Supermassive’s Man of Medan is out now, the first in a series of games published by Bandai Namco under the Dark Pictures Anthology name. Releasing for Xbox One, PC and PS4, it’s the first time that gamers without a Playstation can go hands on with one of the developer’s cinematic horror titles.
It’s a genre in which Supermassive has made quite a name for itself, starting with the excellent Until Dawn – which grew into a bit of a franchise with the subsequent release of the VR shooter Rush of Blood and The Inpatient, also a VR title. To date, they’re two of the most technically impressive Playstation VR titles out there. The original Until Dawn was also a great take on the cinematic videogame experience, and since Man of Medan was promising to take that approach to the next level we couldn’t wait to try it when it was announced last year. A few hands on sessions at trade shows and about a year later, here we are.
Man of Medan is a new undertaking for Supermassive games, yet it felt instantly familiar when we laid eyes on it. Visually, it has that same kind of cinematic horror flair that Until Dawn had – intense close-ups, impressive facial acting and beautiful visuals all come together once more for a teen slasher-inspired tale. There’s also a branching story, in which player choice matters in terms of who lives and who dies, and in how the story unfolds.
This, at least in theory, encourages multiple playthroughs of the game, although it’s not the kind of experience you should expect to start right back up the second you complete your first run. Instead, I would recommend waiting a bit so you don’t remember every single choice you make, and can make more or less “in the moment” spontaneous decisions again.
Man of Medan features a cast of young adults ready to have a good time aboard a boat, with which they hope to find a long lost ship. The group of friends has all the usual horror stereotypes among them, but before they find the SS Ourang Medan they are joined by a band of fierce pirates who are looking for the same wreck but for different reasons. Once they arrive at the Medan together, the tone of the story changes from a tense thriller to a supernatural horror tale. Characters experience disturbing visions, and there are plenty of jump scares and twists to be had.
The core of the gameplay doesn’t consist of traditional gameplay, although there are sequences where you need to walk around and explore. The bulk of the action, however, comes from quick time events and split second decisions you need to make. Do you try to loosen those straps around your hands first, or try to get rid of the tape on your mouth so you can scream for help before those pirates come back? Situations are often tense, because there isn’t one choice that’s clearly better than the other yet you have very little time to pause and think about it. The game maps out your decisions for you as well, but stays a bit ambiguous as to what effect they had on the story.
The quick time events can get frustrating though, as they can occur in the middle of a cut scene that you’re engrossed in and will take you by surprise – thus potentially forcing you to restart a sequence. Games like Uncharted and the recent Tomb Raider trilogy also take a cinematic approach to gaming and include QTEs, but they’re more invasive in Supermassive’s games because there isn’t much here in terms of traditional gameplay to help balance it out.
A lot of that trade-off between gameplay styles, however, lies with the audiovisual delivery – and Man of Medan has a cinematic look and feel to it that very few titles can aspire to. The lighting is spot on, the camera angles well thought out, the visual effects downright impressive and the narrative direction creates some seriously tense moments.
Supermassive’s games generally aren’t long, and Man of Medan is no exception. A playthrough lasts about 4 hours, which I suppose is lengthy if you look at the game as a piece of interactive cinema but on the short end for a videogame. It’s only a half price title though, which feels fair – especially because multiple playthroughs are (over time) definitely an option. It’s a game best enjoyed with others though, even in single player mode – where you’ll find yourself debating your choices. The included multiplayer mode emphasizes this even more, with forced “pass the controller” moments to help direct the joint decision making. There is also an online mode where two players play simultaneously, but we didn’t test this during our review process. But even as an offline experience, if you enjoyed Supermassive’s previous horror work, you’ll enjoy this. Flawed as a traditional videogame, but highly entertaining as an interactive horror tale.