glitch or a bug that caused Fliss to suddenly cease living but I will be interested to see if it were to happen again.
The overall story tries to move into the more serious teen horror style narrative moving away from simply running away from a crazed killer with a weapon and adds in a ghost ship with various possibilities for death. I won’t spoil the story for you but there are a couple of plot holes along the way that make it feel a little thin… for example, the ship just appears and I’m pretty sure when you play, you will agree that someone would have come across it at some point and as of yet, I haven’t found evidence that other ill fated parties had been aboard. Also, Fliss spends the game in bare feet and there’s no way you would be walking around a rust bucket of this kind without shoes… she would certainly have tetanus and would be unwell in a corner somewhere for the entire game. I know the game isn’t meant to be realistic, but it’s the little things that distract me from the horror around me at times and we all know that when we watch a horror movie we always shout at people for doing stupid things that will definitely get them killed so in a way, it makes sense but it still irritated me.
Narratively, the game didn’t wow me but I think that was due to worrying about jump scares all of the time I was playing as you couldn’t even peek through a vent without something appearing in front of you. There were some occasions when I knew something was going to jump out at me so I just took the option of not looking at the screen for a moment until the image and familiar ‘jump scare music’ faded. Don’t get me wrong, I actually appreciated some of the more subtle moments where things would just appear which genuinely added to the tension and made you worry about when it would next appear but once you know the reason why (if you don’t work it out quite early on), it lessens the tension a little and it’s just time to focus on those QTEs. Some of the jump scare tricks are a little repetitive but as I found with Until Dawn, once you have played through it any subsequent replays are just for kicks and achievements as you’ll know what’s coming most of the time.
While I guess I did enjoy the game for what it was, a 4-5 hour ghost ship experience, I found that I didn’t really care about the characters all that much other then trying to keep them alive for a trophy. I was only annoyed that Fliss died because I didn’t know how and when I failed my QTEs and killed Conrad I was just irritated that I had messed up. Similarly to Until Dawn, the teen characters don’t really do it for me as they’re always quite unlikable which in some ways makes it fun when you know that you could deliberately mess things up to see to their demise. It’s awful to say but if you are an achievement hunter, you’ll have to kill certain people off to get those trophies. This isn’t a game to get emotionally invested and I definitely was more interested in the unpleasant men who boarded The Duke of Milan and caused the ruckus that started this all off.
What I do want to test out though is the multiplayer options. The Movie Night option offer couch co-op suited to a group who fancy turning the lights off and treating it like a play along movie while taking control of a character or two each while playing through the main story. This sounds like a fun thing to do after a drink or two and encourages the ‘Don’t Play Alone’ tagline that follows the game. What does sound great though is the online play mode called Shared Story in which you and a friend will play different scenes simultaneously. Some scenes are extended and offer different choices to that of the solo playthrough but you can choose to share (or not share) what you have decided to do in order to steer the story a certain way. This sounds most excellent and has received positive feedback from many sources that I have come across and I look forward to trying it out with a friend as soon as they have the game.
Graphically the game does look really good most of the time. The ship is incredibly detailed which makes the game a little more immersive and the character models also look good. I played on a standard PS4 and found occasionally that the graphics would suddenly go a little grainy but return to normal after a few moments. The motion capture worked well although teeth and eyes are always the thing that I find are a little over exaggerated in these games so it did make me cringe at times when Julia would smile. The audio is your typical horror style soundtrack and soundscape with clangs and bumps happening consistently enough for it to become a little repetitive but it’s all part of setting the mood. The opening title song called A Conversation With Death by Khemmis was very enjoyable to get you in the mood for a night of trying to avoid killing off all of the characters straight away.
Overall, Man of Medan doesn’t reach quite reach the standard of Until Dawn, with a slightly stronger narrative or less focus on the jump scares, it may well have reached it. Having said that, I think once I have played the Shared Story I may feel that it gets a little closer as it is a great way to mix up the way you play the game. As an opening title in the Anthology, it does make me hope that the next title, actually called ‘Little Hope’ and due for release in 2020, will focus a little more on creating that horror atmosphere and move away from the ‘teen’ style horror that Man of Medan couldn’t quite shake off. I will look to replay Man of Medan to try and get some different outcomes and as it is a relatively short game, it does offer that replay factor but I won’t be in it for the story as such, more just seeing if I can figure out how to get everyone out or get everyone killed! Man of Medan is available now on PS4, Xbox One and PC for £24.99.