Maybe it’s my own morbid imagination, but I often wonder exactly how my friends and I would react in a real life horror situation. If faced with a horde of zombies, for example, I’d love to believe that I’d bravely hold the door while my pals escape – but in reality I’d probably be kicking them in the shins to reach the exit first.
The excellent 2015 PS4 exclusive Until Dawn afforded players a chance to find out just how they’d react if thrown into a slasher movie scenario. If a serial killer invaded, would you hide under the bed, or behind the curtains? Would you check out the noise coming from the basement, or leave your friends to die?
It was a simple premise, but one that left developer Supermassive Games with a hit on its hand, mostly thanks to the massive range of choices available to the player, and the inevitable and varied consequences of every action. Many a night was spent playing through the game with friends, attempting to get as many of the hapless teens out alive as we could.
Four years later, Supermassive is back with Man of Medan, but while much of the new game’s DNA will be immediately familiar to anyone who’s played Until Dawn, there are some pretty major differences, starting with the fact that the new game is multiplatform.
The second big difference is that Man of Medan is the first chapter in what Supermassive is calling its Dark Pictures Anthology. So no, this is not a sequel to Until Dawn, but the start of something new. The idea behind this “anthology” is that we’ll get a series of 4-5 hour horror experiences, with each story apparently using a different subgenre of horror as an inspiration.
We yet don’t know what dark and chilling places future games in the Anthology will take us to, as Supermassive is understandably focusing on Man of Medan for right now. For now then, let’s do the same. Man of Medan is a good old fashioned ghost story, set aboard an abandoned WWII ship with a terrible secret (all the best abandoned ships have terrible secrets, after all).
But the biggest difference between Man of Medan and Until Dawn by far is that Man of Medan features multiplayer. I’m not just talking sitting on a sofa with friends and passing the controller back and forth, either – I’m talking full, online co-operative play in which you and a mate take control of different characters and set about experiencing the same story at the same time, making choices that directly impact one another.
It’s a wildly ambitious and interesting idea to put into a story driven horror game, especially one that’s essentially an interactive movie in the vein of Until Dawn, with all its branching paths and various choices, but does it work? Based on the 90 minutes I played with a colleague, I’d say yes – for the most part.
Like I said, if you’ve played Until Dawn, or a even a Quantic Dream game or a Telltale game, Man of Medan won’t be unfamiliar to you. You’ll be given the chance to choose between various actions, dialogue choices, and more to affect the outcome of the story.
Characters can die as a result of your decisions or indecision, and every move you make is judged by The Curator, a narrator figure who steps in at various points in the story to comment on how he thinks things are going, and maybe offer a few hints as to how you could do better.
Based on what I saw from the game, and from comments made by the developers, it looks as if The Curator will be the connective tissue that holds The Dark Pictures Anthology together. He’s an intriguing fellow that delivers his lines with a B-movie relish, and I look forward to seeing more of him.
The game kicks off with a delightfully creepy prologue that shows us how the titular Man of Medan came to be abandoned. It’s not entirely clear what forces are at work, but it seems some manner of supernatural threat has scared the majority of American soldiers to death, while the others are brutally murdered by forces unknown.
We then cut to present day, where we spend the majority of the remaining 90 minutes getting to know the core characters. Honestly, they’re standard horror movie cliches. There’s cocky rich guy, cocky rich girl, local who knows better than to mess around in haunted waters, nerdy kid, and nerdy kid’s brother.
Cocky rich guy is played by the dude who played Iceman in the X-Men movies, so that’s something. Anyway, this unlikely gang are setting sail to dive and attempt to find some sunken old WWII ruins, because rich people have weird hobbies.
To cut a long introduction short, relationships are established, the boat is overrun by vengeful fisherman/pirates, and a sequence of events leads to the boat crashing into the Man of Medan, which I assume is where the story really kicks into gear, but is sadly where the demo ends.
So, while the prologue promises that there are some super creepy things waiting to be uncovered on the Man of Medan itself, the meat of the first 90 minutes is focused on building up the characters, meaning it’s kind of hard for me to tell you just how scary this game is going to be.
Everyone involved seems insistent that there are some properly horrible things later on in the game, and as I said, the prologue certainly hints at that. What I can tell you is that the multiplayer component adds a level of intensity to Man of Medan even in the not-so-scary moments, so I cannot wait to see just how intense it gets when crap really hits the fan.
Before you start each scene in multiplayer, you’ll be told who your friend is playing as. It might be that the two of you directly interact with each other – it might be that you go off and experience completely different scenes before rejoining. 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.
For example, I took control of one of the characters who went diving to try and find the sunken WWII plane, while my colleague stayed up top and explored the boat a little bit. While I was finding all kinds of bad juju underwater, my colleague was simply getting to know some of the other characters.
As I started to head back to the surface, I saw an explosion from the boat, as another boat sped off. This left me with a choice – go up and help my friends right away and risk surfacing to soon and getting the bends, or wait a minute, play it safe and make sure I was properly decompressed?
Decisions like these take on a new meaning when it’s not just an NPC who needs your help, but an actual IRL person that you’re playing with. Oh, and of course, if the character they’re playing as dies, they’re one step closer to leaving your game altogether, leaving you completely alone.
As it turned out, my decision to wait and decompress didn’t really hurt anyone, but actions my colleague made later on in the demo screwed us all a fair bit. After being taken over by the fishermen – fishermen my colleague apparently pissed off while I was underwater – we had the chance to escape.
I chose to hold one of the fishermen hostage, giving my colleague a chance to swipe the gun from one of other other assailants. He failed the QTE, which led to us getting slapped around a lot more than we otherwise might have.
Fortunately, there were a few ways that scenario could have gone a lot worse, with one outcome being a very early death for one of the characters. Again though, the stakes immediately felt higher in that situation, because I was counting on another human to make the right call for me.
I know what I would have done and said if I was them in a lot of the choices that played out throughout the demo, and I don’t agree with every choice or action that my colleague made as we played through together, but that’s what makes it all the more agonizingly tense – believing you know the right thing to do, and waiting to see if your ally will make the same call, or else dread the consequences if they mess up.
The multiplayer isn’t without its hiccups, sadly. My colleague, for instance, told me he was dragging his feet on the boat a little bit while he waited for me to finish exploring underwater. Clearly I got the main meat of the story at this stage.
I’d imagine as the game progresses, every scene will be interesting, but it seems there may be moments when one of you is lumped with a character who simply doesn’t have anything exciting to do.
I also found that, regardless of whether or not you were in the middle of an optional conversation with a character, if the other player decides to trigger the next part of the story and move on to a new scene, your convo will be cut short and you’ll appear, rather jarringly, at the start of the next scene.
The latter issue is probably unavoidable, but I’m interested to see just how persistent the former issue really is. Like I say, I’d think/hope that once we’re aboard the Man of Medan and the scares really start coming thick and fast, there won’t be any time for the characters to drag their feet.
As it stands, I have a few reservations, but for the most part I’m seriously impressed with Man of Medan. The multiplayer adds an entirely new level of depth to the decision making process, while the prologue promises some truly hideous scares once we reach the titular vessel.
I seriously hope Supermassive intend to throw out the scares thick and fast once the obligatory character introduction is out of the way. If that’s the plan, and I think it is, then they’ll have another hit on their hands – not to mention a horror experience quite unlike any other.
Ewan Moore is a journalist at UNILAD Gaming who still quite hasn’t gotten out of his mid 00’s emo phase. After graduating from the University of Portsmouth in 2015 with a BA in Journalism & Media Studies (thanks for asking), he went on to do some freelance words for various places, including Kotaku, Den of Geek, and TheSixthAxis, before landing a full time gig at UNILAD in 2016.