Four years after PS4 exclusive Until Dawn proved itself as a runaway horror hit, Supermassive Games is back with bigger, bolder plans for an entire anthology of horror games, and it all starts with Man of Medan.
Based on a grisly urban myth which you definitely shouldn’t look up unless you want to spoil the game for yourself, Man of Medan is a good old fashioned ghost story that sees a group of young, irritatingly attractive holiday-goers stumble across a long-lost World War II ship whose crew all died – seemingly overnight. Spoo, and I can’t stress this enough, key.
Stalked through the rusty bowels of the ship by a group of particularly murderous fisherman, as well as a number of unsettling paranormal apparitions, it’s up you to guide your unfortunate band of heroes through the ship’s trials and tribulations as you attempt to get all five of the gang off the boat and back to safety alive and well, and discover the truth behind the SS Medan.
Just like Until Dawn, Man of Medan is all about choices and consequences. Less of a game in the traditional sense and more of an interactive horror movie, everything you decide for your characters can either help or harm them, with the consequences of many choices not revealing themselves until much later into the game.
Of course, in lieu of traditional gameplay, I can only really judge Man of Medan on its plot, its characters, and the things it tries to do to mess with the player. Quick time events are what they are after all, no matter how much you dole them up – and they’re pretty much impossible to do badly.
More than anything else, Man of Medan is a game that plays you by inviting constant opportunities to do that thing we all secretly dread doing: Choosing. Do you pick up that kitchen knife for protection, or will it do more harm than good? Do you attempt to run from the demonic force that’s in hot pursuit, or try to hide instead? Do you go left or right?
You’ll second guess yourself at every turn, especially in tenser moments. Knowing that your decision (or indeed indecision) could get a character killed is agonising, and it took me a good few runs before I knew how to get everybody to the credits alive and well.
Fortunately, Man of Medan offers you a guide – of sorts. The entire story is essentially framed as a tale being told to you by a mysterious figure called The Curator from within his library, with your role being to make choices for the characters and help to fill in The Curator’s account of events.
We cut back to The Curator’s library a few times over the course of the game, typically in the wake of key events in the story so that he can judge the choices you’ve been making, and occasionally offer vague hints for what’s to come, if you’re so inclined.
While nothing The Curator says will ever flat out tell you what’s going on in Man of Medan, his warnings might help you make better decisions going forward. On the other hand, if you’re like me, you’ll just assume that every word from his mouth is a lie and you’ll simply carry on second-guessing yourself.
Without giving anything away, it’s clear by the end of the game that The Curator is a man who knows more than he’s letting on. It appears he’ll be returning for the future games in the planned anthology from Supermassive, and I look forward to seeing just how crucial to the overarching narrative he becomes. An unreliable narrator with potentially ulterior motives is far more interesting, after all.
I’m also a big fan of how the game doesn’t simply dump an explanation on you before the credits roll. It’s up to you to piece together the mystery of the Medan by exploring properly, finding old reports, newspaper clippings, and other pieces of evidence.
Conversely, if you really don’t care about what happened on the ship and just want to get the hell out of dodge, you can do that – but being aware of the ship’s history will help inform some crucial late-game decisions.
As for the characters you’ll be spending the majority of your time with? Well, while your party of five start off as an incredible annoying bunch of privileged butt-heads (with the exception of the ship’s captain who pretty much gets shit done while everyone else panics), over the course of Man of Medan’s three to four hour story, you’ll certainly come to… tolerate them?
The dialogue and chemistry between the core group is mostly pretty strong, even if the occasional line does feel like it was written by a forty year old cop attempting to infiltrate a rave. Everyone and everything looks technically fantastic too, with only a few instances of a facial expression not remotely resembling the emotion it’s trying to convey.
What it really boils down to is that none of them are particularly likeable, even when you get to know them.
Characters make jokes at inappropriate times (including seconds after the brutal murder of one of the group at one point), accuse each other of foul play, and generally spend a whole lot of time bitching. I mean, I’d probably bitch if I was forced to run away through a knife-wielding fisherman through an ancient ship in my underwear too, but it gets a bit much at points.
I do have to give a shout out to Sean Ashmore (X-Men, Quantum Break), who manages to inject his character with a good amount of charm and humour in spite of also being the guy with some of the worst dialogue. What a shame that I got him killed in the first hour and had to spend the first playthrough without him, then. He was also the only one to die in my second playthrough.
Guys, I think I might subconsciously hate Sean Ashmore? But that’s an issue for another day.
Basically then, when I got a character killed, I wasn’t particularly upset because I’d grown to like them. Rather, I was bothered because I’d failed to get one of the characters to the finish line. Maybe I’m just particularly cold, but I would have liked a little more reason beyond “mission failed” for caring about the lives of my digital charges.
Even if the characters aren’t particularly great though, the story they find themselves trapped in is. Man of Medan is a gripping, brilliantly spooky yarn that’s packed with deeply disturbing and incredibly tense set pieces. My only real gripe is that we waste about an hour of story getting to know the characters on their own boat before we finally climb aboard the SS Medan and things really start to pick up.
Without spoiling anything, it quickly becomes apparent that you can’t trust anything or anyone aboard the Medan. Some of your choices could be made with the best of intentions and based on the evidence in front of you, but this is a game that delights in pulling the rug out from underneath you at every turn.
The Medan itself is a gorgeously realised, incredibly claustrophobic location.The fixed camera angles, reminiscent of old school Resident Evil, create the impression that you’re constantly being watched by something, and the lack of control over the camera serves as a grim, unbearably tense reminder that you’re barely in control of the situation at all.
With every corner turned, every room entered, you run the very real risk of bumping into something that will make your soil your trousers. There’s one sequence in particular with a 1940’s pinup girl that made me want to curl up into a ball and cry in the shower.
That was mostly thanks to the masterful way in which Supermassive built to that scene, with the pinup girl appearing for the briefest of moments every now and again before the ultimate showdown – which may or may not have resulted in a panicked miscalculation and yet another grisly end for Sean Ashmore.
That’s not to say that Man of Medan throws out endless jump scares, by the way. Supermassive actually employs most of its scares with delicious restraint, ramping up the tension to unbearable levels and leaving you to hang before throwing you headfirst into a face full of something horrifying.
While Man of Medan is a tense enough experience on its own, you’d think playing with a mate would help make things slightly less terrifying. Not so. Playing through the game in a brand new “Shared Story” online multiplayer mode actually makes the game, if anything, an even tenser experience.
I never would have thought that an online two player mode in a single player would have worked, but to the credit of everyone at Supermassive, they’ve only gone and pulled it off. After inviting a mate to join a Shared Story with you, you’re away.
I experienced the occasional bit of lag while playing in this mode, and there are times when waiting for your friend to make a decision that pulls the story forward might slow the action down for you, but for the most part? It works seamlessly.
My only real criticism RE the multiplayer mode is that there are some scenes where your companion will find themselves stuck with a character who simply doesn’t have anything interesting to do, but these moments are few and far between.
Before you start each scene in multiplayer, you’re told who your friend is playing as, and they’ll be aware of which character you’re in control of. It could be that the two of you are in the same scene and are able to directly interact with one another, but for much of the time you’ll still be experiencing completely different scenes as different characters, rejoining only at select points in the story
This means that not only are your decisions suddenly impacting you, but one wrong move could result in a friend biting the dust. By the same token, you’re going to have to constantly worry that your mate on the other end is making the right calls and isn’t doing anything that will come back to bite you in the tush.
Wisely, there’s no voice chat, so there’s no way to communicate to the other what you’re seeing or doing, which adds to the experience. The temptation might be to message each other to see what you’re each doing and piece together the story quicker… but to maintain the mystery, I’d advise against it.
Once you get through the sluggish (almost dull) opening hour, Man Of Medan reveals itself as a beautifully made, deeply disturbing mystery packed with twists, turns, and truly difficult choices that ensure you’ll be questioning yourself long after the credits roll. Simply put, this is a must have for any horror fans out there looking for a good chill.
While a typical run lasts anywhere between three to four hours, the ability to replay scenes upon completion and go through the experience with a friend ensures that you’ll spend at least a dozen hours unraveling the many frightening possibilities that lurk in the bowels of the ship as you attempt to find the best possible ending for everyone.
Not content with simply making an Until Dawn 2.0, Supermassive Games has proven itself once again as a master of the horror genre – I for one can’t wait to see what terrors are in store as we look ahead to future installments in the Dark Pictures Anthology.