Back in 2015, Supermassive Games released Until Dawn, a horror game that let players live out their fantasies of being caught in a teenage slasher film. Until Dawn was breezy, charming and clever, combining a campy setup with some well-earned scares. The game didn't really need a sequel (it had two disappointing spinoffs), but the formula was too good to waste. Enter The Dark Pictures Anthology.
This anthology series aims to do for horror games what The Twilight Zone did for horror TV or what Tales from the Crypt did for horror comics. Each entry in the series will explore a totally different story, theme and cast of characters. And based on the anthology's first entry, Man of Medan ($30; PC, PS4, Xbox One), the series looks like it'll be very much in line with the anthologies that inspired it.
Which is to say, it'll probably have some soaring highs, some staggering lows and a lot of middle-of-the-road filler that most people just forget. Man of Medan is decidedly in the third category. It's janky and buggy and it doesn't have much of a payoff. But it also has well-rounded characters, plenty of opportunities to shape the story and a few gameplay challenges that really play with your perceptions.
Man of Medan isn't a must-buy, for either horror aficionados or adventure fans. But it's a pleasant enough way to while away a lazy Saturday, and it demonstrates that the Dark Pictures Anthology has potential, at least.
In Man of Medan, you'll step into the shoes of four friends and one boat captain who discover a wrecked WWII-era plane and decide to dive to the wreck. From there, they explore a ghost ship carrying a deadly cargo, all while evading a group of opportunistic pirates who want to ransom them. Naturally, once everyone's aboard the ghost ship, things get supernaturally creepy — and finding out why is the game's central mystery.
Right from the title screen, Man of Medan is not shy about its cinematic aspirations. Playing by yourself is a secondary option. Instead, the game encourages you to team up with another player online or up to four other players locally. (In local play, you pass the controller from player to player for different sequences, which is a pretty clever conceit.) Like a good horror movie, Man of Medan is best experienced with company.
But assuming you do play alone (as I did, since I had an early review copy of the game), you'll feel right at home if you played Until Dawn. While you'll never want to put the controller down for too long, there isn't a ton of traditional gameplay in Man of Medan. You can walk (very, very slowly) around various environments, pick up and investigate objects, hunt down optional collectibles, and occasionally get "premonitions" of what's about to happen next by examining nautical oil paintings.
The game gets considerably more interesting during interactive cutscenes, where dialogue and decisions are the driving forces. You'll play as five different characters during the course of the game, each of whom has a changeable disposition and relationship with other characters. Your dialogue choices affect how the characters get along, as well as how they view each other. You can't redo dialogue selections, and you have only a short time to choose a response, which makes it feel like your words have an impact. You'll occasionally make big plot decisions the same way, such as when choosing whether to sneak past a gang of villains or get the jump on them from behind.
Then there are the "action" bits, for lack of a better term. During heated scenes, like chases and fistfights, you'll have to hit buttons precisely in quick-time events — which are fairly unforgiving. One missed prompt during my playthrough killed off a character completely, and in Man of Medan, there are no do-overs. There are also sections where you'll occasionally have to line up a crosshair with a target before throwing a punch or using a weapon, which feels suitably intense.
Dialogue and decisions
In spite of experiencing a few intense action sequences, I actually found the dialogue and decision points to be the more interesting half of gameplay. You never know exactly how your response will affect your relationship with another character or how making a big decision will move the story forward. As a small example, I felt elated when I decided to carry a nice, heavy wrench to swing at bad guys, but the character in question wound up being much more of a threat to his own teammates. The "smart" decision is rarely as straightforward as it may appear.
This is partially because the "exploration" half of gameplay simply doesn't feel that good. Characters walk painfully slowly, and holding down a "walk faster" button does very little to improve their pace. There are a ton of scattered collectibles to find, some of which flesh out the story and some of which can actually improve your survival odds. But the game does nothing to differentiate "optional path" from "path that advances the story immediately and blocks off all previous areas."
Man of Medan definitely wants you to play through the game more than once to find everything, but most of the game takes place in the tight confines of a rusty old freighter. It's really, really hard to find certain things, and the absence of an adjustable camera makes the task even more difficult. Even just walking around is more difficult than it has to be, due to controller inputs that don't always register and the characters' odd tendency to make a complete circle before taking their first steps forward in a new corridor.
But every once in a while, Man of Medan does something absolutely brilliant with the simple mechanics it's built up. Without spoiling anything, one climactic encounter toward the end of the game requires you to make a split-second decision, but I didn't feel that either choice was correct. I decided that doing nothing might be the correct approach — and my decision bore fruit. I won't say whether it was the right or wrong choice, but I was impressed that the developers predicted my chain of logic and let me run with it.
Two sets of siblings travel to French Polynesia in the hopes of finding a lost bomber plane, then diving the wreck. Brothers Brad and Alex meet up with Julia (Alex's girlfriend) and her brother Conrad, all under the watchful eye of Fliss, the captain of their chartered ship, the Duke of Milan. The dive leads them to an abandoned WWII-era freighter — and a deadly secret that haunts the ship, perhaps literally. All the while, they're pursued by cutthroat fishermen, eager to earn a quick buck off of the wealthy tourists.
The story in Man of Medan is pretty good, even though it falls back on well-worn horror tropes. Disgruntled locals, eerie ships, walking corpses and dark, tight spaces are all pretty familiar territory. If you can think of a familiar trope, it's probably somewhere in the game, from "pull back the curtain for something scary" to "the bad guys are chasing us, but I think we're running in circles."
Still, the characters are entertaining to follow, and none of them feels one dimensional. The nerdy Brad learns to stand up for himself and lead an important mission; party boy Conrad takes a stand and risks his life to save his friends; the suspicious, no-nonsense Fliss demonstrates that she can be level-headed and even compassionate under stress. That you get a chance to shape your characters' personalities through dialogue helps you feel more attached to them, too.
My only big complaint here is that one scene about two-thirds of the way through the game drops a huge clue about the big reveal. If you're at all familiar with the horror genre, or some adjacent pulp fiction genres, you'll probably figure out what's going on right away. But the characters don't figure it out until about half an hour or so later, whereupon they exposit the scenario in excruciating detail. It's disappointing that Man of Medan doesn't give players a chance to exercise their genre savvy, seeing as so much of the game is based on choice and consequence.
Graphics and sound
The visuals in Man of Medan are pretty good, with lifelike character models and detailed environments to explore. Shawn Ashmore (X-Men) plays Conrad, while Pip Torrens (The Crown) plays a character called The Curator, a sort of upscale British host, who acts like the Rod Serling or Crypt Keeper for the whole proceedings. They do a lot to elevate the script, which is decent, but a little on the repetitive side. (Expect a lot of exasperated characters going on at length about how messed up the situation is.)
The problem lies in the game's performance. At least on the PS4, Man of Medan is an incredibly laggy experience, with lots of stuttering, freezing and even audio desyncing. Sometimes, I botched quick-time events because the screen could not catch up with them in real time; another time, the game crashed entirely just as I reached a pivotal moment. At one point, I wasn't aware I was supposed to be scared, because the texture on a creepy corpse didn't render properly until a few seconds after the jump scare. The bugs are obnoxious during cutscenes and even worse during gameplay sections.
Otherwise, the music and voice acting are good, particularly from Torrens, who always seems just a little disappointed in you and your decisions. But the game tends to overuse an orchestral sting that coincides with anything scary happening, and you'll learn where to spot it well before the end of the game.
Man of Medan isn't the best foot forward for The Dark Pictures Anthology. This game is predictable, clunky and riddled with technical issues. On the other hand, looking back, I had a pretty good time with the game. I liked all of the characters, a few moments really scared me, and the game is just self-aware enough to be fun. This is not a miserable, brutal game; it's more like one of the Stephen King short stories that found its way into a Creepshow adaptation. It's intense, silly, earnest and campy all at the same time.
I expect the next Dark Pictures installment to be better, and I'm eager to play it.