The Dark Pictures: Man of Medan is hoping to ride the coattails of Supermassive Games’ gripping interactive horror Until Dawn. It’s the long awaited spiritual successor that intends to spawn a multiplatform legacy of its own as the first in The Dark Pictures Anthology of choose your own adventure cheesy horror tropes that we just can’t get enough of.
Man of Medan opens shortly after World War II as two sailors return to their ocean liner with a tutorial designed to set the scene for the looming ghost ship, and to stress the importance of making quick decisions; one of those tutorials that drags on just a little too long. With the formalities out of the way, it jumps forward to the present day and introduces us to a pair of siblings and their gun-for-hire captain, Fliss, who are embarking upon a diving expedition in search of undiscovered wrecks from the war.
The quintet embody classic horror stereotypes — pretty much all of them. Bickering brothers Alex and Brad are polar opposites, with Alex assuming the role of totally ripped and arrogantly misinformed jock, and Brad taking the position of apprehensive nerd with limited practical ability; you can tell that without even playing, because he’s the only character wearing glasses.
In contrast, Conrad and Julia are from an extraordinarily wealthy background, and present as carefree snobs enjoying life on the bank of mum and dad. Party boy Conrad, played by Shawn Ashmore (the bloke from Quantum Break), establishes his character by leading the chorus to drink as his top priority. Meanwhile Alex and Julia, the happy couple who connect the group, are more focused on ignoring diving regulations than exhausting the stash of beers, as Brad plays true to form and conforms to peer pressure, only to struggle to finish a single frothy. Very disappointing, Brad.
As with Until Dawn, Man of Medan’s dramatic narrative unfolds with a series of quicktime events. With mere seconds to make a decision the game is forever reinforcing that choices matter, the severity of which varies significantly. It’s possible to finish with all five characters surviving, all of them dying, or somewhere in-between. During my first run, three of five made it to see the closing credits. I lost one to an ambitious ploy that presented a shortened quicktime prompt I wasn’t ready for, and that was it. There are no second chances. The second death saw me lulled into a false narrative, convinced I was doing the right thing, only to find all was not as it seemed.
These twists are less prevalent than we might have expected, which enable them to suck you in and suddenly turn the tables — there aren’t many of them, but there are some genuinely unpredictable twists that make the maiden voyage the most important. The opening half of the narrative is set on Fliss’s speedboat, the Duke of Milan. It’s here that Man of Medan revives the nostalgia of Until Dawn. We learn plenty about the five characters through various dialogue options, rather than sudden quicktime events, so their relationships develop and they begin down their branching paths.
It’s not long before the fun is over, however, as they encounter a ferocious storm, which provides the perfect cover for a group of ghoulish pirates to pounce and escalate a night to remember into a “I am the captain now” situation. We played that scene at E3, and it went more pear-shaped this time around as I attempted to elude the pirate captors on route to the inevitable ghost ship.
It’s this middle stanza where Man of Medan veers off course. Once stranded aboard the crumbing World War II vessel, our cast split up from each other and their captors, which for the most part is the last we really see of the villains until the final resolution. There’s a little chatter and the occasional run-in, but the pirates are setup to play a major role when they take the siblings and Fliss hostage, and then quickly recede into the background.
It’s here that for a quarter of the four hour narrative, not much happens. You slowly manoeuvre around the corridors of a rusty old ship, hit by some jump scares and premonitions of what is to come, but it doesn’t set up much, and the awkward movement becomes frustrating.
Unlike the opening section aboard the Duke of Milan which mostly comprises dialogue and limited movement, the clunky tank controls, purposefully emulating vintage Resident Evil so you don’t know what’s around the next corner, are really hard to comprehend; my brain just can’t do that in 2019. But it was made much harder by the presentation being extremely dark — not in tone, but in brightness. I cranked the settings to 100 percent and increased it on my TV, and still struggled to see doorways or where I was meant to go while playing in HDR. Disabling High Dynamic Range in the Xbox One X’s settings improved things to a degree, but there’s clearly a problem. I realise it’s meant to be a dark old ship, but not being able to physically see the door that’s a struggle to walk through regardless means these Dark Pictures are far too dark.
This lull doesn’t last forever. Once the surviving cohort of the Milan gang are reunited, things really start to pick up. The conversation threads and relationships between them, absent for the first half of the ghost ship exploration, return and Man of Medan gets back on track — still too dark, though. For a little while it loses focus, which should have been more on the characters and their shared terrifying experience, but it does recover it in the lead up to a truly shocking finale.
Once those credits roll, if you can tolerate another round of tank controls, you’ll want to play it all again to take a completely different path of the branching storyline. Killing off some characters who lived during your first experience will drastically change the narrative, and at AUD $40, I’m glad to see a game that knows its worth.
For that second and subsequent play throughs, it’s worth exploring the two multiplayer modes. Play online with a friend to share the split second decisions, or for those who need moral support with the lights on to get through horror flicks, the 2-5 player Movie Night mode has you covered for couch co-op.
Movie Night works really well. With five people, you’ll each take control of one character, passing the controller as one person plays at a time. With 2-4 players, characters will be divvied up between you. I preferred to complete my first run alone, but playing with friends adds more replay value if you have a couple of mates willing to invest a night going through the whole thing in one four hour sitting — PS1 experience is mandatory to be qualified to drive the tank controls.
There’s fun to be had with Man of Medan, especially playing in Movie Night mode with a group of friends who can handle the ’90s horror controls. The opening engaged me and the ending nailed its twists and turns, but the middle dawdled and lost me for a while. It doesn’t develop its characters as well as Until Dawn, and with awkward controls and a loss of focus during its middle act, it isn’t anywhere near as gripping or compelling to replay. While the story didn’t live up to expectations, the actors’ performances are fantastic as Man of Medan delivers its quota of horror tropes in chapter one of The Dark Pictures Anthology.
The Dark Pictures: Man of Medan was reviewed using a promotional code on Xbox One X, as provided by the publisher. Click here to learn more about Stevivor’s scoring scale.