Horror games have always found themselves an audience, offering players the experience of terror and gore in a controlled environment. After the success of Until Dawn and less so for Hidden Agenda, developer Supermassive Games is aiming for a hit in the interactive horror genre with The Dark Pictures Anthology and its first entry, Man of Medan
Throughout the five to six hours spent in this new title, one cannot help but feel that it is infinitely better as a multiplayer experience than previous offerings by the same studio.
Like Until Dawn, the base formula remains largely similar, as players take charge of a cast of characters caught up in a bad situation. This time around, players control five individuals on the high seas, an encounter with shady individuals, and throw in a ghost ship, and the scares ensue.
From exploration, dialogue choices, actions, to quicktime events (QTEs) that test your reflexes, you get to steer the story in whichever direction you wish. Whoever survives or dies, it is entirely in your hands, whether you know it or not.
If you are not a fan of the tropes of horror films, or even Supermassive’s brand of storytelling, not much will change your mind here. However, if you are into it, Man of Medan is simply the best effort put out by the studio to date in terms of gameplay.
While Man of Medan allows for both solo and offline and online co-op play, it is when you and your online co-op partner are involved in different stakes and varying encounters simultaneously that spikes up the horror and excitement levels.
The duality manifests itself from the onset. While you could be playing as Julia diving in the deep sea with her boyfriend Alex, your partner will be on board the Duke of Medan as Captain Fliss trying to fend off the advances of the horndog that is Conrad. Your perspectives never cross, and the only way you know what is happening on the other end is via your partner.
Screaming at jump scares and fumbling over button presses only heightens the pressure as your partner encourages or chastise you, and it makes even the most innocuous of decisions into pressure cooker situations, as you debate and decide under the duress of time.
As a Solo player, you can be the one trying to doom everyone to an early death, but as partners, that decision is not up to you.
In fact, if you were to go through the scenarios individually without being able to talk to each other in real-time, you will feel even more immersed in the scenes. Making snap decisions and giving in to your emotions tend to lend a little more credence to what we usually see in films and shows when characters make seemingly dumb choices.
However, that would not be as fun. Although Solo play deprives you of a partner, it also makes you play through all of the scenes (barring some exclusive to online co-op), which removes the tension of not seeing the whole picture.
Information is vital, but it remains a double-edged sword, capable of saving lives and dooming others. Not everything you see in Man of Medan is what it seems, and whatever action you take can lead to somewhere totally unexpected. Exploring and paying attention to the details in the world matter more than you think.
But what is a horror story without some mishaps and gruesome endings? Performing certain action sequences and even keeping calm requires players to successfully complete QTEs. It can be mashing a button, performing a sequence of button presses correctly, or keeping your rhythm in sync with your heartbeat.
They are not difficult by any stretch of the imagination, but they come thick and fast at times, and can be confusing and downright unfair if you are not paying full attention. The consequences can be dire as well, sending your character to their demise even if you just miss one button press. The only gripe with the QTEs are the rhythmic pulse types, which leaves the littlest of room for error, and can take some time to catch their timing.
At least you get to witness some of the most visceral and graphically satisfying deaths when you fail, and it is helped by the stunning work put into bringing the various characters to life. The motion capture and animation feel realistic and hefty like actual people, and the lighting in Man of Medan set the mood perfectly. The clever placement of the semi-fixed cameras enhances the creepiness permeating throughout the game.
The only bad thing about the visual fidelity of the game is the occasional facial tics during closeups. While the characters’ faces are brilliantly realised, their smiles and their teeth can really freak you out sometimes.
Man of Medan’s story as a whole is an enjoyable, sometimes plodding, trip through subverted expectations, and the more you dig into the backstory, the better it becomes. It is more than just a standard ghost ship tale, and everything you experience and see only serves to enhance the legend even more. Knowing the full picture will help you appreciate the craft that went into setting the stage for Man of Medan.
Interspersed between gameplay section are visits by The Curator, an enigmatic presence and omniscient voyeur that addresses the player directly. Much like The Analyst in Until Dawn, the character played by Pip Torrens is a standout despite his limited screen time and is a delight to behold as he muses about choices and consequences. His role in The Dark Pictures Anthology should be a recurring one, and that is a great thing.
The rest of the cast is headlined by Quantum Break/X-Men’s Shawn Ashmore as Conrad. Alongside Arielle Palik (Julia), Chris Sandiford (Brad), Ayisha Issa (Fliss), and Kareem Tristan Alleyne (Alex), the cast gives a believable and entertaining performance as the various archetypes of horror stories.
Be it solo, couch co-op, or online co-op, Man of Medan is made for replayability. Whether it is trying to keep everyone alive, to discover all there is to see, or to unravel the mysteries, it is an engaging romp filled with jump scares and bubbling tension. If you have an online partner to do it with, even better.
GEEK REVIEW SCORE
A familiar story made better with a partner, Man of Medan is enjoyable either way.
Gameplay - 8/10
Story - 8/10
Presentation - 9/10
Value - 9/10