Cinematic horror game Until Dawn was a sleeper hit when it launched in 2015, prompting Sony and developer Supermassive Games to collaborate on a further pair of exclusives (for PSVR) in Rush of Blood and The Inpatient, as well as the PlayLink title Hidden Agenda. Now that relationship no longer applies, with Bandai Namco publishing The Dark Pictures Anthology: Man of Medan across multiple platforms, though the high levels of polish synonymous with Supermassive’s PS4 exclusive output are thankfully still present.
In fact, Man of Medan isn’t much of a departure from what you might expect on the whole. The Dark Pictures Anthology is proposed to be a series of standalone horror games where each takes inspiration from a subgenre of horror cinema, this debut entry specifically marrying the home invasion and ghost story tropes into one fresh new spin on things.
Anthological horror has been around for decades in the realms of literature, radio, film, and television, though it takes an enigmatic character known as “The Curator” to introduce unfamiliar gamers to the concept. The suave Brit—excellently performed by Pip Torrens and anchored in his opulent library—breaks the fourth wall by delivering cryptic monologues direct to camera, displaying an omnipotent degree of knowledge and also providing events with a wider context.
Framed by The Curator, as all future Dark Pictures games will be, Man of Medan begins with a flashback. Based loosely on the real-world legend of a floating ghost ship named the SS Ourang Medan, players are taken back to 1947 to join a couple of young US soldiers on their trip home from WWII. This section offers a veiled look at the fateful night that the ship earned its ghoulish reputation, but doesn’t make the strongest first impression since it’s clear that the pair haven’t been brought to life with the same care and attention as the game’s main cast.
Jumping ahead to 2019, a roster of five playable characters with a range of clashing and complementary personality traits are introduced. Perhaps most notable is the brash Conrad, played by Shawn Ashmore, who along with everyone else has his diva moments to help create and enroll you in a drama-filled group dynamic. The game subscribes closely to what you’d expect of classic teen horror, however, thanks to Man of Medan’s inherent interactivity, you’ll never be tempted to shout at the screen in exhausted frustration as a brain dead victim does something stupid to invite their own death. Here, you’re in control and can find out if you really have what it takes to survive.
As a result of an early brush with some local pirates, the crew eventually find themselves aboard the now derelict SS Ourang Medan. It’s here that things start to spiral out of control, with an apparent supernatural entity posing an ethereal threat from one side as the aforementioned pirates bear down on the other. Being pitted as the double underdog produces a pervasively tense atmosphere, compelling you to wonder what’s around each corner and almost forbidding you to set the DualShock 4 down.
Of course, the ship’s rusted metal and unhealthy creaking sounds further contribute to an eerie sense of unease while traversing its claustrophobic, labyrinthine steel corridors. Environments are richly textured, amazingly lit, and always shown at their best courtesy of the game’s fixed camera angles. These angles also help to more effectively convey the story, with techniques like titled frames and voyeuristic camera placement foreshadowing what’s to come; it’s incredibly filmic, even down to featuring the trademark black bars and making use of focus pulling to control when you see what.
Not All Smooth Sailing
Character models also look superb, but their facial animations can have a touch of the uncanny valley about them. A lot of this can be attributed to the fact that the game uses actual actors and falls just short of photorealism, causing an odd disconnect that can’t be unseen. It can certainly be distracting, especially when coupled with infrequent instances of poor writing and/or voice acting, but these mostly feel at home in a game that openly apes cheesy horror movies.
More likely to pull you out of the experience is the inconsistent frame rate, even on PS4 Pro. A number of scenes exhibit noticeable stuttering, though Supermassive has already been proactive about patching Man of Medan to improve its technical performance pre-release. That being said, there’s nothing significant enough to throw off your timing and cause you to fail one of the many QTEs, for example, so the game’s still very much playable.
“Playable” is a phrase that might actually cause some contention on this occasion, as in terms of gameplay things are kept very basic on the whole. As a rule, QTEs dictate the direction of all action sequences—where failure could reap repercussions as severe as the permanent death of a main character—while the rest of your time will be spent slowly walking through the ship and physically interacting with tactile clues in order to try to decipher what’s going on.
Character movement feels heavy and almost cumbersome, clearly driven more by a desire for realistic animation than any snappy response to player input, making it feel as though you’re puppeteering instead of embodying each of the playable characters. This could be intentional, as The Curator does point out that in their role players are “interfering” with events, but it’s nonetheless annoying when you can’t properly align yourself to interact with an object.
From Dusk Until Dawn
Even considering all that, every gameplay grievance becomes minor with the realization that narrative is the clear focal point of Man of Medan — a department in which it thoroughly delivers. There’s no mere illusion of choice here, rather every seemingly insignificant decision potentially holds far-reaching consequences, which are always honored by the game’s impressively mailable continuity. This (along with collectibles, trophies, and unlockable extras) makes replaying Man of Medan an exciting prospect, but especially so when done online with a friend in order to see the story unfold from new character perspectives.
Just like Until Dawn before it, Man of Medan is a knowingly schlocky and incredibly fun horror movie in video game form, tailor-made to bridge the gap between those two mediums. It’s never truly terrifying, but always edge-of-your-seat thrilling right through to what can be quite an abrupt ending. As jarring as that may be, it’s a great way for Supermassive to leave players wanting more and ultimately keen to check out additional short-form, budget-priced entries in the intriguing Dark Pictures Anthology.
Man of Medan review code provided by publisher. Reviewed on PS4. For more information on scoring, please read our Review Policy.