An Engrossing But Flawed Experience
Until Dawn is, and remains to this day, one of my favourite PS4 games ever released. The choice-driven gameplay lent itself perfectly to the horror genre and managed to successfully answer that age old question: “Would you survive in a horror movie?”. That game was not without its flaws though, namely thanks to its pacing and a few unlikable characters but certainly had the potential to really capitalise on this and become front-runners in this genre going forward.
Back for a second swing at Telltale’s long-abandoned crown of story-driven games, Supermassive return with the first of a planned anthology of games, Man Of Medan. On a technical level, Man Of Medan is a far cry from Until Dawn. The scenes are janky, the edits between scenes are a little haphazard and the characters themselves are somehow less likable than those in Supermassive’s previous game. Yet in terms of narrative structure, the aesthetic and choice-driven gameplay, Man Of Medan surpasses its predecessor with a much more stream-lined story and some lovely additions to the interface that make this a pretty good, but flawed, follow-up.
It’s impossible to talk about Man Of Medan without bringing up Until Dawn, but unlike Dawn’s split-narrative focus between slasher and supernatural elements, Man Of Medan doubles down on its ghostly tale to produce a surprisingly well-paced 4-6 hour journey. The three acts all lead into one another nicely, with a deliciously dark and antagonistic narrator filling you in on how you’re doing every step of the way. At its core, the game essentially sees you control a group of teenagers, out of their depth and thrown into exploring the ghostly wreckage of an old World War II military vessel.
Say what you will about Man Of Medan’s technicality, the game absolutely nails its aesthetic. The lighting effects are excellent and environments feel incredibly realistic as you explore the ship. Shadows dance up walls, groans and creaks greet every step through the ominous hallways and a clever use of creative camera angles help the game revel in its creepy and eerie atmosphere. Admittedly, the game does rely a lot on jump scares but because of this, creeping around hallways offers up its own unique slice of horror as you prepare for the worst at every turn.
At its core though, Man Of Medan relies on all the same gameplay elements Until Dawn had, including dialogue choices that improve or deteriorate character relationships, form important traits for your character and drive the narrative forward. The usual array of QTEs are all here, complete with a ruthless timer that offers little room for error. Big choices in the game are driven by the usual split-second decisions that can either save or kill your characters. I must admit, a few had me completely stumped over what the best option to take is, but you can also influence your own destiny somewhat thanks to the collectables dotted around the ship (more on this later).
While the game itself is inherently linear, there are various rooms and side areas for you to explore throughout the adventure that have a nice array of goodies hidden away. I’m a real completionist when it comes to games like this, and the different maps, journals and fragments of evidence do help add some depth to the story. If you don’t fancy sitting through walls of text, the game’s menu handily offers a snapshot of why that item is significant, which certainly reinforces the user-friendly interface.
Unfortunately the controls themselves feel like you’re moving characters from early Resident Evil games and at times, it’s difficult to stop and face the right direction to examine items. This is particularly problematic when combined with the stubbornly placed static cameras which, while enhancing the horror, don’t always help with finding items and secrets in the environment. It’s something Until Dawn had issues with too, however the tight corridors and general setting of the cramped ghost-ship here really accentuates these problems.
Much like Until Dawn, premonitions and future scenes are teased through the addition of pictures, rather than urns, this time around; white-framed portraits show possible routes to success while black-framed pictures show a grisly end. While feeling initially like nothing more than a vague teaser, a few of these actually really help choose the right option during latter periods of the game, as recognisable areas of the ship during an important choice, can help save some of the characters. Man Of Medan almost demands this level of attention to save everyone though and even then, an element of luck is needed to get to the end with everyone intact.
Having seen the success of Until Dawn in the past, Man Of Medan capitalises on this with three different story choices, one of which I don’t recommend until you’ve finished the game a first time through. Solo play is relatively obvious, and sees you go it alone with nothing more than your wit and nerve. Movie Night is an interesting take on couch co-op, with 2-5 players choosing a character/characters and passing the controller around when prompted to do so via a prompt on-screen. The final option takes the experience online, where you only see parts of the story while your online counterpart sees their chosen character move through the environment. It’s a nice idea but also not something to play the first time through for the true experience.
There’s also some nice special features here too, unlocked as you progress through the game. Interviews with developers, a mini-documentary and the ability to replay specific scenes in any order to grab all the collectibles, play into the replayability on offer here and if you intend to grab everything, expect to spend upwards of 30 hours ploughing through this and seeing everything the game has to offer. While the real meat of the game comes from the couch co-op, there’s enough here for completionists to keep busy for quite some time.
Technical issues and graphical glitches aside, Man Of Medan is a pretty good title, with a creepy atmosphere and enough jump scares to keep you on edge through most of the game. The characters themselves, with a few exceptions, are generally unlikable though and it’s something Until Dawn had issues with too through much of its run-time. While I understand that generally in horror movies you’ll find the same thing, the archetypal characters and cookie-cutter characterisation offers little substance to build empathy with these people, and much of the time spent playing this you’ll find yourself progressing passively, rather than genuinely caring whether these people make it to safety or not.
With plenty more Dark Pictures’ action on the way, Man Of Medan gets things off to an okay start, and in a crowded sea of looter shooters, online multiplayer titles and massive open world games on the market, Man Of Medan is a nice little mid-range title to chew through. Given the asking price of £24.99 ($30.30), Supermassive’s second title is well worth a play, even if it doesn’t quite hit the same illustrious heights as Until Dawn.