A real horror show
Supermassive Games came up trumps when they scored a massive hit with Until Dawn – surpassing the expectations of both publisher Sony and themselves. Chock-full of slasher film tropes and a cast of thoroughly unlikable teens, gamers were allowed to revel in the various horrific and bloody fates that could befall them. Not one or two, but three follow-up projects went into production, as Supermassive began to develop a reputation for high production value, cinematic thrillers. A pair of VR games came first – the on-rails shooter Until Dawn: Rush of Blood, and the horror game The Inpatient. Both shared some common aspects with Until Dawn, but being VR-only games, neither offered the full horror experience previously delivered by Until Dawn.
The third title Hidden Agenda experimented with bringing a multiplayer aspect to cinematic gaming, as part of the “lite” PlayLink games collection on PS4. Sadly, this title again was a bite-size one, and didn’t live up to the potential of its ideas – but with The Dark Pictures: Man of Medan, Supermassive are taking a second stab at adapting their games for the multiplayer market. This is a definite sum of everything that came before it, taking some of the more successful elements from the Supermassive back catalogue and trying to create something even better. Sadly, for a handful of reasons, this amalgamation is less than the sum of its parts – but being the first part in a planned anthology series of standalone horror stories, perhaps there is hope for future installments.
Based on the fabled real-life mystery of the SS Ourang Medan (a WWII ship that was mysteriously discovered with its entire crew dead, frozen in the throes of absolute horror), Man of Medan sees your typical Horror film group of American College students on a tropical diving holiday, unwisely searching for wartime wreckage. Of course, the group disturb something that they shouldn’t, and combined with the selfish actions of various other characters in the story, events go from bad to worse – when the entire group find themselves aboard the titular doomed ship. Without spoiling too much of the story, characters are separated, a series of deathtraps are encountered, and gamers will be lucky to safely guide all five key characters through the abundance of potential pitfalls.
All of the key mechanics are introduced through an extended prologue section, which sets up the backstory of the Ourang Medan. This section definitely helps you get a feel of what to expect from the rest of the game – both in a positive and negative way. Gameplay consists of a combination of quick-time events (QTE’s), dialogue choices and basic exploration, all of which is fairly standard for the genre. There is the addition of a “heartbeat” system, whereby – in order to keep your character calm – you tap a button in time with your increasingly-panicked heartbeat. This makes sense for the scary, horror situations, but in practice most of these appear on-screen so briefly and allow for absolutely no failed button presses, that it is very tricky to not to fail.
So far, so standard for a tutorial section of a game. Sadly though, throughout this introduction, we can instantly see the disadvantage of Supermassive Games leaving the loving embrace (and deep pockets) of Sony Interactive Entertainment – the production values on show simply don’t hold up against those seen in Until Dawn. From the very first scene, textures are less detailed, faces less convincing and animation a lot more stilted than in that triple-A Sony title. Of course graphical fidelity isn’t everything, but unconvincing movement and strange facial expressions does take you out of the moment somewhat. On top of that, the game suffers regular performance issues throughout. Slowdown and juddering cinematics is a constant problem – which we tested on both an Xbox One S and Xbox One X – just to make sure. Choppy cutscenes and loading just shouldn’t be happening to this degree.
Adding to the woes is an uneven script that veers in tone from comedic to tragic, but is peppered liberally with the kind of quips that make you cringe as soon as you hear them. Many odd uses of humour and slang in tense situations, or unnatural lines that no normal character would say, make the delivery of the actors awkward – no matter how hard they may have tried to make the material work. Although the main characters are supposed to be young and carefree, we aren’t supposed to believe that these are idiots – but the writing didn’t help to convince me otherwise. This results in everyone coming off as unsympathetic – but not in the same manner of the disposable teens of Until Dawn – moreso in an irritating way.
To exacerbate these issues in the writing, the whole story ends limply. The key twist is given up all-too-suddenly and in an unimaginative manner (even if most gamers will have worked it out for themselves by that point), and all that follows suffers a distinct lack of punch because of that. Pacing issues earlier in the game mean that the initial setup scenes are given too much time, whereas the climax doesn’t feel like it gets the attention it deserves. You can of course alter individual character outcomes and story strands yourself through your actions (or inactions), but these have minimal impact on the main thrust of the story. The diverging story paths are mostly about just seeing who survives the ordeal, rather than how it all progresses. This does create a certain desire to go back and play through things again – purely see just how cruelly the cast could be dispatched – but the simple fact that you cannot skip pre-rendered scenes that you have previously watched is an added annoyance for repeat players. I want to play the key moments again, but not have to sit through much of the exposition all over again.
The real saving grace is the online multiplayer option. I should first mention the “Movie Night” couch co-op mode. This allows up to five players to take control of each of the five playable cast members, taking turns to play as them as the story progresses. This sadly ends up being identical to the single-player experience, with a lot of waiting around for everyone involved. The structure of each scene and the story is no different, the next player needs to wait for the previous character section to end, before taking control of theirs. As a pass-the-pad mode, this lacks any real punch and is too slow-moving to really get anyone interested. The “Shared Story” online co-op mode is a different beast however, and much more exciting.
Each of the 2 online players is assigned different characters to take control of, but rather than taking turns to wait for their scenes, the game schedules scenes to happen at the same time, but looking at the action from different perspectives. For example, whereas in the single player version, you will play a section on the boat with 2 crew members, then afterwards play at the 2 divers underwater, in online co-op both scenes happen at the same time, and some choices by one player can have instant repercussions in the second scene. The works particularly well in a section where several of the kids are held captive, and another is trying to escape. The two captives can choose to fight their captors, or cause a distraction, which can leads to different opportunities for the escapee – be those more or less successful.
The whole dynamic of this mode is far more compelling than every other mode on offer, making it feel like this is the way Man of Medan is meant to be enjoyed. The fact that your actions have instant results in what the other player is seeing can lead to some great moments – whether that be spectacular teamwork or cruelly stitching up your friend, in order to ensure a grisly death scene. The single-player and couch co-op feel like watered down and less ambitious versions of the title, and it is a real shame that it seems likely that most players will simply tackle the story solo. Of course, even the allure of the online multiplayer mode doesn’t eliminate the performance issues or the patchy writing, but it goes some way toward making these issues a little more bearable.