I had high hopes for The Dark Pictures: Man of Medan, an interactive horror game where player decisions guide the story and determine the fates of the in-game characters. Developer Supermassive Games was on track to pioneering this subgenre in their breakout PS4 exclusive Until Dawn. Unfortunately, their latest offering doesn’t come close to matching that 2015 release. There’s potential here, but I thought we were already past that level. What they've provided is a dull horror story with predictable jump-scares, uninteresting characters, and a story that will leave you scratching your head and saying, “really?”
The Dark Pictures: Man of Medan is the first in Supermassive Games' planned anthology, and it’s a rough start to what I think is a great concept - a presentation styled ala Tales of the Crypt, where you have a host - in this case, The Curator - who primes the story, gives you something to ponder during intermissions, and summarizes your playthrough once the story has concluded. I was excited about this concept, and everything about it worked for me.
It was when the main protagonists of the story took center stage that the worry began settling in. Man of Medan’s story revolves around a group of friends and family that hire a dive boat tasked with bringing them to the South Pacific Ocean in order to undergo a diving expedition. Without giving too much away, the dive has them exploring a ghost ship, which happens to be the real-life SS Ourang Medan. If you ever get a chance to read this vessel's true tale on the internet, you'd be stunned at how perfect a setting it provides for a horror game.
As for the gameplay, Supermassive builds upon what was established in Until Dawn: a linear third-person narrative adventure with multiple protagonists consisting of various time-sensitive quick-time event challenges, as well as a need to make life-changing (and possibly life-ending) decisions on the fly.
You take control of one of the five characters one by one, and what's more, Man of Medan gives you the option to either play the game alone, with friends couch co-op style, or with a friend online. I chose to play it with family. There were three of us, and we assigned specific characters between ourselves. The game informed us before the start of each new scene as to which perspective we’d be playing, and we then simply passed the controller around.
This was a great way to experience games like these, providing fun for player and spectator alike. The TMG crew and I did the same thing back when Until Dawn was released, and it made it all more worthwhile.
Without the jump-scares, where's the substance?
What Supermassive Games does with its setting is to fill the game with predictable jump-scares that stopped working even on my thirteen-year-old nephew who was playing alongside me. You’ll find yourself always required to interact with corpses, and when zooming in closely… aha! As expected, something scary pops up on your screen. The impact of these horror elements withers early on, which is a shame because it only takes around four hours to complete your first playthrough.
Take the jump scares away and what's left are eerie narrow corridors, dark rooms, and characters that never get a chance to grow on you. Minor bickering between the main characters near the start of the game does establish a bit of personality, but the writing wasn’t enough to get me truly invested in these people - a missed opportunity, since your choices determine who lives and dies, and if they aren't real to you, why should you care? After all, isn't the point to keep them all alive throughout the ordeal? (At least, that’s how I approach these games.)
The fixed camera can be a struggle for some players, as after moving to the next screen/camera angle, you’ll sometimes need to realize which directional button you need to press in order to travel in the direction you were going before the camera switch. It felt like old-school Resident Evil with the tank controls all over again, which is fine, as the slow pace allows you to take in the atmosphere and music (or, sometimes, lack of), and to settle your stomach.
A lack of urgency due to an inconsistently-present threat
Supermassive Games reincorporated Until Dawn's quick-time events, although they lessened the number of button presses during each one. As a result, Man of Medan fails to provide comparable experiences during these key scenes, making them feel as if they ended abruptly, and robbing me of that tense feeling, so prevalent in Until Dawn, that I'd kill my character should I mess up the next series of button presses.
To top it off, some of the deaths were underwhelming (especially knowing why they occurred), and combining that with the dullness of the characters counters whatever fears and shocks the game has already established.
The story, the characters, and the horror fueling the fear in Man of Medan didn’t mesh well in the end. Dialogue choices are limited to three, with one giving you the option to act or do nothing at all. It's supposed to represent your moral compass, highlighting the contrast of decision-making with your head, or with your heart.
Aside from the random FPS drops that occurred during my time with Man of Medan, the game ran well on my regular PS4 unit. The gameplay was familiar, but without a good story, not to mention characters whom you care about enough to want to protect from horrific deaths, The Dark Pictures: Man of Medan isn’t a game I would mark a must-have now that we are in the 'Ber' months of the year.
+ A fun game to play with friends and family
+ Multiple ways to change the outcome of each character
+ You get a glimpse of the next game in the anthology - Little Hope
- The game’s last hour left me scratching my head
- Jump-scares get old real fast
- Quick-time events lacked the weight to make each button press feel like it would be the character’s last
What I’ve Played
Finished the game with three character deaths (I was the cause of just one)
Played it for a second time and went through past scenes to see different outcomes
Played on: standard PS4
[This review is based on a PS4 review copy provided to Too Much Gaming by Bandai Namco.]