I like my decisions to come with consequences, and The Dark Pictures: Man of Medan presents some strong ones, including one that determines whether or not I get to see Shawn Ashmore speared through the chest with a rusty spike. Unlike developer Supermassive Games’ greatest horror hit to date, the cheesy Until Dawn, Man of Medan is a serious and brooding horror game that starts off too slow but maintains a welcome sense of dread in its latter half. A meaningful choice-and-consequence system makes a second or even third five-hour playthrough alluring, particularly when playing online co-op, where you each control one character and independently make decisions with the potential to screw each other over.
There is a lot of horror-flavored glee to be found in Man of Medan, even in a story that takes itself rather seriously. Where Until Dawn played like a pastiche of an ‘80s slasher and a creature movie, Man of Medan is aiming for more mature, psychological horror in the vein of an Event Horizon or an In the Mouth of Madness, for better and worse. Centered around a cast of young diving wannabes who end up stranded on a mysterious WW2 freighter, it does a great job of building tension with its grim atmosphere and regular sudden shocks, but it lacks the character of its predecessor. In a game with such a fun concept, I could have used some more humor.
It doesn’t help that Man of Medan starts at a glacial pace. It is ostensibly to familiarize us with character dynamics and mechanics, but if this were a movie I would have left during its first half. Fortunately, its claustrophobic, Event Horizon-kissed latter half is well worth the wait, though it left me wondering why Supermassive didn’t kick off the real horror stuff it’s so good at much sooner.
Man of Medan’s po-faced sincerity translates to a weaker cast of characters. Supermassive has moved away from Until Dawn’s campy cast of horror stereotypes to a gang that’s more firmly based in reality, and with a couple of exceptions – Shawn Ashmore’s fun-loving Conrad and Chris Sandiford’s jittery Brad – they’re mostly unremarkable. But that’s never really mattered in a game where half the fun is watching all of them get murdered, because even characters who are dull on the outside are full of blood and guts on the inside!
And die they will, repeatedly. The bulk of Man of Medan takes place on an abandoned World War 2 Freighter where a plethora of spooks – and a handful of aggressive humans – await to send the cast to Hell with a bullet, a knife, or a jaw full of jagged teeth. There doesn’t seem to be a particular uniting theme with these nasties (unlike say, the wendigos in Until Dawn) other than that they scream a lot, but they’re effectively unnerving. The gore here is impressive, too. I only saw five deaths in two playthroughs – I was ok at keeping my characters alive – but each one was short, sharp and shocking; you can tell the developers had fun cooking these outlandish scenarios up.
I can’t say such inventiveness translated to the same for the ship itself, which is made up of a series of bland and uninspired corridors. Fixed camera angles mean directing characters through doorways is awkward, which became a little irritating when I was lost – which was frequently, because all the corridors look, well, the same. There is one fun sequence where Supermassive plays with this sense of labyrinthian disorientation, and I wish there had been more instances of subverting my expectations like this.
Of course, the real raw meat of Man of Medan comes with shaping these characters’ fates through the decisions you make. These come from building or shattering relationships with dialogue choices, exploration to reveal crucial story-changing items, and making your own decisions on the fly which will change your character traits. The former seemed to have straightforward repercussions: if you are kind to a character you will see that reflected in their actions – they’ll save you in a bind, for example – and they won’t if they absolutely hate you. The repercussions of your ever-changing ‘character traits’ are a little more opaque; I couldn’t tell if suddenly becoming ‘decisive’ or ‘cowardly’ meant anything on a storytelling level.
For the most part, though, consequences in Man of Medan did feel directly tied to my actions, whether they be minor – such as finding a knife to ward off a monster or running from it with no knife – or a major decision like attempting to escape on a speed boat and maybe getting shot in the head. Again, so much of the joy of this type of game comes from playing it again to push and prod at its systems, and I was delighted to save some of the characters in the second playthrough that I lost in my first.
Sometimes these deaths did feel a little unfair because quick-time events play a big part in Man of Medan’s action sequences. Although they lend themselves to a wonderful sense of panic as you try to escape a monster using a perfectly timed press of circle or triangle, it’s hard not to feel resentful when I lost a character, though. In the dialogue sections you’re able to go slowly and take your time to think and make the right decisions, but all of that gets snatched away if you aren’t quick enough on a moment’s notice. There’s a metaphor for life in there, I guess.
If you do want to play through Man of Medan again, I highly recommend you play online with a friend. Its five-ish hour story is a delight to play through again when you’re both controlling one character in the group and experiencing it from different perspectives, plus there are sequences in the co-op mode I did not see in single-player. The question is, will you play nice together to save everyone, or will one of you do their absolute best to make the worst decisions possible – who needed that knife lying around in that backroom, after all – and see everyone killed? I had the most fun playing Man of Medan this way, and delighted in my co-op partner’s unexpected choices.