Just sit right back and you’ll hear a tale, a tale of a fateful trip that started from this tropic port aboard this tiny ship… OK, so that’s Gilligan’s Island, but it bears some similarities with interactive horror story game The Dark Pictures: Man of Medan.
But first, the setup. WWII has recently ended, and we flash back to China, and a couple of tars out doing the requisite drunken sailor thing. Meanwhile, their ship is being loaded with stars and stripes-draped coffins. This portion serves as an introduction to the gamified parts of this interactive movie, amounting to a selection of quick time events, which we’ll discuss further later.
Anyway, the ship hits a storm, the storm does what storms do, and… it’s Gilligan’s Island time. Or at least the three-hour tour part. It’s now modern day, and four richie types board a no-nonsense chick’s boat in readiness for a diving expedition. One of them believes that there’s a sunken WWII bomber to be loote- erm, discovered, and there is – plus much, much more. Anybody who’s watched a trailer for Man of Medan will know this, as the ship from the last paragraph eventually shows up about halfway through the game, which will take around four hours for a playthrough if you don’t dilly-dally too much.
Man of Medan comes to us from Supermassive Games, the people behind the fairly fun douchebags-go-to-a-cabin-in-the-woods-and-variously-die (well, usually) PS4 exclusive Until Dawn. Much of this game is very reminiscent of that game – indeed they share many, many similarities.
But whereas Until Dawn had a reasonable amount of freedom of exploratory movement, Man of Medan supplies a wholly more constrained voyage of discovery, spending most of its time very much on rails. These guys have a story to tell, and save for some say-this or say-that decisions you’re pretty much going to sit there and watch that story. Luckily, it’s a fun one, with plenty of requisite jump scares and a fair air of mystery to it as you trundle along collecting clues (when you’re not forced into a continuation just as you exclaim, “Ooh, what’s that glowy thing,” thus missing the chance to inspect) – as well as trying to avoid several ways of dying, be it from the pirates who shanghaied you to creepy goings-on that we won’t spoil.
Not only is the story fun, but it’s engrossing. So, when you’re completely immersed in the strange world that’s being conjured, and one of those aforementioned quick time events pops up fleetingly, then you miss it due to being involved in the story and your character dies, it’s not only annoying, it’s also rather incongruous to the mood that seems to be intentioned. Rooting about in the settings can soften some of the QTE blows for those wanting to just enjoy the trip, but not all of them, including a clunky targeting system. If missing one QTE didn’t usually have severe consequences, then it wouldn’t be an issue. But, as it stands, it is.
Elsewhere there are collectibles in the form of premonition pictures and secrets. Despite several playthroughs, one of which involved going to forensic levels to check every nook and cranny, we were unable to discover them all. OK, so maybe we didn’t experience some story branches, but we’re still suspicious.
“…see if you can get this quintet of fairly unlikeable folk all off the nasty old floating death trap and on their way back to whatever these types of people do when they’re not getting stuck on ghost ships.”
For those story branches are intended to keep you coming back. Try different scenarios, and see if you can get this quintet of fairly unlikeable folk all off the nasty old floating death trap and on their way back to whatever these types of people do when they’re not getting stuck on ghost ships. Pleasingly, once the game is completed, a scene select option opens up, allowing experimentation without dropping massive chunks of replay time, for there’s no skipping scenes otherwise.
An interesting inclusion is two forms of multiplayer. Two players can assail the experience online in ‘Shared Story’, or up to five can play pass-the-controller on a (presumably big) couch in the ‘Movie Night’ mode. It’s a simple but innovative and welcome way to open up what is usually a quite solitary experience into one that a group can enjoy. But then the whole thing is more movie than game, so it does make sense.
One thing to note is how dark things are. We’re not talking about the story, which has its black moments, but visually. We were playing on an OLED screen with HDR support, and even with brightness maxed in-game at 100 and the room almost completely darkened, making things out in the dinge was verging on eye-straining. Yes, we know it’s set in dark places such as the bowels of a derelict ship – ha-ha smarty-pants – however we believe that this is worth noting. Otherwise, also on the tsk-tsk side of the ledger we encountered occasional graphical glitches, including slight slowdowns, stutters and loss of lip synch, but nothing game-breaking.
Yes, we have some reservations about Man of Medan, in particular how jarring and out of place those blasted QTEs are. We can only hope that a mode allowing complete non-timed interaction is patched in for those who just wish to experience the story with a few user-selected twists thrown in here and there, rather than being forced to watch their carefully protected character die a brutal death simply because they don’t possess the reflexes of a 16-year-old DJMax savant.
Ultimately, as a budget-priced first instalment in a planned anthology, The Dark Pictures: Man of Medan does show much promise, in particular in the writing department. Although we do challenge Supermassive to include some more likeable characters on their next voyage…
The Dark Pictures: Man of Medan is available August 30 for PS4 and Xbox One.