I was probably a little over an hour or so into Man of Medan when I had my first real WTF jump scare. Just a decomposing face in my peripheral vision where it definitely wasn’t meant to be and hadn’t been earlier. And I absolutely knew it was coming because horror games don’t make you look into dark ventilation grills because they want you to appreciate the ductwork. It’s a perfect example of what this choose-your-own adventure tale of terror can do in its solid second act. When it hits its stride there’s a well made chunk of relentless scares and tense confusion that really shows what developer SuperMassive is capable of. The only downside is that bookending this strong central beat is a fun but rambling opening and an ending that feels like you’re paying by the hour and the money’s run out. It’s a finish that doesn’t so much conclude as simply stop.
Release date: 30 August 2019
Platform(s): PS4, Xbox One, and PC
Publisher: Bandai Namco
The middle section, however, as you explore the mysterious abandoned ship the game takes its name from, provides a good two to three hours of expertly crafted nastiness. It’s full of tension as you try to unravel what’s going on - jumping when it tells you, and developing a creeping sense of confusion as you start to work out what the hell’s actually going on. I’ll say no more here because it would be a shame to spoil anything. Safe to say, however, that when you find a rusty 80-year-old ship, empty except for bodies, you’re probably not going to have the best day.
Like SuperMassive's other character-led horror game, Until Dawn, this is a choice heavy, button chasing thing that sees you exploring, choosing dialogue options and hitting quick time events as you hop between whatever characters you haven’t killed yet. In this case your victims are a bunch of preppy American tourists on a diving holiday that veers into modern piracy territory before arriving at its destination, the HMS I Regret Everything. There’s essentially a lot of ‘Press X not to die’ surprises as you poke through old cabins, and wander unsafe rusted corridors – it’s not the kind of game that gives you much time to relax as, unless you pause the action, you can never tell when a character could face peril at the hands of your bad reflexes. The game might show something playing out as ‘death by falling onto spikey things’ but the real reason might more likely be death by ‘I was checking my phone’ or a serious case of killed by ‘trying to have a drink’.
Basically, don’t let your guard down ever, unless you’re not actually that bothered by the person you’re controlling. The playable characters are a mixed bunch, cleverly designed to elicit feelings spanning the full range of ‘you are dying the first chance I get to kill you’ through to ‘we must protect them with our lives’. The most prominent are Fliss, the cool, headstrong captain of a chartered boat, and Conrad (placed by X-Men/Quantum Break’s Shawn Ashmore) who toes a line between punchable alpha-bro, and well meaning but inept manchild. There’s also Julia, who’s got a good line in snarky comebacks and seems to spend 90% of the game in a perpetual Fleabag side eye to the camera. While bringing up the rear is Alex, who’s nice enough but has all the charisma of the wrong side of a stamp, and his brother Brad who’s the kind of person where people can’t help but say ‘Brad’s here’ in a slightly disappointed tone.
All that can change depending on the choices you make and how you play them. It’s possible, for example, to play Conrad as a far nicer person. He’s still a bit of a dick, just a vaguely more forgivable one. However, the game’s cleverest ideas is its ‘main’ mode: a two player online co-op that see two of you playing the same single player story, often from different viewpoints and locations. There is a single player option, as well as a pass-the-pad couch multiplayer for up to six people, but it’s the ability for two people to share slightly different takes on the same story and events that’s the most interesting and effective way to play. It’s best shown off during the game’s slightly long winded intro, as the party of friends gather on the boat. There are moments where you split up, talking and doing things in different areas, only to later reconvene with no idea what the other’s been up to. The big set piece moment here is that eventually one of you will go scuba diving, while the other tends to the boat topside. The two moments run concurrently, leaving you both in the game but having totally different experiences to share later. It's a great demonstration of what the co-op single player set up can do, but it does mean you'll be doing fairly ordinary stuff for a while before you see a shade of anything spooky.
The way the game leverages this two player system when things start to get dark is excellent. You and your online partner can’t communicate outside in-game dialogue choices and actions (unless you want to cheat) so often you’ll share an identical goal with completely different takes on what’s going on. You might both be trying to escape a dangerous situation, or exploring, but getting split up means you’ll often rejoin with completely different ideas and details on what you’re doing. Imagine all those moments when you’ve shouted at a character in a movie for doing something you know is a stupid idea, and now swap your friend into that role. Half the fun of the game is playing, the other half is picking it all apart afterwards as you excitedly realise what the other saw, or the reason they did certain things. Again, I can’t say too much because of spoilers but there were a good few evenings full of ‘WAIT, you saw/did what?’ discussions to work through. Between us on the GamesRadar team we’ve played the two player mode, single-player and pass-the-pad modes a couple of times and I still don’t think we’ve worked all the permutations and surprises out.
It’s a shame then that it all ends so abruptly. It doesn’t so much wrap things up as turn on the lights and ask you to leave. There are a few variations of how things can conclude but all the options feel like the game just stops and hurries you to the credits as quickly as it can. What seems like the next act starting winds up so quickly that its abruptness is as much a disappointment as a shock. Especially after such a stormingly strong middle. I suspect it might be a pacing issue from both Man of Medans’ roughly five hour playing time and branching pathways. There may be ways through the game that have a clearer flow and conclusion, but of the five of us that played it (two players in co-op, two in pass-the-pad, and one in single-player) all felt the ending was sudden and truncated, and the intro took too much of the total playing time to get to scares. There’s also an issue with the overall plot that once you work out what’s actually going on nearly all of the threat and uncertainty dissipates, leaving you focused on button matching to preserve your survival rate. What the story does is great, but it emasculates the majority of the core gameplay once you reach the cape flashing AH-HA moment.
When Man of Medan is firing on all cylinders though there are some great scares and the ability to share the same story from different perspectives is borderline stroke of genius. Titles like this usually live and die on the post-game teardown as you enthusiastically swap notes on who died where, who made it out, and what choices you made. This builds on that by letting you have the same conversations with people you played with - "What were you doing in that room?" "Why on Earth did you open that door?!", and so on. As the first instalment of SuperMassive's Dark Pictures anthology the game might be shorter to play but there are days of talking to breaking it all down afterwards. It’s a flawed but promising start for what’s to come. If the second, as yet unnamed, instalment can iron out the pacing issues there’s a lot to look forward to. As for the Dark Pictures’ first episode it’s a somewhat cautious recommendation: there are some great scares, some terrifying atmosphere, and so much to discuss after but the balance of pacing and sudden end might disappoint.