Finding Gold On A Ghost Ship
Supermassive Games, developers of Man of Medan, had an interesting early history. They developed a variety of Little Big Planet DLC and even in a few spinoffs. Then, in 2016, they truly began to show what they were capable of with the release of Until Dawn. Three years removed from that release, The Dark Pictures Anthology: Man Of Medan shows that they're more than one-trick ponies.
Many developers that you know of gain their notoriety when they discover their formula. This is the thing that that developer can do well and can make a lot of. For Bungie it's first-person shooters, for Telltale it was episodic adventure games, and Supermassive has found choose your own adventure games. They've adapted a format of storytelling familiar to all into a compelling and enjoyable video game.
Man of Medan's Cast Assembled
Man of Medan opens to a scene of two drunk sailors returning to their ship. That night on the SS Ourang Medan all the crew died at the hands of ghostly figures. Those that didn't die at the hands of these apparitions perished from fear-induced heart attacks, their faces contorting in agony. No one ever hears from The SS Ourang Medan again. Delivering context on the game's setting during the prologue works to immediately grab the players focus. Before we even have a chance to meet the main cast we jump right into the tense tone that will continue throughout the game. The prologue also allows for the scares to begin early instead of needing a gradual ramping up process. There isn't much "choose your own" in this adventure yet but the prologue serves as a tutorial. In this brief time, players will get introduces to all gameplay elements.
Skipping to the present day we meet Conrad, his sister Julia, her boyfriend Alex, and his younger brother Brad. Conrad and Julia have chartered Fliss and her boat to locate an undiscovered wreck. Unfortunately, bad luck befalls this voyage. Not only does a storm appear on their first night, but pirates siege their vessel. As waves churn the boat, they run into the SS Ourang Medan. Forced onboard by the pirates the group begins to unravel the mystery of what happened to the crew as they start to see their own horrific visions.
Each character gets an introduction that includes their character traits. Brad is somewhat timid, Conrad talks a bigger game than he can back up, and Fliss isn't about to take lip from anyone. Choices made by the player over the course of the narrative can influence these traits. Moving to five playable characters compared to Until Dawn's eight make it a lot less chaotic. This also gives each character enough time to develop and for a connection to develop.
Making decisions in Man of Medan
While on the Medan, the group has the simple goal of staying alive and making a getaway on their boat. How that journey unfolds though depends on the decisions that the characters make. Even as early as Conrad and Brad meeting you can choose whether to accept an invitation for a beer or refuse it. The choices that you make can not only lead to Brad throwing up over the side of the ship but also sets up where he'll be later. Each conversation you have, each room you chose to investigate, they all give you different scenarios compared to later playthroughs.
During an initial playthrough of Man of Medan, I reached a point where Brad and Alex separate from the group and find themselves held at gunpoint. On my second playthrough, it was Alex and Fliss at gunpoint. The first time in this scenario a character got killed, while repeating it both characters were able to survive. It wasn't just the moment before they entered that room that decided who would be there. Which characters are alive, character choices, known information about the ghost ship. All this and more play into which characters end up in each situation.
While Choose Your Own adventures aren't anything new in video games it's Man of Medan's unique position as an anthology that allows Supermassive to create wild differences in the story. There's no need to worry about characters being in certain places by the end of the story for a sequel, or that they'll even survive the story as there's nothing to come after. Much like Until Dawn, you can have all characters in Man of Medan die, or they can all survive. It adds weight to your actions knowing that no one is safe and sometimes even making decisions that seem correct can have you lose a character.
The wild variance of endings and paths along the way can also help to push you to pick up the game again, alone or with friends. You can try for everyone to survive, or make it your goal to kill everyone as fast as possible if you're into that. There is an added benefit in exploring these different paths as you repeat Man of Medan. You'll get access to more information about the SS Ourang Medan and its mission, and about the terrifying monsters onboard. This is one of the few story-based games that promote its replayability that I can genuinely see myself repeating a few times over.
Interacting with the world of Man of Medan
The ways that you interact with and move around the world are very simple. As you walk through the eerie ship, you'll see flashing lights for interactable objects. These might be diaries and ship logs to read, derelict items, and pictures that can offer premonitions to one of the many possible futures. The world contains interactable objects that fill you in on the story without outright telling you. You'll hear about strange happenings, or about all the crew being warned away from a certain part of the ship. Then when you go there you'll get to experience it for yourself.
While you're exploring and navigating through dark and wet corridors for a lot of the game, there are also times where your character might need to get somewhere in a hurry. These sections activate quick time events prompting the player to press or mash a face button or even move the on-screen cursor to aim an attack. The reaction time needed for these QTEs gets fast, especially when having to chain them in quick succession. It's sequences like these that you're going to be more likely to lose a character on your adventure. For those that haven't memorized the face buttons of controllers, there are accessibility settings to help. You can hold instead of mashing a button or remove the timeout on QTEs completely. With so much riding on successful QTEs, the occasional technical glitch can cause great frustration.
Monsters of Man of Medan
Man of Medan looks great. Characters are a faithful recreation of their real actor and it's easy to spot. Ship interiors show in detail how derelict and rusty it is. One of the drawbacks of the setting of the game is that there's only so much variety with a ghost ship setting. There's nothing wrong with tight rusted hallways, corpses, and water dripping everywhere. If that's all you see then it has a chance of becoming stale. As you explore you can see the level of detail that went into their creation. Pushing the system so hard also has its drawbacks. During gameplay, character textures pop in seconds after they appear on-screen. The framerate also dropped as the camera swept through environments. While annoying it was never of any detriment while exploring, during QTE segments it caused trouble. When a prompt appears late or input drops it could mean death.
Man of Medan, unlike Until Dawn, isn't a single-player only experience. While in Until Dawn had an improvised multiplayer where you pass around the controller Supermassive has added true multiplayer to Man of Medan. In Movie Night each player will put in their name and select one of the five main characters to control, player one will also complete the prologue section. Each human player can look out for themselves, roleplay the characters they picked, or just do whatever they want. Getting together a group of friends for Movie Night mode will give you a great chance to not only experience the story with others but also will likely lead to unexpected paths. Watching friends playing Man of Medan, many secrets and even doorways suddenly revealed themselves. Having that second player explore the world in a way that I wouldn't opens up new options that wouldn't have been possible before.
The Dark Pictures Anthology: Man Of Medan Review | Multiplayer Movie Nights
The second multiplayer mode is known as Shared Story Mode. Here, you can play online with a friend, each making decisions along the way. During points where characters split up, you'll find that you and your friend split up too. Players might only get a first-hand experience of part of the story but will need to rely on shared information to be able to piece together the whole picture. Depending on how you and your friends play games you might all work together for survival or it is everyone for themselves.
As the first part of the Dark Picture Anthology, Man of Medan is a great first step that immediately left me wanting more. From the wonderful introduction of characters and setting to the volume of possibilities, it's clear that Supermassive Games has been further refining their formula. Man of Medan is a fun and spooky experience from start to finish with a good enough hook that even when my heart was racing I was wanting to forge ahead to get to the bottom of things. While there were drawbacks such as awful texture loading and frequent frame drops it was never game-breaking.
- Graphically Beautiful...
- Intriguing Story
- Genuinely Scary
- Actual Replayability
- Multiplayer Modes
- ...At The Cost Of Performance