Until Dawn follow-up Man of Medan has amazing ideas in the cooperative space but collapses under the weights of performance issues.
Upon starting up Man of Medan, the first in Supermassive Games’ horror anthology The Dark Pictures, players will notice that the top menu option is called “Don’t Play Alone.” The developers knew exactly how people were playing their past title Until Dawn, passing the controller amongst friends in a dark room, screaming and laughing at jump scares and overall B-movie cheese. Man of Medan has more of that, but it is better crafted for that playstyle. It’s just a shame that the game just couldn’t run well.
Wrap those issues around a story that is significantly less impactful than that of Until Dawn and what results is a spiritual successor that feels like it moved one step forward and two steps back. While I was hoping that these technical issues would just be small presentational hitches and wrinkles, they ended up becoming debilitating problems that made Man of Medan frustrating to play. For a game that values replayability with multiple choices and consequences, it’s not one I’d want to experience again without a significant amount of polish.
While Until Dawn was a take on the general “cabin in the woods” subgenre of horror, Man of Medan has a “ghost ship” angle. The plot involves a few young folks taking a boat out for an exploration dive when their misadventures lead them to a mysterious and quite-spooky ship. Like Until Dawn, Man of Medan fully embraces B-movie horror tropes, with an emphasis on character personalities and archetypes.
You have the cool-headed Alex, his “nerdy” and socially awkward younger brother Brad, his adventurous girlfriend Julia, and Julia’s quite-arrogant brother Conrad, played by Shawn Ashmore, the most recognizable actor of the bunch. They are joined by Fliss, the somewhat mysterious captain they hired for their faithful expedition. As you can likely gather, these are all characters you’ve already seen in the movies. And like in the movies, most of these people will probably irritate you to no end (except their own, as this game has permadeath like Until Dawn).
All of the voice and motion capture performances are certainly passable and play well under the guise of schlocky horror movies. You’ll jump at the cheap scares, and probably roll your eyes or laugh at dialogue lines or character reactions that weren’t intended to be funny. While I get that this anthology is a throwback, I question if this B-movie tone is sustainable for say, seven more games—modern-day audiences are used to smarter horror (i.e. the works of Jordan Peele or Ari Aster). With cinematic camera angles and a persistent widescreen letterboxing, Man of Medan looks like a blockbuster film and sounds like a direct-to-DVD one.
Several mechanics that players of Until Dawn enjoyed are back, different only in name or aesthetic. The butterfly effect is represented through “Bearings,” where players can see how seemingly menial choices resulted in larger consequences. Players will choose dialogue with the “moral compass,” which will affect the changing relationships between the five main cast members (represented by a bar in the menu). Pictures instead of totems will give players hints and premonitions of the future. And exploring environments has a point-and-click feel, with the game allowing players to interact with objects and search for clues (or more likely, open a door for a cheap jump scare).
The gameplay is absolutely from the same language as Until Dawn, though not as complex, with fewer characters and factors to play around with; that isn’t to say that it’s less fun, and being a shorter game could, in fact, make Man of Medan even more replayable. That is if you aren’t annoyed by how the characters move slower than molasses—these young folks aren’t as spry as they look, and the stiff movements started giving me flashbacks to modern-day Rockstar games. Even something as simple as selecting an object you find is a hassle when you can’t even get your character in the exact spot it wants you to be, and that’s assuming you know where to go, given the static and limited “cinematic” camera angles you’re presented with.
That’s all minor, though, compared to the faster gameplay elements. Quick-time-events are back, and in lieu of the “don’t move” DualShock 4 portions from Until Dawn is a rhythm “Stay Calm” minigame meant to emulate heartbeats; I assume the change is due to the move from PS4 exclusivity with Sony to a multiplatform release with a third party. Whatever the case, it appears to be a fine idea—until the performance issues set in. These definitely raised ire as I played the game cooperatively with others.
To start with the good news before the bad, I have to give credit to the two different co-operative modes for being so well-conceptualized and generally well-implemented. An easy thing to do would have been to make the game streamer-friendly by letting viewers vote on decisions or something of that nature, but Supermassive instead provided two highly-interactive ways to play together with “Movie Night” and “Shared Story.”
I first tried out “Movie Night” with my friend Em; the mode allows for two to five players and has them enter their names and select the characters they’ll take control of. It’s essentially a more official version of informally passing the controller around on the couch with Until Dawn, this time with screen prompts telling players to do so. One gripe, however, was that depending on who’s who, some players may miss out on a few key moments; for instance, with only one player doing the controls tutorial at the beginning, no one else will get to experience it. Not a dealbreaker, but casual and non-gamers may struggle later on.
That problem isn’t present in “Shared Story,” an online co-op mode for two players; huge thanks to my friend Caitlin Galiz-Rowe of Uppercut for playing this mode with me. It’s this mode that opens up a lot of interesting avenues, and it’s something that I found particularly fascinating. Instead of taking turns, the two players play simultaneously as different characters. Their decisions affect one another, and with the group usually split up, they’ll be seeing totally different vantage points of whatever situation they’re in. And with the, er, supernatural-esque nature of the plot, sometimes characters may share a space but will be seeing totally different things, while still making sense and actually adding to the mystery portion of the story.
It will take a shorter time to complete the game in Shared Story, but with new perspectives and some interesting secrets to mine from taking notes from the other player, there’s definitely a lot more texture to the plot as a result of playing the game this way.
It may have been easier to enjoy those experiences, however, had the game simply run better. Whether it was in single-player, Movie Night, or Shared Story (for reference, I played the game on a base PS4 while Caitlin has a slim PS4), the game wouldn’t stop slowing and stuttering. Frame rate drops were common, loading screens would interrupt the action, and the game would struggle so that the lipsyncing would be noticeably off. At two different points in my full week with the game, it straight up crashed (no word yet from Supermassive or Bandai Namco about a potential day one patch).
Having seen the game at PAX East, and with a colleague at the site informing me of similar gripes at E3 2019, I am a bit puzzled on why the game is still in this state right before release. I could forgive performance issues, but many a time, this stuttering, slow down, and lag led to failed QTEs, especially for essential moments that are life-or-death for certain characters. I don’t think we successfully did any of the “Stay Calm” minigames after the initial tutorial one for those technical reasons. For a game with already limited controls, the fact that these performance problems hinder said controls is dire. To top that off, from an accessibility standpoint, the game has offensively small text for subtitles, with no option to make them larger.
Man of Medan is built from the same mold as Until Dawn, but the writing lost a bit of charm on the way, and the technical performance hinders the game greatly. After multiple playthroughs of the game, I’m still left with several questions—not about the story, or about what’s next to come for The Dark Pictures, but about the sustainability of this long-term eight-game project. Is one game every six months too much of a workload? Will there be enough variety to keep the tropes from being stale? And will these neat co-operative modes be good fits for whatever story is to come?
Set your bearings straight before you consider purchasing.