The anthology series The Dark Pictures is the current project of Until Dawn creators Supermassive Games. This interactive survival horror undertaking will culminate in eight games to be released every six months, with more games planned if the series is successful. The first installment in the series, Man of Medan, kicks off the anthology in a fairly average fashion with little to get excited about. That being said, there are enough cheesy, B-movie horror tropes here to make for an entertaining — albeit short —horror adventure.
Man of Medan revolves around a group of five people who end up trapped on a creepy and abandoned World War II ship where they are hunted by a group of pirates. As the group explores the ship looking for a way to escape — all whilst evading the pirates — things start getting weird, and it becomes clear that appearances are not all that they seem. From a story perspective, this setup allows for plenty of campy horror fun, but it is wrapped in a relatively standard narrative which doesn’t delve into anything particularly new or innovative. Even the twist in the story is pretty predictable, and can be seen coming a mile away. I didn’t feel quite as engaged with the narrative of Man of Medan as I did with that of Until Dawn; the setting of an old and wrecked warship is quite inspired, and definitely heightens the creeping feeling of fear, but the characters are all rather generic and do little to make me want to keep them alive (except one character called Fliss, who is somewhat more likeable by virtue of being roped into the story by her work as a ship captain rather than just being another annoying and stereotypical young adult in a horror game).
Player choice can change how the characters behave in Man of Medan (as was the case in Until Dawn), affecting both their personality traits and relationships with other characters, and while this is always an interesting aspect, little is changed up from the Until Dawn formula. The experience is also surprisingly short; as part of an anthology, Man of Medan could not be expected to be full length, but players should manage to complete it within about 3 to 4 hours. The game demands multiple play-throughs due to the sheer amount of possibilities, but it is still such a short experience that the pacing sometimes feels a bit off. The introduction to the characters lasts a bit too long, whereas the more exciting moments aboard the ship often seem too brief.
In terms of game play, Man of Medan is mostly an interactive story with quick time events and optional collectables, some of which can change the course of events. Until Dawn‘s ‘Don’t Move’ feature is replaced with a ‘Keep Calm’ element, which is a little more interactive: whereas the ‘Don’t Move’ in Until Dawn required the player to stay completely still to avoid detection (I must admit I would often cheat during these segments and just put my controller on the desk), Man of Medan’s ‘ Keep Calm’ has the player tap a button in time with the characters heartbeat. This is a more effective way of keeping the player engaged, as there is no way to cheat. You have to keep with the rhythm, or else your characters will panic, and possibly die.
One of the most interesting features of Man of Medan is the new multiplayer element. Rather than just a single-player story, there is the option to play with others either online or locally (Movie Night Mode involves simply switching the controller between one another). There is a lot of fun to be had when playing this way, as different people can be in charge of different characters — though much of the entertainment comes from the interactions with those you are playing with rather than the actual game. It is sometimes genuinely fascinating to see how a different player takes on certain situations (my boyfriend managed to get all of his characters killed, whilst mine survived, but I digress), and this mode is a simple yet effective way of introducing multiplayer that elevates the game significantly.
The fear of death occurring at any time is also one of the better elements, though it is noticeably a bit more difficult to get characters killed then in Until Dawn. Characters will die from failed quick time events, but you are never quite sure which one it is going to be, leading to uncertainty that creates a feeling of suspense every time a quick time event pops up. Certain dialogue options can also lead to death, so choosing your words carefully is a necessity. Characters can die before they even get on board the ship, so paying attention is critical — one wrong move can mean your death, which is an effective way of gripping the player.
The biggest problem with Man of Medan, however, can be the technical issues that plague it. Dropped frame rates and textures that don’t load properly, facial animations that range from inexpressive and robotic to hilariously over the top — very uncanny valley. The performances of the actors aren’t bad, but when paired with such jarring animation it takes away any emotion that the actors are trying to portray. This is an issue that was prevalent in Until Dawn as well, but it wasn’t quite as painful to watch as some of the moments here are. For a game released four years later, the facial animations should not look worse, but unfortunately this is the case. The amount of bugs and ridiculous character animations didn’t exactly spoil Man of Medan for me, but it did break some of the immersion — and for a horror game, that can be a significant problem.
Man of Medan is far from a failure for the first of The Dark Pictures anthology, but for a genre with so much potential, Supermassive Games does little to change up the mechanics and formula from their previous title. The game relies mostly on jump scares for cheap frights (one of the more disappointing aspects), and is marred by technical glitches and odd animations. However, there are plenty of positives as well. The introduction of multiplayer is brilliant, the story is short yet interesting, and there are genuinely nerve-wracking segments where you don’t know whether one wrong button press could mean the death of your character. There is a tease of the next anthology episode (called Little Hope), which will feature actor Will Poulter, and it looks interesting enough to keep me invested in the anthology for now.
Man of Medan has its fair share of ups and downs, but it ultimately makes for a middling affair with small scale scares.
Check out the trailer for the next installment, The Dark Pictures: Little Hope, below.