What's your favourite scary video game?
For me, that's a rather complicated and involved question, but when it comes to "traditional" horror, then Supermassive Games' 2015 love letter to horror Until Dawn would rank at the top of the list. It is a well written and deeply satisfying self-aware horror opus that delivered scares, tension, and buckets of digital gore. So, when I heard that Supermassive was reteaming with horror indie icon Larry Fessenden for another choice-driven journey into fear, I knew I had to join them!
The Dark Pictures: Man of Medan is the first entry in a planned anthology series. Much like Until Dawn you control each of the games main characters at different points throughout their descent into terror. Each character is unique if a little obnoxious, which actually made them much more fun to put into situations likely to end in catastrophic penetration. Much like Until Dawn, every character can die. The if or when they die is in your hands. Say or do the wrong thing, and at some point, that choice may come back to stab you in the face. Outside of the core choice and consequence mechanics, your decisions also affect the relationships between our protagonists and these relationships matter. A character's disposition can change the fate of our players and the story. Seemingly innocuous decisions can lead a character down a path they would have otherwise left unexplored. It's perhaps not as deep a system as it could be, but if this dynamic can be explored in more depth in subsequent entries, it could be a real draw for the series.
As far as story goes, there is really nothing new here. At the end of World War II while heading home from the European Theatre, an unknown force infected the crew and onboard military personnel. All were lost. Fast forward a handful of decades and some plucky GQ by way of The CW attractive Americans discovers the ship and spookiness ensues. Much like Until Dawn, Man of Medan is filled with tropes, jump scares, QTE's and ominous foreshadowing but unlike Until Dawn, everything here feels a bit stale and overdone or more accurately redone. One of the reasons I enjoyed and appreciated Until Dawn so much, was because it actively leaned into the tropes with a self-aware sense of glee and respect for the genre. Man of Medan, on the other hand, feels almost lazy in comparison, like a cash-grabbing sequel leveraging the success of its predecessor without understanding why it succeeded. It's not that the scares and deaths are bad; in fact, some of the deaths are g(l)orious! Where the game fails is in its story and storytelling. Genuine scares and shocking deaths aside, this is not much more than a very well shot but straight to VOD quality horror tale.
That quality continues into the presentation of the game. Man of Medan is both stunning and lacklustre at the same time. Characters are detailed and wonderfully presented both in terms of their models and voice performances. But there are serious detours down to the uncanny valley throughout. The almost real faces betray their artifice regularly, and you lose most of the immersion the game had built up until that point. This was an ongoing issue for me, just when the drama was ramping up a close up of a character's face would destroy the illusions, and it would take a minute or two until I was back in the game. Thankfully the scares and gore seldom fell into this trap, and most deaths feel visceral and suitably horrific. The walking animations are robotic, but the smaller movements and nuance of body language are fantastic. The voice acting is spectacular, but the script runs the range from melodrama to farce without ever finding a consistent tone. Performance was inconsistent with dropped frames and micro-stutters in set pieces. There was also an irritating texture draw in issue where it would take half a second for the high-resolution textures to render in. Overall the game feels very uneven and suffers as a result.
The hard truth here is that I did not have much fun playing the game. I prefer to play my horror games in isolation. Darken the room, ramp up the sub-woofer and soak in the atmosphere. I want to be scared, I want to be surprised, I want to feel the uncomfortable tingle at the base of my spine. I love a well-executed jump scare, and I adore extreme horror violence. Both of these occur in Man of Medan, but the characters and story never connected with me, so I never really cared all that much about what was happening. But I also think I was not playing the game how Supermassive wanted me to. There is an online co-op mode that sounds like it could be a lot of fun, but I did not play this mode at all, so I am unable to comment on it, but the idea of playing the game concurrently with another person controlling a different character in a shared game making their own choices without my knowledge certainly sounds like it could be a lot of fun, and potentially much more rewarding than my mostly solo run. But due to time constraints, I never had a chance to explore this mode.
On the other hand, I did get to give Movie Night Mode a few hours, and it might be the best way to experience the game. It does compensate for some of the games various weaknesses by leaning on the always reliable enjoyment of playing with friends. The pass and play feature where up to five people can control each of the game's characters with their own incentives about how to progress their own story is novel and makes for a great party game experience. I only spent a few hours in this mode with a couple of friends, and it is by far the superior experience. It's just a shame the core game feels so shallow and empty when playing solo. In that regard, it fails to live up the mark set by Until Dawn.
Ultimately The Dark Pictures: Man of Medan is just another mediocre horror game, albeit one with fantastic social gaming features.