Supermassive Games found solid success with their 2015 survival horror game, Until Dawn, which I’ve previously written about here and here. As a fan of the game myself, I was excited to hear that the devs were planning to continue what they had going by cobbling together a series of standalone horror games called the Dark Pictures Anthology.
Until Dawn was retroactively marked as the ‘first’ of this series, and so Man of Medan is, naturally, the second installment in the DPA. In a similar fashion, the story follows a group of young men and women who end up in a dangerous and potentially supernatural situation, this time revolving around the mystery of the real-life ghost ship the Ourang Medan.
First thing’s first: If you were familiar with the Ourang Medan legend in the first place (I doubt many are), you would’ve figured out the ‘spoilery’ truth behind the events that unfold in the game immediately.
Or, like me, you might have figured out what was going on by the end of the short prologue just by paying attention. I was admittedly disappointed by this, and the fact that our between-chapters narrator figure The Curator offers you hints (which you can decline) on top of the strong implications felt a little condescending.
Anyway, enough vague beatings around the bush. Let’s talk story!
Your initial chapter puts you in control of a pair of military men whose ship, the Ourang Medan, has docked in a Chinese port. They return to said ship as it finishes loading on some questionable-looking cargo, which is later seen leaking a mysterious mist. As this happens, all hell breaks loose on the ship: they find fellow soldiers apparently scared to death and encounter another officer running around wildly shooting at everything.
As with Until Dawn’s first chapter, these two soldiers die through seemingly supernatural causes and the credits roll. This sequence introduces the Curator, who sits down across a desk from the player and discusses their choices, exactly as The Analyst character did in Until Dawn.
After some vague hinting and promises to be a neutral party, we kick-off the story for real. Man Of Medan revolves around the survival of five young adults: Alex, Brad, Julia, Conrad, and Fliss. The four former are thrill seekers wanting to dive around an undiscovered wreck, and Fliss is the captain they hire to do so. After only a day at sea, their boat is boarded by a group of modern day pirates, but a severe storm forces all of them to board the ghost ship that suddenly appears when things get dangerous.
From here the player attempts to keep the group alive between avoiding their captors, figuring out a plan of escape, and figuring out just what the hell is going on on the ship.
Man Of Medan plays very similarly to how Until Dawn did. As the saying goes — if it’s not broken, why fix it? Fixed camera angles, hidden in-game hints (which are as vague and unhelpful as the previous game’s), split-second choices, and lots of quick time events. They did replace the ‘HOLD STILL’ don’t-let-the-controller’s-motion-detectors-detect-motion mechanic with a rhythm pushing mini-game to keep the character calm, which I think was was neither better nor worse as far as improvement. It’s simply different and that’s OK!
The big draw of Man of Medan, at least in my opinion, is the multiplayer capability added to the game. There are two multiplayer modes: Shared Story and Movie Night.
Shared Story allows two players to play their games simultaneously online. Players will be alerted with who is playing what character every couple of scenes. In some cases, they play two separate parts of the game that sync up with the other’s, but there are also occasions where two players share the same scene and have to take turns making decisions.
Honestly though, I wasn’t very excited for that multiplayer mode. I was (and am) more interested in Movie Night, which allows up to five players to pick a character and trade off one controller between scenes. After each chapter, individual players are awarded with superficial but fun little superlatives, such as ‘most relationship increases.’ This mode appeals to me personally because it encourages me to grab my friends and hang out, experiencing an interactive horror story together. I would have loved for a mode like this to be available for Until Dawn.
The other major gameplay element in Man of Medan is the addition of the Curator’s Cut, which unfortunately (at this time) only was available to those who pre-ordered the game. Upon completion of the theatrical cut, the Curator’s Cut of Man Of Medan allows you to play through the game again from different perspectives.
For example, players start the game by controlling Brad, who approaches his brother Alex as they prepare to set sail on their diving adventure. In the Curator’s cut, the same scene plays out but with players in control of Alex instead. In theatrical, you may have a conversation between Alex and his girlfriend Julia, whereas in Curator you’re controlling her brother Conrad and can overhear the pair carrying out a conversation you normally would be participating in.
It’s a very interesting way to add replay value to the game, which is why I was confused as to why it would be limited to pre-orders only.
I wanted to like Man of Medan more than I presently do. It isn’t a bad game by any means, but in comparison to Until Dawn, it didn’t feel quite as good. Obviously the character models, the lighting, the sound design — all of that has improved because technology has improved over the past four years. Man of Medan doesn’t fall short in those categories at all!
But first and foremost, the game is short. It promises around four to five hours, but depending on your choices (and how fast you kill off your characters) it can be closer to three. The Shared Story mode previously mentioned assists in this greatly, as each player is seeing only about half of the game themselves. A lot of popular Let’s Players online finished the game in three to four episodes and as the credits rolled, they sat back and said: ‘Wait. That’s it?’
And the story itself just feels clunky and incomplete. Let’s put aside the fact that some of the interactions between characters can come off as irrational and weird — Julia yells come at me shark! after getting a scare, for example — and just think about all the weird loose ends. Mild spoiler warning, but I’ll be vague regardless.
There is a scene in which Fliss discovers a room containing Satanic ritual items, including a book that outlines the steps to complete something with a ceremony. The book describes a ritual that requires five people to complete. I excitedly assumed that this was something we could do to get a secret ending, so long as all five characters survive — but it wasn’t. It was just a creepy weird book and nothing ever came of it.
The game also doesn’t do a great job of keeping up the what’s real? aspect of the story. In Until Dawn, the twist of certain events being a set-up became evident a couple chapters into the game. However, there were also some undeniable that can’t be human enemies that kept us guessing!
But Man of Medan immediately hints that the only ‘real’ threats are our pirate captors and everything else is just in our characters’ heads. When the player figures that out, those seemingly supernatural elements don’t have as much fear associated with them. We know they’re not real, even if the characters don’t. That really ruined the immersion for me.
Finally: The characters. One would think that reducing your playable characters from seven to five would allow you to develop them more, but again I found myself disappointed. Let me sum up each character for you:
Conrad: He’s a privileged white asshole who just wants to flirt with Fliss. You can make him redeem himself and do some brave things, but outside of the above and caring about his sister Julia, that’s it.
Alex: The insecure older brother who’s nervous about his relationship with Julia. The defacto leader, even if he can be a bit of a tool. He may or may not propose to Julia depending on your choices.
Brad: Younger brother who’s an anxious nerd, super smart but dorky and socially awkward. Totally the brains of the group but it’s not utilized enough to make him valuable once they got on the boat.
Julia: Honestly a fucking nightmare, but that’s just her character model (her smiles intensify the discomfort of uncanny valley). She’s a privileged white girl dating Alex who really pushes to do illegal diving shit because she paid good money too! Also kind of a meme. Think ‘girls just wanna have fun’ but in human form.
Fliss: We actually discovered some character development with Fliss! Early in the game, you can find items on the boat that indicate she has money troubles and even went so far as to get a (very, very poor and unconvincing) fake ID. But we don’t get to hear more about it! I was so mad. Fliss is my favorite character, not only because of the tiny sliver of depth, but also because she’s angry at the others for being rich pushy assholes. Also: why does she have tattoos similar to the pirate captain?! Tell me, devs! TELL ME!
Man of Medan is not a bad game. It’s well-produced, the actors do a great job despite their awkward dialogue scenes, and there are a few generally solid scares. The multiplayer aspect is highly appreciated and honestly, the only reason I’d ever consider playing this game multiple times — even with its multiple endings!
But it’s too short, the story treats the players like they’re dumb, and the characters feel like bland cliches a lot of the time. The Until Dawn cast of teenagers were cliches, but at least they were amusing! The only reason I didn’t want to get these five killed was because I didn’t want to essentially ‘lose’ or ‘get a bad ending.’
Back in Until Dawn, I purposely wanted Emily to survive because she was a bitch and everyone hated her and that thought highly amused me! And I liked Ashley and Sam and even warmed up to Mike after he befriended a dog! Here? Not so much.
The next installment of the Dark Picture Anthology, Little Hope, is supposedly focused on witch trials of some kind, and another rumor went around that a later installment would be inspired by The Ring. I’m willing to be optimistic and hope that Supermassive and Bandai learn from their mistakes regarding Man of Medan an use that feedback to make their next games even better — including figuring out better damn titles!