Playable stories have been visiting the gaming spotlight a quite a few times in recent years. While I had a very negative reaction to them when they initially came about, creators that believe in the vision they have for them have continuously refined their craft with the video game medium that they’ve come up with titles that even I would say deserve a fair shake.
Man of Medan comes at us as the first of an anthology series meant to give us short, packed rides centered around giving us a bit of a scare for its duration. This is a fairly interesting proposition as most games like these attempt to drive heavier, more serious themes to its audiences to the point that it may feel pretentious. So something simple, short, and with a clear goal gives us a better chance to scrutinize what they’ve served and how it contributes to the experience they’re attempting to make for us.
Now, Man of Medan introduces us to a group of five who initially come to the sea in search for adventure and maybe a bit of treasure, but thanks to a series of seemingly inconsequential actions from each of the cast, they are placed in the middle of a mess where any of them can die with one wrong move. Getting all of them out alive is the goal, of course, that is, if you like all of them enough.
So is it going to be another amazing B-Movie fest like Until Dawn? Did I get legitimately scared? Or was I snickering half the time? Let’s break it down.
Graphics (4.2 / 5)
The character models in Man of Medan look pretty impressive in general. Their reliance on motion capture appears to have paid off given how well they’re able to express themselves and portray the characters they are given. Well, with exception Julia’s character, who to my personal taste, seems to teeter along the uncanny valley aesthetic, giving me some level of motivation to end her run with the game fairly early, but I pressed on. On the other hand, Conrad was probably the most entertaining character for me, his character didn’t seem particularly committed to being likeable, and had a more welcome and natural presence in every scene he was featured in.
While voice acting wasn’t exactly top-notch, it wasn’t bad enough to distract from any of the scenes. Their use of other audio elements like music, footsteps, other foley, and stingers were well put together in building up to certain jump scares and maintaining a certain sense of tension where the character you’re using is suddenly alone.
However, one thing that stuck out badly was noticeable issues with the Man of Medan’s optimization. Pop-in issues with textures could ruin immersion, and this got particularly bad when you left the confines of small, narrow corridors and rooms and moved onto more open areas. Anti-aliasing would need some extra time to kick in, and I was left wondering if my PS4 had suddenly turned into a PS3 for a brief period. It didn’t help that none of the environments looked particularly impressive to begin with, so there didn’t seem to be much of a point to investing so much detail into very generic same-ey looking areas. Perhaps this issue wouldn’t be as apparent on a PS4 Pro or a well-equipped PC.
Mechanics (3.0 / 5)
I’m fairly surprised to say that there’s quite a number of mechanics present in this game, however I still question if any of them really meant anything since I couldn’t tell how some of them manifest in the game itself.
One thing that hurt the experience of this game for me is the lack of a proper run button, if the cast can actually run during certain scenes, then they should be able to do just that when I’m controlling them. Being unable to do so immediately signals to me that there’s no real danger until later, getting me to walk into suspicious-looking areas rather than really question if I should be doing that in a haunted ship.
Adding to this is the fact that they made extra efforts to avoid any sort of collision with the environment or other units. This is particularly bad because you had to guess if it was really a map limitation or if you just bumped into a minor obstacle that you can just walk around to get past. It did not help that the developers decided to make use of odd camera angles like in Resident Evil 1. While I get the idea that they’re trying to inspire some claustrophobia and eeriness into every shot they make, I’d like to know if I’m aligned to a doorway properly or if I’m close enough to an object to properly interact with it. It gets hard to be scared when you’re also frustrated and pissed because Brad couldn’t get through the door until your 5th try.
As for the action, Man of Medan manages to keep me on my controller despite long sequences of dialogue due to the fact that there are many Quick-Time-Events, quick prompts that ask you to press a certain button so you don’t die, that are pretty relevant to your character’s current actions. Now if you’re getting the idea that you’d like to be able to 360-no-scope the ghosts that go after you, that’s not exactly the idea they’re running with for. Instead, they’re making use of the interactive medium to get you to commit playing as these characters, and be at the front seat when the baddies come after you.
You are constantly asked to make choices within the game, whether it be conversations, items to pick up, or taking a plan of action. How things are neatly presented to you during these moments are easy to appreciate as they mostly appear to have a solid bearing on the game. It’s also pretty nice that there’s no confirm button, instead asking you to hold your analog stick in a certain direction long enough to register a choice. This makes for avoiding unintended choices while adding a sense of tension to each one you make.
While some choices can change the bearing of a story section, other things that it changes such as character traits or relationship levels don’t give me a visible manifestation of how they affect the story. Or at least, it’s not obvious. There appears to be several intended points where characters may live or die, and it’s not obvious how a character’s current relationships or traits really affect the final result.
Content (3.5 / 5)
The Dark Pictures Anthology appears to concentrate on getting characters to be believable enough before sending them off to their potential doom. It’s not a purposely campy horror flick that begs the audience not to think too much, this does hurt the experience a bit as Man of Medan has to setup characters from the bottom-up. Form their relationships and make them down-to-earth people. In my opinion, this is rather worth the time despite the dragging pace as this helps you make a connection with these individuals. They give you something to care about rather than excitedly await the various ways you can get them to a premature ending.
One thing I found good about this game would be how it knows exactly what it’s there for and sets out to do just that. This focused approach on the story kept the smaller issues from getting to me as easily. There was also enough planned interactions to just keep the game from feeling too draggy, though it was kind of annoying there were a fair amount of interactions that really didn’t lead to anything.
Man of Medan plans itself out as a sequence of events that influence other events down the line in a limited manner, meaning events later may be influenced by actions you take now, but not in a sense that the story would change entirely. A character may disappear or die in the middle of the story but it doesn’t actually impact the events and options of other characters in the story much. They still go through the same paths with maybe slight changes in who they’re talking to or if anyone’s helping them. The story ends up rather rigid and ultimately what you get to influence is who’s alive and what ending everyone gets. I know it sounds like much right now, but it’s really not.
Features (4.3 / 5)
The surprisingly best part about Man of Medan is the multiplayer feature it has incorporated into itself. You can play as a group of friends doing couch play, taking turns on the controller, though finishing a game in one sitting seems like a stretch. Or play with one other player online, and it’s at this point that the game really begins to shine. You see, by default your primary interest is to keep anyone from dying, and do your best to make sure everyone survives. However, that’s not the case when you have a second guy in play. They can be your buddy and make things a little bit easier, or just be this malevolent force out there to make sure they throw a wrench in your plans every single time. It makes the game unpredictable (and sometimes annoying) and really keeps you on your toes. There’s also a bunch of sections that you get to play through that you normally don’t see on a single player playthrough, so there’s that bit of incentive to check it out.
This title has also made a collecting mini game within itself, where you read and find little details about the story, characters and setting of Man of Medan. Getting enough secrets gives you access to some side content that you may find nice to see to gain a bit more appreciation of the game. The unlockable collection includes a short documentary of the horror anthology genre, some insights with the actors, and production notes about the game’s creation. It’s like getting DVD bonuses, which I suppose is nice to have.
Clearly, the Dark Anthology series is out to become its own new kind of genre. It feels like the west has adapted the Visual Novel format and customized it towards this form. I’m not entirely sure if I want to call this as a game but it just barely passes my textbook definition of what a game is. It’s not like I wasn’t entertained by the game, and I would say it was somewhat successful in what it had set out to do.
I was bothered by some technical issues and the rather rough experience with navigation throughout the game. But I believe it did a good enough job for me to engage with characters as I did care about what happened to them in the end. I also believe they really invested well in the scare sections as some of them managed to get to me and deceive me at one point.
While it’s not as blatant as its predecessor, Until Dawn, there are those who I believe will find value in this as a shared experience. It’s actually pretty commendable that it writes a story that’s tied well together by details you uncover as you progress through the game. Those who are looking to share a bit of a thrill either by having friends over or through a stream online, the game is at least worth trying out.
It’s tough to score, Man of Medan did accomplish its goals but not much more. 3.75 / 5.
Available on PS4, X1, and PC