Press X to.. Aw, too late.
If you’re familiar with 2015’s PS4 exclusive, Until Dawn, then going into Man of Medan is going to make you feel right at home. The first in the developer’s biannual Dark Pictures Anthology, Man of Medan is another performance capture choose-your-own-adventure told through the faces of little to well known actors as they avoid death’s cold hand with a button prompt here and a bad choice there. While the game likes to tell you that their fate hangs in the balance, something the choices you make will dictate, It’s more likely you’ll lose characters due to some absurdly quick to press mechanics.
Told over the course of roughly four to six hours, Man of Medan plays like your typical horror movie; a group of young people out living their life as they get pulled into a web of mystery and danger. Apart from a short prologue setting up the mystery around the game, something I would have loved to been able to skip entirely, we begin as a group of young and reckless adults are about to go diving for a WWII plane lost deep in the ocean blue. This adventure unfortunately leads them into being held captive by a small band of pirates, only to be then taken to a ghost ship where the bulk of the game takes place. The adventure is fairly short, mainly due to not just the cheaper price point, or the replayability, but the fact it’s meant to be a shorter experience to allow the team to craft an anthology of games and not just one single adventure. Or, at least, that’s the pitch.
Where Man of Medan differs from Until Dawn is in the fact you have variable co-op options like playing online with another person, often separated and unaware of what choices they are making. There is also Movie Night mode, where you’ll locally play along side a group of friends, picking characters and swapping the controller around whenever it’s your turn, even if some character’s turns do go on a bit too long. It’s a neat system that while Until Dawn didn’t have multiplayer, it was a game you could sit along side friends and engage with it as one. While I had a few issues starting a game and getting the online co-op to work, it was flawless after that. Movie Night is fairly similar to how Until Dawn was treated as a shareable experience whereas online co-op can be a very different one, especially if you choose not to share what is going on in your game and vice versa.
The cast of characters consists of Alex, Brad, Julia, Conrad, and Fliss. They each take on a cliche personality, but overall are written and acted fairly well, if a bit cheesy at times. Conrad is played by X-Men and Quantum Break star, Shawn Ashmore, while the rest of cast consists of actors who have starred in a few episodes of shows like Dark Matter, Cavendish, iZombie, and Quantico. Several of the performers see their likeness used, and surprisingly, several do not, opting for actual character design that really sells off the types of characters they portray. Out of the cast, Ayisha Issa, who plays Fliss, was one of the standouts for me not just in her acting, but how her character was written. Shawn Ashmore’s Conrad is largely a dick, but during my first playthrough, he died fairly early on, removing said dick from the story. Man of Medan, like Until Dawn, is meant to played over and over again, getting to see character’s react to new scenes while alive, and the rest of the cast’s reactions when others have died. I will say that one death at the end of my first co-op playthrough was glossed over in a way that made it feel hollow and not important to certain characters.
As you keep pushing through the story, regardless of the player mode you’ve selected, you’ll have a chance to play as the entire cast, providing they are still alive. You’ll make choices based on the situation, as well as quick time events like pressing X as the ship rocks to catch your balance, or slamming down the A button while they struggle with a foe in the water. Between each chapter, you’ll meet the Curator, a mysterious man who will be the guide throughout your adventure into the Dark Pictures Anthology. One thing he keeps driving home is that your choices will dictate these character’s fate, except that’s not really true. Sure, your choices will place them into situations, but in my playthrough, Conrad didn’t make it because I failed to press Y in time. This wasn’t a choice, it was a failure of action. The time needed to respond to these prompts can be far too little and doesn’t make for a fun experience when you ‘just’ miss it despite being ready for it. Man of Medan, like Until Dawn, was a game mostly targeted towards a movie-like audience, one probably a bit more casual than your typical hardcore gamer with lightning fast reflexes. And while Until Dawn did share in quick time events, I never felt I lost characters as often due to them, but rather through the choices I actually made along the way.
One of the mechanics that many didn’t care for in Until Dawn was having to hold the controller perfectly still or placing it on the table so that it didn’t move. Since the Xbox One and PC aren’t fully stocked with motion controllers, this gimmick isn’t present but has been replaced with a heart rate mini-game, having you press the button in time with the prompt’s of the character’s heart beat. It’s a decent system on paper, but one that failed two of three times it was presented to me and my co-op friend, making us wonder if lag was causing it to just flat out not work.
The game shares in many gameplay aspects of Until Dawn as well, with characters experiencing premonitions; glimpses of what’s to come, as well as grabbing items and letting you rotate them upon inspection. Many of these items, like books or telegrams, detail more into the story about why the ship was there and what went down in its final hours. The overall narrative is anywhere from decent to good, but the overall length of the game forces some scenes to play out far too quickly instead of building on the tension and dread of what’s to come next. Had the game lasted even another 2 hours, then I feel some of the weaker scenes in the game could have benefited with a bit more love. With Man of Medan being around 4 hours long in co-op, it takes far too long for the story to really kick into gear. The game’s short length also doesn’t allow for the ripples of events to play the long game as most events are looked at in the short term for more instant thrills than something you recall setting in motions hours previous.
Each choice you make during the game will also affect the relationships between characters. As you agree or disagree or go against the wishes of others, you’ll see updates to the traits between the group. This system, apart from being updated in the top corner after certain interactions, is never really addressed or really mentioned, at least during my few playthroughs. By interacting with them in certain ways, you can affect their personalities and this will then reflect in small changes to how they react to each other and change small aspects of the scenes that play out afterwards.
Despite Until Dawn releasing some four years ago, it was still a very good looking game and holds up to this very day. While Man of Medan has some slightly better visuals, due to a change to the Unreal engine, there really isn’t a lot to separate the two visually. That said, the title has several animations that feel clunky, and animation transitions that are incredibly jarring and downright bad. Moving characters as well is a chore, even turning them around is just not fun as I felt I had to really push the analog stick to its limit just to make them move around, let along the weak “faster walk” button that boosts their speed maybe half a percent. It can be more of a struggle than it should be just moving them around a box to check out an item.
All said, Man of Medan is a very average experience solo with some decent thrills and plot twists that can keep you entertained for at least a few playthroughs. Where the title shines however, is in it’s co-op modes that allow you to enjoy the experience in a very unique way I really haven’t seen done before. The story is relatively ok with some very cheesy writing that fits the cliche horror moments well. I still wish the game was a bit longer to allow certain moments to breathe and that the seeds of your choices could ripple farther down the path. Still, Man of Megan is a decent follow-up to the far superior Until Dawn, and it’s not too long before the next entry in the Dark Picture series, Little Hope, allows us to kill yet another young cast of actors with even more hyper speed button prompts instead of actual solid choices that mean something.
Man of Medan was purchased by the reviewer and played on an Xbox One X.
All screenshots were taken on an Xbox One X.