When Supermassive Games released Until Dawn back in 2015, we knew we had something special on our hands.
A horror game that managed not only to be genuinely terrifying at moments but also one that weaved a narrative worthy of Hollywood and gave players true control over the outcome of the characters, it’s still one of the best examples of the genre to date.
While the studio has had some lesser games out (including an excellent VR-based Until Dawn spin-off), we’ve all been patiently waiting for its next horror masterpiece. And it’s finally here: Man of Medan is the first entry in the Dark Pictures Anthology, a series of standalone games each exploring its own sub-genre of horror.
Being part of a series, Man of Medan isn’t as lengthy or as in-depth as Until Dawn. Taking between three and four hours to complete, it’s a much more succinct story – and its budget price of £25/$30 reflects that. Its shorter running time doesn’t mean it’s any less enjoyable, though; in those four hours, Man of Medan packs in a hell of a lot.
There’s no one lead protagonist; just as with Until Dawn, you’ll take control of five characters throughout your time with the game. You join them just as they’re setting out on a private boat tour, heading to a diving spot which the group believes hosts an unmarked war wreckage. There’s Fliss, the captain of the ship; Julia and Alex, a loved-up couple looking for a diving adventure; Brad, Alex’s brother; and Conrad, Julia’s brother. Aside from the obvious connections, the five don’t know each other well as a group – but their trust and relationships are very soon going to be tested.
To give too much away about the story will be to ruin the entire essence of the game, but needless to say the group’s excursion doesn’t exactly go to plan. An altercation in the dead of night leads to them crashing into a giant warship, docked in the middle of the ocean. And on boarding the ship – dark, abandoned and infinitely creepy – things only get worse for the group.
Man of Medan absolutely nails its atmosphere. Dread drips out of every scene. While it’s overly dark (you’ll want to play with the curtains shut), the shadows only heighten the tension. Music and sound effects are used subtly but to great effect; even if you didn’t catch something moving in the corner, the rise in music lets you know that something isn’t quite right.
The acting, too, is spot on. Promotional materials have led with Shaun Ashmore, the actor best known for his role in The Following, and while he puts on a performance as fantastic as ever, the rest of the cast deserves just as much credit. Each actor brings their character to life, emphasising their flaws and quirks through every moment of their performance. Ayisha Issa’s portrayal of Fliss, the headstrong but somewhat insecure captain, is particularly brilliant. Fliss as a character is perhaps the most interesting of them all; she’s the only one who doesn’t know anyone else. As the captain she’s in charge, but she’s also at the mercy of the others – after all, they’re paying her to be there. It makes the choices you make while in control of Fliss – or choices that directly affect her – most interesting. After all, do you put a stranger’s wellbeing above your own when it’s their boat that can get you back to safety?
What’s most impressive about Man of Medan, though, is how it plays tricks on you. In keeping with the game’s narrative, there are a few occasions where you genuinely think you might be seeing things. More than once I saw the shape of a person manifesting by a doorway just as you passed through it – but when I turned around to take a look, it was gone. The first time it happens you wonder if it was a graphical glitch, but as you play more of the game it becomes apparent it’s a very clever narrative device that makes you just as on edge as the characters you’re controlling. Man of Medan wants you to question everything.
I’ve not even touched on the eerie Curator yet; a narrator character who, much like the Analyst in Until Dawn, pops up between scenes to offer some insight. Expertly acted by Pip Torrens, The Curator is presented as the storyteller, delivering you a spooky story from the safety of his desk. Exactly how he fits into the narrative isn’t clear, but it’s safe to say that his face is likely to pop up in future Dark Pictures games.
The Curator isn’t the one in control of the narrative though; that’s entirely down to you. Just like Until Dawn, Man of Medan promises true player choice, where your decisions could mean life or death for your entire party. It isn’t wrong. There are branching narratives for every character, and even the smallest decision can have catastrophic effects later on. Sometimes cause and effect is clear-cut – going wrong on a quick-time event, for example – but other times you’re not exactly sure what decision led you to your fate. It keeps you guessing and makes you even more keen to jump into the game again to see how things could’ve worked out different. It’s like watching your favourite horror film, but with the option to change the outcome for the protagonists.
Perhaps the only gripe with Man of Medan is its over-reliance on quick time events and well-timed button presses. Impressively, the options menu boasts a couple of accessibility settings that allow you to stop quick-time events timing out, and you can also turn button-mashing sequences into just holding a button down. It makes those particular sections much easier, as you can’t fail unless you press the wrong button; quick time events do time out pretty quickly otherwise.
One set of quick-time events consistently proved problematic, though. On a number of occasions, you’ll need to “keep calm” by tapping a button in time with your character’s heartbeat. The timing of these felt consistently out of line, or button presses weren’t registering properly, meaning I consistently failed. Hopefully it’s something that will be addressed in the game’s day one patch. It’s certainly not a dealbreaker, but it’s frustrating that I’ve been unable to see where the game’s path takes me should I not fail those particular sections.
While the experience of playing the game in single player is perfectly sound, Man of Medan has been built with co-op and multiplayer in mind. There are two ways to do this. First is local party play, where two to five players can each take control of certain characters. It’s a mode that’s inspired by how people chose to play Until Dawn, passing a controller around and making decisions as a group, even though the game didn’t officially support it. It plays out exactly the same as the single-player mode of the game, but prompts you to pass over the controller to another player when a new character is taking the lead.
The most exciting multiplayer mode in Man of Medan, though, is its online co-op. This method of play allows two players to join together online, playing through the story concurrently. Each will take control of a character, making decisions that will not only affect them but the other player, too. It’s a very welcome addition to the game, offering a way to play that’s surely inspired by the likes of A Way Out. Not knowing exactly what choices the other player has made means that new twists and turns could be waiting around any corner, even if you’re already familiar with the story. Sharing the scares is certainly more rewarding than playing alone.
However you decide to play Man of Medan, though, you’re in for a great time. The pitch black, claustrophobic corridors of an abandoned warship make for an incredibly tense atmosphere, and while it may not be quite as appealing to explore as Until Dawn‘s snowy setting, there’s no denying that it’s just as spooky. Even after you’ve played through Man of Medan two or even three times, you still don’t quite know what’s going to be waiting for you behind every corner. A few dud quick time events let the game down ever so slightly, but accessibility options to make some of them easier are extremely welcome.
The horror genre is a tough nut to crack, but Man of Medan proves, once again, that Supermassive Games is truly the master of video game horror. I’m more excited than ever to see what the rest of the Dark Pictures Anthology will hold.
Man of Medan is available on PC, PS4 and Xbox One. We reviewed the Xbox One version.
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