From Edgar Allan Poe’s Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque to Orson Welles’ The Mercury Theater On Air to The Twilight Zone, horror anthologies have been successful in almost every medium for nearly 200 years. Supermassive Games wants to make video games part of that illustrious club with its Dark Pictures Anthology series. MAN OF MEDAN is the first foray into that space, telling a shorter story that has a ton of branching paths similar to Until Dawn, the studio’s breakout hit from 2015. Man of Medan has the narrative-heavy framework and most of the inherent positive qualities of Until Dawn but it also manages to fail a few more quick time events on its journey to the end.
And there are plenty of ways to reach that ending, whatever it may be. Man of Medan is a Quantic Dream-esque adventure game filled with a litany of choices at almost every turn from dialogue options to environmental interactions to ignoring, missing, or completing quick time events. Each of these sends a ripple throughout the game that can help or hurt you immediately or in the long run as well as shaping how certain characters think of you.
Man of Medan Review | The butterfly effect in effect
The incredible sprawl of minute and major choices gives each moment meaning since it’s hard not to think of the consequences you’ll face down the line with every button press. Supermassive intricately lays out scenarios that don’t obviously convey what those consequences will be either. Since you can’t be sure of how one action will ripple into the other chapters, you have to think with your gut, which is a more natural way to play. Sometimes you’ll commit to a plausible yet bad choice and that freedom is welcome, especially if you want to watch the cast die horribly. And, of course, the story continues no matter what.
Scenes can change drastically in ways you might not expect but the impact of your choices aren’t fully felt until your second run. Like almost any Hitman level, the first playthrough is almost more of a test run that you don’t fully appreciate until you’ve dived back in to see how radically different it can play out. Whole scenarios can be absent or replaced with entirely fresh ones that you haven’t previously seen, which can, in turn, also keep splintering from there. It funnels in a few areas but it’s hard to see the seams and even harder to care if you do spot them. Interactive adventure games thrive off the quality of that illusion of a seamless story and Man of Medan illustrates how skilled Supermassive is as this sort of storytelling.
The multitudes of forks in the road are the best justification for Man of Medan’s anthologized presentation and subsequent shorter length. Until Dawn’s amount of diverging routes were instrumental in its critical reception but that was a nine-hour game. Its hour count meant most players weren’t as likely to experience its deluge of choices, given the time they’d need to put to see how differently it could play out. Man of Medan is only about four or so hours max, making it much more attractive to jump in and see different results a lot sooner. Brevity brings out the most impressive part of these sorts of games since its consequences can come faster and possibly be more drastic.
Man of Medan Review | A ghost tale
Man of Medan’s core story is the same no matter what path you take. A crew of schmucks take their rinkydink boat out into the ocean in order to track down some fabled gold that sunk there decades prior. Events don’t go smoothly, leaving the group of protagonists on a spooky ship with some unexpected guests.
It’s a premise that may appear to a cliché-riddled horror title but the narrative cleverly dodges those worn traditions. Taking inspiration from a “real” urban legend ghost ship, Supermassive uses some age-old theories about this fabled boat along with its own original lore to great effect. Revelations are gradually doled out as the mystery satisfyingly builds at a steady pace. Supermassive also goes the extra mile to craft worthy answers to the questions it raises. Horror doesn’t always need to explain itself as its risks ruining the mystique, but creatively knowing how to do it usually results in a more original narrative.
That core plot doesn’t change much but its characters do. Whereas Until Dawn was deliberately going for stereotypical teenagers (although you could also choose to subvert those stereotypes), Man of Medan is just going for normal, everyday people. But these average Joes and Joannas are a bunch of dorks, especially at the beginning when their conversations are at their cheesiest. Each gives a passable to decent performance but sometimes the body animation can’t quite match the quality of the incredible facial capture. Realistic faces make the video game heads and bodies look that much less refined and the disparity can be a little jarring. If anything, it demonstrates how far the facial capture has come even if it comes at the cost of the other animation.
That gulf is sparingly noticeable from beginning to end but they each actually become less dorky the further you delve into madness. Their B-movie banter is initially laughable and cringeworthy and gives the game a mediocre first impression. It’s hard to care for them if you can’t warm up to them. But once it goes from cruise ship to ghost ship, their uninspired, awkward small talk sinks into the ocean and starts to pick up steam.
Acting under duress makes them much more likable as they aren’t weirdly trying to bang or churn out dumb jokes. It’s almost purely about the mystery surrounding the ship and the task at hand and that mission-based approach is where the dialogue is at its best. Better small talk-free dialogue coincides with game’s story picking up and is why the latter half of the game is considerably stronger than the first. Following playthroughs even benefit from this since you’ll go start your second run with more appreciation for these characters knowing what they’re about to go through and seeing them in their stronger scenes. And this works well for a game so focused on replayability.
Replayability also stems from its multiplayer modes. There’s both a local pass-and-play mode and a simultaneous online mode. The local mode assigns up to to five people with a character that they’re responsible for. Aside from doling out merit-based badges at the end of each act, it technically doesn’t add anything but it more officially incorporates a popular way to play these types of games in a simple yet effective way. Online multiplayer is a little more complicated as one player appears to play the “Theatrical Cut” of the game while the other appears to go through the “Curator’s Cut” or something similar. There may be some pauses here and there, but both offer decent alternatives to the solo mode even if they are just slight remixes of it.
Man of Medan Review | Dark, dank, and disappointing technical performance
No matter the mode, Man of Medan is gorgeous. Shadows are wonderfully dark, bathing the ship in an appropriate level of darkness to truly establish a creepy atmosphere. Its cramped hallways play a role too as they allow an incredible amount of texture detail other bigger games can’t quite match.
Foreboding environments make the ship an uneasy thrill ride, yet its scares aren’t always paced out as evenly. Man of Medan relies heavily on jump scares and while some are placed well, many of them come in such rapid succession that it can become numbing. Few of them get time to suitably breathe and it’s as if Supermassive tried to cram in as many jump scares as it could over an abbreviated period.
Its technical issues are frightening in all the wrong ways. All of its visual splendors seem to have come at a cost because of its noticeable texture pop-in and frequent frame rate skips and stutters. The console version isn’t as shaky as other recent console ports, but sometimes it’ll get bad enough to throw off the audio and associated stinger, which can ruin a scare and momentarily pull you out. It’s yet another game that seemingly wants little to do with the lower tier consoles and desperately wants to jump to beefier systems.
Despite its technical shortcomings, Man of Medan is a decent maiden voyage for Supermassive’s new Dark Pictures Anthology series. The deluge of branching paths and chilling atmosphere combine well enough with its brief yet keen story that invites players to repeatedly run through it. But an abundance of cheap jump scares, semi-frequent slowdown, and initially goofy cast members mean that it pales in comparison to Until Dawn; the studio’s magnum opus that all of its titles will forever be compared to. Man of Medan still compares favorably enough as its relatively well-told tale is worth seeing through and then seeing through again, even if you won’t necessarily be quite as compelled to stay up until dawn to finish it that first night.
GameRevolution reviewed Man of Medan on PS4 with a copy provided by the publisher.