Remember the Dark Universe? It was Universal Pictures’ grand idea to produce a number of movies based on classic monsters like Dr. Jekyll / Mr. Hyde, Franstein’s Monster, and Tom Cruise. You probably don’t, because the series started and finished with one film. It’s risky business announcing a horror anthology before a single entry’s been released; you could also say it shows intent, ambition, and confidence, of course. Like most who adored Supermassive Games’ homage to ‘90s slasher flicks, Until Dawn, I was beaming when news of The Dark Pictures Anthology broke; I wasn’t after I’d completed Man of Medan.
It’s difficult to talk about the studio’s latest without referencing Until Dawn – its interactive love-letter to screenwriter Kevin Williamson (Scream, The Faculty, and I Know What You Did Last Summer), because the comparisons are clear. A group of sexy, controllable 20-somethings must avoid death by running away from spooky things, whilst occasionally engaging in conversation about said spooky things. A slow reaction during a QTE, or a piece of wayward advice for one of your friends, and your five could become four, could become three, and so on. Unlike Until Dawn’s cast of unlikeable – yet strangely endearing – characters, the five playable assholes of Man of Medan have the personality of pencils. Every time a new one is introduced, it’s quickly established that they’re equally as uninteresting as the last.
Like other games of this ilk, the primary characters are somewhat shaped by what you say and do. Although, when scripting and performance is as weak as it is, it’s hard to care: aggressive or timid, sarcastic or sincere, subpar lines are delivered with the indifference of someone who texts back using only one letter because typing ‘okay’ takes too much effort. Conrad, Brad, Julia, Alex and Fliss – the five primaries – are supported by a group of villains that appear to be just as blasé about happening upon a World War II ghost ship. It’s hard to blame them, really, because the story behind the soldiers’ demise is just as dull.
Through letters and newspaper clippings scattered about the place, you learn more about what happened on the Man of Medan ship decades before you and your humdrum pals boarded. Interacting with every interactable and reading about what life was like for the American heroes will give you a better sense of how tedious their story is, too. I found just over half of the available collectables by the end; I’d also realised I had spent too long searching for collectibles. I could’ve found a few more pictures, though: those things save lives.
A collection of macabre paintings adorn the walls, and give you a little insight into the ways in which The Bores can perish. In a similar fashion to the totems of Until Dawn, these pictures show you a short premonition of what the future can hold, depending on your choices. It adds some weight – even if its false – to what you might first perceive as a flippant decision: if Thingmajim is in that room with Whatsherface, then Pointless McGhee could croak. Or maybe they won’t. These omens play with your head in a truly delightful way. When playing with friends, arguments about their meaning are deliciously amplified.
Movie Night is a multiplayer mode that has you assigning playable characters to those on the couch with you: when its a scene involving Fliss, your boyfriend takes control; when Conrad is up, so is your sister etc. A lot of us passed the pad when playing Man of Medan’s (sort of) predecessor, anyway, and this inclusion nicely expands that social aspect by doling out fun little awards at the end of each chapter. Shared Story, on the other hand, sees you and an online co-op partner playing through different scenes of the game that are happening simultaneously. So, whilst you’re in one area making choices, your buddy is doing similar, somewhere else. It's a relatively pleasant way to see the story from a slightly different perspective. Sharing the experience certainly doesn't make the game more frightening, though.
Man of Medan just isn’t that scary. After a lethargic opening, it drowns in its own jumpscares, diluting any potential fright. It’s a tactic that’s been used for eons, because it works, but poor pacing and obvious telegraphing, here, means the ghosts and ghoulies are a minor inconvenience at best. There is some mild pay-off with regards to the mystical bullshit, but it’s difficult to not see that coming, either. The Curator – your comically creepy storytelling figure that appears in between acts – should instead be referred to as The Foreshadower, such is his wont to make statements like, ‘everything may not be entirely as it seems.’ Quite. His laughter lines and weathered paws, however, are a welcome respite from the #allthefilters young 'uns.
It would be easier to stomach the loans from Madame Tussauds, with their unnatural smiles and immovable foreheads, if Man of Medan ran more smoothly. On a number of occasions during my time with it, there were problems with the lip-syncing, as well as framerate issues that affected quick time events and a frustrating rhythm action minigame; not ideal when you’re in a life or death situation. It’s a shame, really, as even though the personalities aren’t anything worth remembering, the format still works. Scanning the screen for the next button prompt, or choosing what to say or do within a given time, creates a sense of urgency, regardless of what it’s in relation to.
At the end of the day, those brief moments of concern are ultimately swallowed whole by apathy for The Flat Five. As the credits rolled and The Curator waffled on, I realised I had zero desire to see the game’s different outcomes. I didn’t care about Julia, I had no attachment to Brad, I couldn’t remember the lad from Quantum Break’s name. My hope for a second entry in The Dark Pictures Anthology is based purely on what Supermassive Games did four years ago, making Man of Medan one of 2019’s great disappointments.
Developer: Supermassive Games
Publisher: Bandai Namco
Available on: Xbox One [reviewed on], PC, PlayStation 4
Release Date: August 30, 2019
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