August 28, 2019

Review: Man of Medan

When it comes to companies making choice based narrative adventure games, there’s not a lot of options in the mainstream gaming space. We used to have Telltale, whose overuse of their formula pushed the company to its collapse last year (Although reports today suggest its assets have been purchases for a revival in the near future). Dontnod exists for those of you after episodic teenage superpower adventures, but their releases are infrequent and fixed to one genre. There’s David Cage and his over the top nuance lacking stories, but those are developed by a studio mired in alleged ill conduct. However, if you like horror branching narratives, the clear name to look towards is formerly PlayStation exclusive developer Supermassive Games.

While the studio has released quite a large number of games over the past few years, Supermassive as a studio is best known for developing 2015’s Until Dawn, a PS4 exclusive interactive horror game which over the course of around twelve hours told the story of a large group of teens trapped on a mountain where their friend died one year prior. From monsters to serial killers, the game did a great job of both employing and subverting “teens in a cabin in the woods” horror tropes, and allowed players to drastically impact the lives and deaths of the various characters. I’ve done playthroughs of Until Dawn where everyone lived, where nobody lived, and everything in between.

Players got to make narrative choices, decide what characters would say, look out for clues, and take part in quick time events to mimic action, all in the service of living through a big horror adventure.

Despite the critical and commercial success of Until Dawn, it took several years for news to emerge about Supermassive making another narrative horror game, or as it happens, a series of new horror games. The Dark Pictures Anthology is the name of a series of shorter Supermassive developed horror games releasing over the next few years on PS4, Xbox One and PC, and the first of those games is a horror experience set on an abandoned ship titled Man of Medan.

Man of Medan follows the story of Fliss, a ship captain taking a group of inexperienced divers to hunt for a ship wreck which she has never heard of before. She’s joined on the ship by Alex, an older brother who wants to seem cool around his new girlfriend and her rich brother, Brad, Alex’s nerdy sweet younger brother who hypothesised the location of the wreck, Julia, Alex’s girlfriend and slightly entitled rich girl, and her brother Conrad, the chauvinistic overconfident rich playboy. The four manage to find the wreck they were looking for, but things quickly go wrong when they encounter not only other people out on the ocean, but a large abandoned ship too.

Man of Medan is a much shorter horror experience than Until Dawn was, clocking in at between three and six hours to complete per playthrough depending on how you play (more on this shortly). The game appears to be running in the same graphical engine as Until Dawn, and is for the most part identical in terms of mechanics. You’re still walking around environments, using your analogue stick to make dialogue and action choices, pressing the face buttons to survive quick time events, occasionally mashing buttons, and using the right trigger to pick things up and look at them. There’s still a mechanic for seeing premonitions of the future (this time in the form of paintings on walls), and there’s still a posh man who’s disconnected from the main plot shepherding you along between narrative moments in forth wall breaking scenes. If you’ve played Until Dawn, you’re going to know exactly what to expect out of Man of Medan’s core gameplay loop.

The only major change made to that basic formula, which will be a relief for anyone who lost an Until Dawn character to a notorious bug, is that you no longer have to hold your controller still to remain calm in tense moments. This is in part because XB1 and PC owners are not guaranteed to own motion controllers, but additionally because players of Until Dawn frequently found the game registering movement when the controller was perfectly stationary. That has now been replaced with a button pressing timing based mini game, which is much more reliably accurate.

In terms of changes to the Until Dawn formula, one of the most touted features of Man of Medan is a series of multiplayer modes. Until Dawn was a strictly single player horror experience, but a lot of people, myself included, played it as a makeshift multiplayer game by passing the controller back and forth during play.  Man of Medan offers a more structured version of this, by allowing up to five players to pick which characters they would like to play as, with the game then creating safe moments to pass the controller around. This mode, Movie Night, offers a better sense of ownership over individual characters, and avoids the risk of handing the controller over just as a QTE triggers, but is otherwise basically the same sort of experience as players were doing themselves with Until Dawn.

The more interesting multiplayer mode included in the game is Shared Story, a two player online co-op mode where players will at times control two different characters within one scene, and at other times split off and explore entirely different scenes for long stretches of time. This mode is considerably faster to complete, clocking in at closer to three and a half hours per playthrough, but this is largely because there are lengthy scenes that you are simply not present for, happening outside of your control.

When this Shared Story online multiplayer mode was first announced, I was a little skeptical of handing over control of half of my adventure to someone I had no sway over. Considering the high risk of characters dying, I was worried if would feel cheap if I lost a character to someone else’s on screen actions. Having now played the mode to completion however, I actually think it’s the best way to experience your first playthrough of the story. The game’s developer seems to agree, as it places Shared Story Multiplayer as the default menu option rather than singleplayer.

While I can’t vouch for the importance of playing in online co-op in future Dark Pictures anthology titles, in Man of Medan by playing through only half of the story, not seeing simultaneous scenes where you couldn’t be in both places at once, some of the game’s coolest mystery moments have far more shock, impact, and tension related to them. Resist the urge to talk to your multiplayer partner about what you’re experiencing, look out for clues, and if characters die learn from those deaths when you either play the other half of the story, or play the full game in single player. There are cool horror moments in this game which work far better if you don’t know more than your character knows. Don’t cheat yourself out of experiencing this particular narrative from a single consistent perspective. Knowing what every character knows is great for unraveling the secrets in subsequent playthroughs, but it’s a really cool experience I don’t think would be the same after a finished solo playthrough.

None of this is to say that Man of Medan is unenjoyable as a single player game, far from it. These new multiplayer modes add some cool moments, but in a single player playthrough has much the same level of quality as Until Dawn did. The shorter length of the experience really helps the pacing nicely, encouraging repeat playthroughs as a much more viable option. While I loved the tension and atmosphere built up by Until Dawn taking so long to get to its horror moments, Man of Medan is a much faster experience to get into, and explore the big late game choices for. I have played through the game three times prior to launch, and there seems to be enough variation in plot, with variation beginning early enough, that the game is well worth playing through more than once. Where Until Dawn felt like a horror TV season, Man of Medan feels more like a horror movie in its pace, something enjoyable in a single sitting.

By Switching up the focus from a large group of teens in the woods, to a small and much more closely tied group on a ghost ship, Man of Medan manages to avoid feeling like a retread of previously seen ground. Scenes in an introductory in game cutscene seem to hint at later games in the series potentially tackling settings akin to Silent Hill or The Ring, or the development team at least being inspired by those movies, and I am happy to say that changing up the specific horror subgenre being tackled seems to be enough to keep the Supermassive formula fresh. I’ll happilly take another of these short game in those genres.

It is worth noting, I reviewed Man of Medan on a regular model PS4, and occasionally saw slowdown, stuttering, and freezes in scene transitions which were not present when playing the game on a PS4 Pro at a preview event a few months back. It wasn’t a deal breaker, but there are some small performance hiccups here and there near complex scene transitions to be aware of.

Additionally, I want to take a moment before this review ends to discuss the game’s accessibility options. Players can replace button mashing with help buttons instead, turn off the timer for quick time event button prompts so you just need to press the right button rather than press the button fast, there are options to set a background behind subtitles, to change subtitle colours based on who is speaking, and to have sidebars pop up to better read text. The one aspect of this system which you need to be aware of is that the option to turn off timers for QTE button prompts is only available in single player. While i can understand that somewhat for online play, as some QTEs between two players require things to be timed together or play out different depending who presses the button first, it makes little sense not to allow the no timer QTE mode to be a setting for specific players in local co-op. You could theoretically allow player three only to turn on the setting, and it would effect nobody else’s experience in the group. This is one dissapointing oversight in an otherwise positive accessibility option.

Here’s the bottom line, if you like horror stories and interactive fiction, Man of Medan is a pretty great game. A single playthrough is on the short side, but it’s well worth replaying thanks to that short length and it’s level of variation. The online co-op mode is well worth using for a first playthrough if you have the chance, and the local co-op formalises something we all kind of did with Until Dawn anyway. The overall horror mystery was satisfying, the action set pieces were enjoyable, and I walked away really happy from Man of Medan. Seriously, three playthroughs in I already want to get back to playing more. It’s well worth checking out.