dark pictures anthology: man of medan
Hallucinogenic horror shenanigans on a creepy ghost ship, anyone?
On paper, Man Of Medan sounds like a throwback – as a narrative-led third-person horror game, it’s essentially a point-and-click adventure with modern graphics. But Until Dawn, its 2015 predecessor from developer Supermassive (cruelly unavailable to Xbox One owners as it’s a PS4 exclusive), showed that such games could still find a modern audience.
Man Of Medan adheres to the blueprint established by Until Dawn, but it manages to innovate by bringing in a clever two-player co-op mode to the format. It starts with a flashback to 1947 that also functions as a tutorial and story setup, in which two sailors overindulge during shore leave in Manchuria, before boarding the SS Ourang Medan as it sets off for San Francisco. Before long, an electrical storm and a sinister cargo turn its voyage into a disaster.
Man Of Medan then cuts to the real action. In present-day French Polynesia, four young Americans – medical student Alex, his geeky brother Brad, his rich, adventurous girlfriend Julia, and Julia’s obnoxious brother Conrad – gather on the Duke Of Milan, a boat they have chartered in order to go wreck-diving; feisty skipper Fliss completes the party. It’s a similar setup to Until Dawn (although only the entitled Conrad matches the brattiness of that game’s characters).
The group messes around on the Duke Of Milan, getting to know one another and conducting a successful dive, which brings the promise of another wreck to investigate, while giving you opportunities to affect the relationships between the characters. But then the idyll is shattered by a nasty bunch of modern-day pirates, and circumstances take the extended party to the SS Ourang Medan, now a sublimely creepy ghost ship, on which Alex and company struggle to avoid death at the hands of their psychotic captors, before figuring out how to escape to normality.
Gameplay-wise, Man Of Medan adheres to a well-worn modern, cinematic adventure model. So, you enact conversations between its characters, find and use or collect objects and, at times, work through quick-time events. One mechanic sees you timing button presses to coincide with heartbeats, and there’s even a modicum of very basic shooting. But those who demand fast, twitchy action from their games will find it annoyingly slow and clunky. And it’s more or less single-path, offering disappointingly few opportunities for exploration.
The game uses a few other devices: at crucial points in the story, it cuts to a smug guy, who calls himself the Curator Of Stories, who assesses your performance so far and offers hints on how to proceed. And in the
game’s various different settings, you encounter pictures on the wall, which provide premonitions of events that might befall the various characters.
Man Of Medan’s overall challenge is to shepherd all five characters to safety, which provides a considerable amount of replay value. Supermassive claims – and playing the game bears it out – that Man Of Medan contains more branching options than any game it has ever made. Given that a playthrough takes no more than five hours, you’ll want to replay it until you’ve achieved that elusive perfect outcome. Or you can cut straight to specific sequences to see what effect your chosen actions might have.
That has a downside, however: typically for a Supermassive game, Man Of Medan is all about horror, and while it doesn’t skimp on the scares (some of which are great), once the initial scene-setting is over and the action moves to the SS Ourang Medan itself, where an agreeably fetid and hallucinatory air prevails, the horror aspect is inevitably diluted after experiencing it for the first time.
To be fair, Man Of Medan’s branching is so extensive that we were still seeing new scenes on the third playthrough. And there are a whole lot of scenes that you will only get to see if you play it co-operatively with someone else. Via ultra-tight narrative design, Supermassive Games has managed to generate an innovation to the genre, in which the characters in the party split into two groups at various points, enabling two-player co-op. There’s also a couch co-op mode for up to five players, which sees each participant control an individual character, and is perfect for providing a group of mates with some post-pub horror intake.
As far as modern cinematic adventures are concerned, Man Of Medan is state of the art: its production values are faultless, its branching story impressive and it impresses with plenty of chilling horror ambience. The temptation of multiple playthroughs is impossible to resist, and its shortness is mitigated by the co-op modes and mid-range pricetag.
However, in gameplay terms, Man Of Medan fails to hide its somewhat old-fashioned genre origins, so it might leave some modern gamers – bar those who enjoy a cinematicstyle gaming experience – feeling unsatisfied. It’s a finely crafted game, but by no means for everyone.
“You’ll want to replay it until you’ve achieved that perfect outcome”
left It’s full of horror tropes, but that’s part of the schlocky charm.
above The real-life crew of the SS Ourang Medan perished under strange circumstances.