August 28, 2019
Until Dawn defied expectations upon its release, going above and beyond its shlocky B-movie premise with something that proved to be hugely entertaining, despite its eventual foray into supernatural silliness. Right off the bat, you can tell that the first chapter in developer Supermassive's 'The Dark Pictures Anthology' isn't going to go quite the same way – Man of Medan is unfortunately a bit of a mess. A very attractive mess, but a mess all the same.
Things commence at a glacial pace after a prologue that's pointless for the most part, unless you consider it a tutorial of sorts. This brief opening sequence effectively blows the mystery from the off, and is compounded by some seriously dodgy performances. These elements also bleed across into the main narrative itself, which picks up after a portentous opening credit sequence that the game hasn't really earned at that point, and never does. It's almost like Supermassive wants The Dark Pictures Anthology to be the equivalent of an HBO TV show, but the first hour in Man of Medan's story is remarkably dull; a start more befitting an episode of Midsomer Murders.
Man of Medan charts the journey of a diving party led by Fliss, the captain of her own boat who inevitably gets swept up in a procession of weird happenings revolving around a sunken shipment of Manchurian gold. Conrad (a man whose sole preoccupation is to get everyone to drink beer) and his friends Alex, Brad, and Julia enjoy diving and exploring wrecks on the seabed, and predictably, things go horribly awry upon the discovery of a rusted old World War II battleship, named – you guessed it – the Man of Medan.
Fliss, for some reason, decides to ignore multiple storm warnings, which sets in motion the events that unfold, involving a nasty band of pirates and strange happenings within the confines of the seemingly haunted ship. Once you're aboard the eponymous Man of Medan itself, Supermassive does a fairly good job in conjuring an oppressive atmosphere, but invariably falls back on cheap jump scares.
There are four instances involving rats running around that are deployed in the opening minutes aboard the ship, and they're all essentially Supermassive going “boo!” to elicit an easy response. The primary problem with Man of Medan is that you seldom feel uneasy. While rare, there are genuinely freaky moments, and it's these occasional scenes of weirdness that hint at what could have been had Supermassive reined itself in a bit.
Instead, Man of Medan is strangely paced, plagued with weird issues, odd decisions involving camera angles and shots, and a severe lack of nuance. Not that Until Dawn was hugely subtle, but it deftly homaged the slasher genre by which it was inspired, and managed to make its characters interesting while generating a tense atmosphere. Man of Medan achieves no such sleight of hand.
Even its stand-in for Until Dawn's Peter Stormare character – the Curator, played by Pip Torrens – is rendered utterly redundant. He'll ask if you want some hints, while summing up what's happened in the chapter you've just finished. These visits to the Curator are not only pointless but they completely drain what little tension the game might have been building.
Criminally, the script is also very poor, performances are horribly stilted, and you just won't care about the game's central cast of characters. It's not a spoiler to state that any one of them can die based on your decisions or failure to properly carry out a QTE, but at most their deaths will provoke a shrug, as you move on to the next scene to see what manner of disaster will befall the group next.
As you make various decisions during your journey, bearings can change to alter the course of your story, while the character traits that are literally written out on screen for you as each of the cast is introduced to you (because why leave it to the player to work this out), can evolve and change with different choices. Conrad might grow to become more humorous or heroic, for instance, rather than remaining the total bellend he is throughout.
Playing Man of Medan in the controller passing 'Movie Night' mode is good fun, nonetheless, as sharing in the daftness and game's myriad shortcomings with up to four friends is infinitely more entertaining. Same goes for the online 'Shared Story' 2-player co-op mode (unavailable at time of writing), which enables you to go through the narrative together, making choices in tandem to experience events in an entirely different way. In fact, these two multiplayer options go some way towards redeeming Man of Medan, because without them, it's largely throwaway stuff.
Upon finishing Man of Medan, the Curator gives you a summation of your decisions, as he does at the end of each of the game's three acts, then suggests that maybe you could replay the game a second time and see the different outcomes your differing actions might prompt. When the instinctive response to this proposition is, 'I don't really want to go through that again', and not because it's harrowing or scary, it's probably not a good sign.
Music is atmospheric enough and the overall sound design is fine, but some of the performances sound phoned-in and tonally inconsistent.
A gorgeous game that looks almost photorealistic at times. There's plenty of detail in both the character models and environments, but the beauty on show here is only skin-deep. Camera issues and lag can crop up at some junctures too.
There's nothing particularly wrong with how Man of Medan plays per se, there's just very little to it. A killer story could have salvaged what is otherwise a mostly passive experience, but that's not the case here.
A short narrative desperately lacking in intrigue, or indeed any real impetus to go back and try another playthrough. By the time you've finished it once, you won't want to revisit Man of Medan like a fondly-loved movie. That said, the co-op modes are quite good.
A list that does encourage repeat sojourns down to the briny deep to explore the confines of the titular ship. But being subjected to Man of Medan on multiple occasions would be the real horror here.
Failing to deliver as an effective horror story, Man of Medan is interminably slow to get started, and when it does, the narrative and performances prove more laughable than scary. The best kind of horror is the stuff that really gets under your skin, but sadly, this barely even pricks it. A soggy first chapter in The Dark Pictures Anthology, Man of Medan is best left on the seabed to rust.