GAME REVIEW: Man of Medan
Max Alexander dives into horror
Title: Dark Pictures Anthology: Man of Medan
Platforms: PS4, Xbox One, PC
Release Date: 30th August 2019
Rating: PEGI 16
Man of Medan is Super Massive Games’ follow up to the 2015 cult favourite, Until Dawn. A story driven horror game full of Quick Time Events (QTEs) and life or death character choices.
Super Massive Games doesn’t stray far from the formula that brought them success before. Much like Until Dawn, the game follows an eclectic group of horror movie character archetypes (the Nerd, the Jock, etc.) and puts them in precarious situations that reflect their worst qualities.
If it sounds formulaic so far, that’s because it is. Previous game, Until Dawn, succeeded in feeling like an ode to late 90’s horror cinema, with its Scream inspired slasher story, coupled with enough twists and turns to keep you guessing. Unfortunately Man of Medan never hits the same nostalgia notes or originality this time around.
The game starts with a rather hollow and unnecessary World War 2 sequence that follows a soldier boarding a ship home from their China station. Choices here have zero impact on the overall game despite its efforts to trick you into thinking otherwise. It seems the only purpose is to set the scene for a ghost ship storyline which we would have been able to discover (more effectively) later on. If anything it takes the sting out of the reveal.
After a time skip we get introduced to our main group. Brad, the nerdy type, his brother Alex, the confident sporty type, his girlfriend Julia, the adventurous rich girl, and her brother Conrad, who is your typical party boy, womaniser type. And Fliss who perhaps is the most likeable of the cast as the stern and level headed one of the group.
All aboard Fliss’s boat, the Duke of Milan, they set about on an uncharted diving trip to a sunken wreck. Things go awry however when some shifty looking “fishermen” come in to contact with their boat and an altercation presents itself that sets about a series of events that lead you to the World War 2 Ghost ship. How you get to the ship happens largely the same way regardless of choices that are made. It’s when you get on to the ship that there are more consequences to your actions.
You will control each member of the group at different times on the ship. Making your way through the ship, looking for clues as to what happened to the soldiers that were on-board and ultimately for a way off the frigate.
Unfortunately movement largely feels slow and clunky, with characters stopping abruptly when moving a little too close to certain objects, which happens a lot given that you are spending the majority of the time navigating small hallways on a ship. This clumsiness continues when players go to interact with items and the game being overly particular about where you should stand to interact with them.
Coupled with the awkward movement controls I’ve already mentioned, something as simple as opening a locker can seem quite the chore. More frustrating than this is how trivial some of the items are. Objects like perfume bottles or an empty wine glass, do little to add any context to the story or flesh out characters' personalities.
The chase sequences, that see you running from one of the baddies, are probably the most fluent part of the game, but that’s only because control is stripped away from the player in place of a series of QTEs that, usually, have fatal consequences should you miss a beat. This is a decision that I would have been more aggrieved about had the thought of running down these tiny corridors with anything resembling speed and accuracy not scared me more than the thing actually chasing me.
What Man of Medan does well is off-screen horror. The decision to use fixed camera angles allows the developers to play with things on your periphery that you wouldn’t be able to in a more standard over-the-shoulder or first person horror game. Often you will be watching a conversation or making your way through a section of the ship and just off screen you notice a silhouette or face that when tracking back is no longer there.
It’s a great touch and is probably the game's strongest horror element that doesn’t just rely on cheap jump scares but actually makes you feel very unsettled when noticing them.
One of the major problems with a lot of the horror is that you don’t really care about the characters. Not one of them comes across as the hero or anyone you’d mourn for if they didn’t survive. Without that kind of attachment to the characters, the death sequences don’t hold as much weight. Especially as the majority of the deaths in game come from missing a button prompt as opposed to any one particular poor choice you’ve made.
When the player makes a big decision, they are alerted to the fact with a notification on screen. The major decisions you make will help push forward one of the 8 story lines. Each with their own set of objectives and scares. What is quite frustrating is that items that are collected for a particular storyline, such as a gas mask flung over the shoulder, will disappear from said shoulder should you not progress the particular story line that required it.
This is something that could have been easily corrected by a quick cut scene showing the item being accidentally dropped or snagged on something. Instead, they’re in one shot and gone the next. Some stories don’t even get that, with a lot of the story foundations being thrown out the window or forgotten as soon as the horror starts.
Stories like Fliss’ crippling debt and fake license being genuinely intriguing and human plot points that would have helped round the character. It’s somewhat confusing why these very deliberate characterisations aren’t followed up because there would have been so much potential for deception and revelation if they had.
This disposable approach to storytelling isn’t just present in the narrative but also extends to the literal characters themselves. With every character being susceptible to a quick death, you can imagine there will be certain storylines that are missing should a key member of the team die.
Characters who are paired together for one story might suddenly be a part of another story on the other side of the ship, with no explanation as to how they seemingly teleported there or if they achieved the initial task they set out on. This is made even stranger if one of those characters dies. Not one of the cast will draw much attention to or even mention the deaths until the end credits. If these characters were complete strangers at the beginning of the game, you’d be more understanding of how cold their reactions would seem, but Super Massive games chose to make these characters siblings. TWICE!
These people should be visibly distraught at the loss of their brother or sister, otherwise what’s the point in making them related at all. There are a couple of key story objectives at the end of the game that don’t play out at all should certain cast members die, and the remaining survivors are just lifted off the ship mid-way through an important segment. Not only that but characters will talk off into empty corners of the room, where fallen comrades would have been.
It’s clear from the get go that they wanted this to be a straight repeat of the success they found with their last game, with so many features and menu’s being almost a straight lift. This really should have been a highly polished version of Until Dawn that showed off all the best aspects of their last outing. Instead we’re given a forgettable story, with all the same control issues from the last game and enough bugs to be a horror game in itself.
The only new ingredient that I could see was the Movie Night mode that allows you and a group of friends to play the game cooperatively. Even this came across as a missed opportunity as rather than engage with the whole room, players will have to wait their turn as their friend treads exactly the same game as the single player.
With this being Super Massive games’ first multiplatform game in this style, Man of Medan should have been the launch pad that not only announced a successful new franchise to a wider audience but cemented them as masters of this genre. Instead, I fear they will have done more damage than good. Here’s hoping the next game in the Dark Pictures Anthology is more horror full than horrific.