My wife was absolutely enamored with Until Dawn. After I completed my initial playthrough I did another with her as she’s a massive fan of the horror genre, especially the cheesier, B-grade ones that Until Dawn emulated. After that playthrough she was hooked and spent a good long time replaying the game multiple times over, trying to see every variation that she could. So when I saw that Supermassive games was releasing a series of shorter titles called The Dark Pictures Anthology I was intrigued and, given that we were housebound due to the bushfires blanketing Canberra with smoke, I thought it’d be a good time for us to play through the first instalment: Man of Medan. Unfortunately this particular title doesn’t feel up to the same level as Until Dawn, feeling decidedly middle of the road.
There were rumours of a downed WWII airplane that hadn’t yet been catalogued out in the South Pacific Ocean. Keen to explore a wreck that hadn’t yet been seen by other humans a group of 4 young explorers, along with the captain of the rented vessel, set out to find it based on some information from one of their friends. However whilst they’re out at sea they catch the ire of some local ne’er do wells and quickly find themselves at their mercy. Soon after that happens they get hit by a storm and find themselves butting up against a ghost ship which, for some inexplicable reason, the pirates decide to take shelter in. So begins their journey into this lost vessel and the horrors that lie within.
Man of Medan retains much of the cinematic level quality that Until Dawn had although now, compared to 3 years ago, the graphics aren’t as cutting edge as they once were. This game’s aesthetic is much, much darker than its predecessor as well so a good lot of the detail is hidden from view most of the time. Thankfully though the performance issues have been addressed so even chumps like me using an original PS4 won’t be left suffering with low frame rates. Given that this game is on Unreal unlike the previous one (which was on Decima) there’s definitely room for improvement here and who knows, maybe the whole thing looks amazing on PC.
This is still very much an interactive fiction game with it’s mostly linear levels, countless items strewn around for you to interact with and the action scenes peppered with quick time events. At the basic level not much has changed with Man of Medan as most of the mechanics have been renamed rather than reworked. The biggest change comes in the form of the Curator, a fourth-wall breaking character who speaks to you about the story that’s unfolding and the choices that you’re making within it. He will also offer you clues from time to time, although whether or not they help or hinder you is something that’s up for debate. He’ll be a recurring character in the series as he’s apparently some sort of collector of these kinds of stories, wanting to observe those who experience them. Given the shorter intended length of these stories most of the mechanics I’ve described above have been streamlined somewhat so there’s a lot less depth to them than what I remember being in Until Dawn.
As with all interactive fiction exploration is the name of the game here although, if I’m honest, Man of Medan doesn’t provide a particularly rewarding experience in this respect. Sure, there’s a lot of stuff for you to find, but most of the time it’s just flavour text for the story of the ship. That’d be great if it wasn’t for the fact that you have most of the story for it already, thanks to the opening tutorial taking place in the past. So the rest of the stuff you read is really just fluff for the most part. Worse still it doesn’t seem like exploration, especially in places that are meant to be hard to find, rewards you in any way at all. In these kinds of games that kind of exploration, I feel, should be rewarded with things that help you in some way when it comes to the game’s critical moments. None of the items I found exploring the ship with my wife helped in any way and indeed, I think most of them actually made things worse. Sure, I can see that could have been intentional, but getting punished for doing the hard thing in a game feels like a swift kick in the pants.
Probably the worst part of Man of Medan though is the lack of connection between your actions and their outcomes. Now our playthrough probably wasn’t the greatest, we managed to kill 3 out of the 5 characters, but one of them didn’t feel connected to previous events at all and the last two were single QTE fails, neither of which gave any indication that that was our last chance to get the character out alive. The premonitions were also total trash as well, the options that they showed you seemingly having zero influence on the situation at hand. Worse still, with losing a character around halfway through the game, it was obvious that there were holes in the story that that character was meant to fill and from then on many interactions felt half baked as the scenes didn’t seem to be rewritten enough to cope for said loss. Honestly I never felt this way in Until Dawn, even when I watched my wife’s playthrough where she killed nearly every character.
Of course I’d probably be able to ignore most of these issues if the story wasn’t so uninspired and predictable. It was pretty clear from the onset what was going to happen and the unfolding of events really didn’t add much to the overall narrative. Combine that with the use of tired jump scares and run of the mill horror tropes and you had a recipe for a story that was forgettable, boring and lacking the drive to push the game forward. Even my wife, who loves this kind of horror, wasn’t really enjoying the story for the most part.
Putting this all together you’ve got a decidedly disappointing experience in Man of Medan, one that really isn’t up the standard that Supermassive set with Until Dawn. I do like the concept though, a mysterious man who takes you through stories of the past and catalogues your decisions, but the first instalment in this anthology doesn’t give me high hopes for future ones. Perhaps with a more engaging story I can look past some of the more egregious missteps as it was that, combined with the distinct lack of agency my wife and I felt whilst playing, that really tore the experience down for us. Maybe the next story, Little Hope, will prove to be a little better.
The Dark Pictures Anthology: Man of Medan is available on PC, Xbox One and PlayStation 4 right now for $49.95. Game was played on the PlayStation 4 with approximately 4 hours total play time and 11% of the achievements unlocked.