Man of Medan, the first entry in Supermassive Game’s Dark Pictures Anthology, isn’t particularly scary. If it were a movie, it’d be the kind that releases direct to video, one of those schlocky DVDs lining the convenience store displays stuffed between the trail mix and sunglasses. The usual character archetypes are there: the nerd, the hunk, the blonde, the stranger, the horny creep that no one should put up with but do because at least one death should be cathartic. Queue up the ghost ship, murderous pirates, and cheap jump scares galore.
As a film, it would be fun, but familiar and forgettable. You have to have a taste for it. But as co-op adventure game, Man of Medan is unparalleled.
Man of Medan plays a lot like Supermassive’s previous PS4 exclusive, Until Dawn. Think of it like a movie where you take control of one character at a time, oscillating between action scenes broken up by quicktime events and dialogue choices. Occasionally there’s a small stretch of exploration where you’re given some time to look for story clues, weapons, traps, and soak in the setting. It’s very Telltale (RIP).
The intro of Man of Medan is a short prologue that sets up the scene and introduces us to two Army men, Joe and Charlie, who are stationed on the Ourang Medan sometime post World War II.
After having a few beers at a dockside market in Manchuria (a location in Northeast Asia), Joe ends up having his fortune told by a mysterious, Chinese fortuneteller.
Depending on the dialogue choices chosen here, Joe hears his fate and pretty much brushes it off and doesn’t think much of it.
Joe and Charlie then go back on the ship in a drunken state and they both get in trouble with their sergeant for their disorderly conduct, resulting in them being locked up in their cells.
Meanwhile, Joanna’s playing as Captain Fliss, cooly rejecting Conrad the Creep’s every pickup line. (In my second solo playthrough, they get to second base. I was curious!) But I only know what Joanna tells me, so when she says a boat is rapidly approaching our own, I start to worry. I really start to worry when the boat speeds off and drags the diver line across the front of the plane, knocking the cockpit clean off.
Imagine how I feel when I see two explosions up top as I surface. Do I swim up and risk giving Julia the bends or stay cool and depressurize with her neurotic boyfriend? At least he didn’t just ask Julia to marry him this time around. The next playthrough, he does, and I send Julia paddling to the surface ASAP. No thanks, pal.
It’s my turn to listen to Joanna panic and explain what’s happening while juggling her own potent dialogue choices or quicktime events—I’m in the dark. Eventually Joanna gets some vital info across that informs my next move. We take our time to depressurize, but in my next solo run I give Julia the bends on purpose. Then I make her drink beer. Things don’t end well for Julia without Joanna’s moral guidance.
Apply that framework to even more threatening and complex scenarios. Rather than relationship problems, safe diving protocol, and mystery explosions, it’s all vengeful men with knives, grim spectres, and the kind of monsters you may or may not expect to find on an abandoned ship with a dark history. Things get messy.
Half of Man of Medan keeps Joanna and I separated, playing unique, interconnected scenes at the same time. And based on the clues our characters discover, the decisions we make for them, and which discoveries and decisions we choose to share, we’re able to both avoid disaster and steer headlong into it. To make things trickier, not every character’s perspective is completely reliable, not every successfully tapped-out quick time event is a win, and not every noble choice leads to a noble outcome. Picking up on little details pays off in that first run.
Alone, I’m a nihilistic monster. Together, we’re the hot people rescue force playing what essentially amounts to telephone and two adventure games simultaneously. It’s a tense, hilarious combo.
My Personal Thoughts
ManThe Dark Pictures Anthology: Man of Medan has everything you could ever love in a horror game. To start with, it is based on an allegedly real ghost ship called the SS Ourang Medan. Then, it uses eerie visuals and creepy sounds to mess with your head. To top it all, your life in the game is determined by the choices made by others. of Medan puts you and some friends right in the middle of a horror story, letting you tough it out together or throw each other under the bus. The choice is yours The game features three modes—solo mode, an online multiplayer and a local multiplayer, also known as the movie night mode. The most vanilla of the three modes is “solo”.
The story in this mode is linear and since you control all the characters, there is little that is unpredictable. The choices you make for your character traits also seem less inconsequential in this mode. That said, the game does manage to get its way, especially through psychological fear, with more than its fair share of jump scares. Though the jump scares are cheap, in most cases it works well to create the environment and get the adrenalin going.
In the co-op modes, however, the Medan is another beast altogether. Here, both online and offline, you can assign characters to friends or players online—up to five of them. The story unravels through the eyes of each character and the big draw here is that you get to make your own choices. These choices don’t only affect the outcome of the game, but also your character’s traits and those of the supporting characters.
This potentially adds another dimension to the game, as you don’t know what choices the next person is going to make.
The overarching story of the game is strictly okay; it engages in a lot of clichés and that is slightly annoying, when playing the game in solo mode. The characters look like a standard horror group. It feels like we have watched this bunch in some similar movie before. While Medan is based on real people, the animation and the graphics are subpar, making the movements and animated sequences robotic. It made it hard to connect with the characters. The connection is a little easier to make when you are playing with other people, as you are focused on one character.
Another potential problem is the fixed camera angles. To make the player feel like they are in a claustrophobic situation with nowhere to run, the developer, Supermassive Games, has gone with fixed cameras. This plays out in some scenes nicely, delivering jump scares and the feeling of dread, but most of the time, it comes in the way of exploring. The tradeoff is not really worth it.
Despite many flaws, Man of Medan is a perfect game for a movie night, where every person gets to play a different character. If you are planning some get-together during the upcoming festival season, this should be on your list of activities. If you are looking for a horror game to play alone, there are many others that will deliver better results.