The Dark Pictures is a new anthology format by Supermassive Games, the studio that brought us the delightfully horrific Until Dawn. In Man of Medan, the first entry in what is going to be a trilogy, we join a group of five unfortunate people that somehow end up on a Ghost Ship.
The game starts with a short prologue set during World War II, as we see a couple of US soldiers getting drunk at the docks. Their drinking habits are frowned upon by their commanding officer so they get put away. The ships gets hit by a massive storm and we see something happening to the chests and coffins in the storage hold.
Our soldiers awake in the midst of a nightmare: most of their brothers in arms are either dead or going out of their minds. Something terrible is happening on this ship and neither of them has any chance of survival.
Fast forward to the current times, where four young adults are planning a diving expedition to find a plane that had been shot down during WW2. Together with the captain of their small vessel they go to the site and dive up a map with the location of the large freighter ship. During the night they get attacked by three pirates and when they discover these plans they want to go and investigate as they believe the ship is carrying gold and other valuables. Sadly for them, it seems like the cargo is mostly corpses…
While the pirates are interested in making a quick buck, our five protagonists are only interested in escaping with their lives. As the player, you can focus on just getting through the story with as many living characters as possible, but there is a lot of backstory to unfold by finding all the hidden secrets on the ship. Due to the branching narrative and player choice playing a huge role in the outcome, you can have vastly different endings when the credits roll.
What really disappointed me: in my two playthroughs I had some very anticlimactic endings even though I made wildly different choices. There is no real build-up to the final moments and no real feeling of closure for what you’ve just gone through.
The curator is a treat though: he’s your guide through this adventure and he gives you subtle hints at what is to come. The playful “I know all there is to know and you do not” attitude is something I can appreciate. I think we’ll be seeing him again in the next game: Last Hope.
— BloodyGoodReviews (binging on FF7:R) (@Bloodyspasm) September 7, 2019
Just like Until Dawn, Man of Medan is an interactive storytelling experience. The game exists mostly out of cutscenes, but your decisions and actions will decide what happens. Brad, Alex, Julia, Conrad and Fliss all have their traits and relationship stats that are influenced by your choices as well, which in turn opens different routes.
Another returning gameplay element is the Quick Time Events: pressing a button in time to attack someone (or something), struggling to get loose or getting a grip just before falling to your untimely death. These not only add a bit of interaction to the scenes, but they are also crucial to your survival. One exciting new type of QTE is the one where you have to tap A in rhythm with your heartbeat to stay undetected.
One missed QTE can be disastrous and if you’re going for a “no deaths” run it might mean having to restart the chapter or the entire game. Man of Medan is unforgiving and even a quick escape to the main menu will not save you: loading the last checkpoint will just start you off AFTER your mistake.
To combat this, there are some settings I would advise to turn on for a second run through the game if you want to see more survivors. You can also discover paintings when you’re in free control of your character. These offer insights into the future events and they can give you some pointers on which path to pick. I usually found them to be a bit too short and unclear to even see what they were hinting at, however.
These free control parts were some cause of frustration however: your character controls like a tank: only allowing forward movement and pivoting around your own axis. Combine this with fixed camera angles that constantly jump around while moving from one corridor to the next and it can get on your nerves. Especially if you have a hard time picking up a collectable simply because you can’t position your character as needed.
Graphics & Audio
Man of Medan looks and sounds great, there’s no denying that. Environments look proper spooky, ambient sounds do an amazing job getting you on edge, just before delivering that well-time jump scare.
The character models all look amazing as well, delivering some really credible facial animations. While there are rare moments where it dips into the uncanny valley or even times where I could see details loading onto their face (even though I’m playing on the Xbox One X) it doesn’t really detract from the experience.
Voice acting of the main cast is stellar as well. The script has them saying some cringe-worthy lines here and there but they keep their composure and deliver a great performance.
If there is one major complaint I had with the visuals however, it’s the lack of in-game lighting. No amount of changing settings in the game or on my tv or even playing in total darkness really helped combat the dark environments in this game. All of the other images in this review have been edited in photoshop where I upped the brightness & contrast as needed. I understand the setting of the game makes it only logical that everything is pitch-black, but it made for some parts where I was visually lost or couldn’t tell what was going on.
Supermassive Games really listened to their players and included a few options that allow you to experience the story together with local or offline friends. Theater Mode lets you assign the five playable characters to up to five local players; you’ll have to pass the controller from one player to the next when prompted and you’ll even get a nice recap at the end of each chapter which shows you who was the worst at Quick Time Events, who used the most replies from the heart and so on.
Or you can play online with friends or strangers and you won’t even be able to tell what choices they are making at the same time as you. It adds a really interesting dynamic to the game, but depending on who you’re teamed up with you’ll lose your faith in humanity as they leave you behind while the undead are grabbing at you.
These multiplayer modes offer an interesting alternative to running through the story again in the hopes of seeing different scenes, it does mean you’re giving up control and thus will probably not succeed in getting the specifically desired endings. In fact, in my two playthroughs, I only managed to get 170G worth of achievements.
Man of Medan is a thrilling introduction to this new anthology and while the buildup is somewhat slow and the ending was an anticlimax, everything in between was a treat and proves yet again that Supermassive has a good grip on the horror genre. Replaying the game is encouraged but there were too many moments I would have preferred to skip in a second run. Nevertheless, my appetite for more has been kindled and I look forward to experiencing the next instalments.
(An Xbox One review copy was provided by the local PR agency for Bandai Namco)
Want to see it in action? Here are some of my favourite scenes from my first playthrough: