One bad choice in video games, be it big or small, can cause a ripple effect that affects your entire story. In most games, this choice can typically involve siding with one character instead of another or it’s failing to hit a quick-time action at the right moment. These decisions come few and far between. But, with narrative-driven games, the progression is all about the choices. For Supermassive Games’ latest entry in their horror lineup, The Dark Pictures Anthology: Man of Medan, the short horror story returns to deliver a narrative experience that feels right at home for anyone who loved the brand’s biggest survival horror launch yet, Until Dawn.
Man of Medan centers on the story of four friends enjoying an underwater diving trip in the South Pacific Ocean. After uncovering a WWII plane at the bottom of the sea, the group (Brad, Alex, Julia, and Conrad), along with their guide and boat captain Fliss, are caught in a dangerous storm. A series of unfortunate events soon brings the group to a mysterious abandoned ship, which houses dangerous foes, pesky ghosts, and a mystery that could cost them their lives. Throughout the course of the game, the player must make decisions that will affect the progression of the story and alter the characters’ personality traits. The player also has the ability to save all characters, potentially kill some, or lose them all completely.
As compared to Until Dawn, which was a singular story experience, Man of Medan is the first entry in an ongoing anthology video game series. Each game will focus on a new supernatural story (in some cases, inspired by real-life legends) and new characters, but the game will be framed through the retelling by The Curator, a mysterious man who holds a collection of scary stories. The next story in the anthology series will be The Dark Pictures Anthology: Little Hope, which brings the story to a small town.
When it comes to gameplay, Man of Medan sticks closely to the theme of a “moral compass.” Players typically get to make a decision between one of three options: their head, their heart, or no answer. By selecting a choice, the answer alters a character’s trait, changes dialogue, affects relationships, and impacts different outcomes to the ending. This butterfly effect is where Man of Medan/The Dark Pictures Anthology shines because it offers up a slightly new narrative experience each time. The changes aren’t vastly dramatic, but they can alter how the story is told, whether it’s making characters lovable/hated or unlocking new scenes. There are some logic-based decisions where you must choose between one of two options to progress the story; however, these A/B choices work organically as part of the set scenes.
There’s a lot to discover while playing Man of Medan. Similar to Until Dawn, the player can search through locations to find and examine items to expand the story further. Written notes, newspaper clippings, books, artwork, and other random items are scattered throughout the game that shed light on the mystery and could prevent horrors from happening, if the player only takes the time to read them. One of those specific items are picture frames, which provide premonitions for the player to aid or warn them of a pivotal scene. (Helpful reminder: white frames inform you of something good while bad frames warn you of something dangerous.) The story does get affected by what the player picks up, so it is advantageous to explore.
Man of Medan also includes two game modes to expand the experience with friends: “Shared Story” which lets two friends play together online, and “Movie Night” which lets players pass the controller among each other during a group play. These modes have the same story narrative, but it’s more about the fun of having friends involved in the story too. I enjoyed the modes, but I would’ve preferred a version I could play with strangers/non-friends online. It can be hard at times to get a group together to play a full playthrough. Plus, just imagine having your game in the hands of people playing the other characters – it puts survival horror in a whole new field!
Speaking of the story, it doesn’t quite hit the same punch as Until Dawn. The characters aren’t as interesting or deep, the possible paths don’t vary too much, and the stakes aren’t as high once you make it halfway through the game. For example, it’s easy to deduce the supernatural story and how to work around it after you’ve encountered a few spirits on the ship. In addition, even if you made sure to avoid key pieces, the characters themselves will work out the truth and give it to you. The story didn’t have to be a complex web of weaving theories, but it could give the player credit for solving their own mystery or doing something completely unexpected. It’s all a little to simple in the end.
I blame these negatives on the shorter run time. With Man of Medan being a short story, there wasn’t much room to develop the characters or give the story enough room to flourish outside of an opening/middle/end structure. We learned enough about the characters to understand their motivations and relationships, but not enough to care whether they survived the horror movie or not. And with the shorter time, the narrative became a little too linear in places (I replayed Man of Medan several times to determine variations and scenes).
The most frustrating aspect of Man of Medan are the quick-time events. It’s not so much about having to do them (they’re a necessity in narrative games nowadays), but it’s the lack of stakes in most of them. Sure, there are moments where failing an event results in the death of a character, but there weren’t many of them included, which made the horror experience feel unbalanced. Characters survived in places when I had fully expected them to die… and in some cases, wanted them to die. A survival horror game shouldn’t rely on the atmosphere and supernatural elements alone – there has to be real stakes over the life and death of the characters.
The Dark Pictures Anthology: Man of Medan is an immersive horror narrative that starts a new anthology off on a fun note. The game utilizes many of the positive mechanics and game elements that its predecessor had to great effect. Unfortunately, with a cast of one-note characters and a mystery that doesn’t deliver a climactic punch, it squanders its potential. Man of Medan is a good game, and the anthology series has a lot of potential too, but there needs to be improvements if more instalments are coming in the future.
Developer: Supermassive Games
Publisher: Bandai Namco Entertainment
Platform: PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One
Release Date: August 30th, 2019
Copy Purchased By Author.