Developer: Supermassive Games
Publisher: Bandai Namco
Rating: M for Mature
With the release of their breakout hit Until Dawn, developer Supermassive Games had a tough act to follow. Subsequent releases varied from fine to great. Now that they are going multi-platform for their next eight titles, all under the banner of The Dark Pictures Anthology, one has to wonder: can the tricks used in their previous titles remain fresh and compelling in an experience half the length? Well, yes and no.
Violence: Characters are shot, stabbed, impaled, beaten and literally scared to death. However, these horrible things do not have to happen. Choices you make determine if these come to pass. Nobody can die, or everybody. With the much more varied branching paths, characters can die in the first hour. Nobody has plot armor this time. One scene has a fountain that pours blood instead of water.
Language: Characters use a variety of curse words in every other sentence. Everything from sh*t and f*ck to a*s and h*ll are used, and this includes using the Lord’s name in vain.
Sexual Content: Julia and Fliss wear short shorts, tank tops, and midriff-baring outfits, nothing you would not see at the beach or on the street on a hot day. Alex and Julia are implied through dialogue to be in a sexual relationship and are seen sleeping in a bed together. Alex is in his underwear in this scene.
Drug/Alcohol Use: Characters drink beer at the start of the game. Frightening and intense hallucinations are experienced by every character involved in the plot.
Spiritual Content: In one scene, you see a pagan ritual circle and a book with instructions on how to perform said rituals. I will not say if it is a misdirect or not as it would be a spoiler to say either way.
Based off of the legend of the S.S. Ourang Medan, Man of Medan starts the tutorial with two sailors at port on their way home to San Francisco after the end of World War II. As it teaches you the basics of how to play the game, the scene is set for what follows seventy years later. While what exactly happened is shrouded in mystery until the end of the second act, you get the feeling that things are not what they seem.
Once the tutorial is over, we meet our cast of characters: Brad, a lovable nerd; Alex, his muscular brother and a med school student; Julia, Alex’s rich girlfriend who loves to blow off rules; Conrad, Julia’s brother and an all around wise guy; and Fliss, the captain of the diving boat The Duke of Milan. We meet them as they prepare to take off on a diving trip to see a wrecked plane. Things go sideways when a trio of fishermen take them hostage with plans of ransom. However, once the captors see an old document mentioning “Manchurian Gold” plans are changed and our cast is trapped on a ship.
As you free yourselves from the antagonists, you start to see things, things that do not seem right, like old bombshell models and multi-headed corpses. As the tension builds, scares abound in various forms. This range includes jump scares, grotesque and intense imagery, and even apparitions. While these are very effective at first, their effect on me disappeared as soon as the big twist was revealed, and on top of that, the game’s choices are now easier to make since you know the truth. While in Until Dawn’s big reveal makes its scares that much more frightening, while its choices are left unaffected and continue to enrich the story. I make these comparisons to draw on the fact that while these are two very different stories with the same basic structure, one is more engaging once the magician reveals how his trick is done, while the other is not. Could things be supernatural or is it all in your character’s heads?
The performances from the main cast are fine. The acting seems sincere, but nobody really stands out except for Shawn Ashmore, and only then because he is a big-name celebrity. The new character that ties this and the next seven installments of The Dark Pictures Anthology together is The Curator. In this role, he advises and critiques how well you have told your game’s story to him. He knows the whole picture, but he wishes for you to tell your version. He works in about the same capacity as Peter Stormare’s Doctor. While Pip Torrens is great in this role, he does not leave the same impact on you like Stormare did. Whereas the Doctor was intense and unsettling, the Curator feels more like a rich guy who collected a variety of stories and knows more than he is willing to let on. I hope there is more to learn about him in the following releases.
As far as how the game itself plays, it is pretty much the same as Until Dawn. You move and look with the thumb sticks and walk one percent faster with the left shoulder button. The difference here is that it does not control as well as the giant of whose shoulders this game stands. Nearly every time you try to navigate around something, you get stuck on it. The structure of the world does not help matters either, as narrow hallways and large pipes come out of every which direction. As with Until Dawn, this game also relies on ever changing camera angles, and thus you are very likely to bump into something when it shifts. Instead of the “Don’t Move” mini-game being used for tense situations since only the Dualshock 4 has motion controls built in, you are asked to tap in time with a heartbeat. It makes things more frustrating than intense. When I am asked to not move, it is tough for me since I have a habit of fidgeting. It made things more intense for me and I usually was holding my breath so I could remain still. With the heartbeat, I ended up more frustrated than tense. I would have to put more focus on timing so I would put myself “in the zone” as it were. Instead of breathing a sigh of relief, I would be celebrating that it was over.
From a visual standpoint, it looks like Until Dawn. The problem is that in order for the game to look great, you need to play on the enhanced consoles like PS4 Pro and Xbox One X. I used a base Xbox One for my first play-through and then an Xbox One X for my second. The difference was incredibly noticeable. Some issues still appear, however, such as texture pop ins and moments when the characters would freeze on screen while the background continued to move. These were just on the X, it was worse on the base model.
There is still credit to give though. Once you play the Theatrical Cut, you unlock the Curator Cut. This version of the game has you play the other side of the story. As the characters are inevitably split up, you are normally in pairs. In the first cut, you could have Alex and Julia together with you playing as Alex. Curator has you play as Julia instead. If you played the Shared Story multiplayer mode, I imagine this is what the other player is playing while you are doing the other half. I did not feel satisfied with the story until after I had finished the Curator’s Cut.
Yes, this game has multiplayer, and there are two ways to go about it. The first is the aforementioned Shared Story. In this mode, you and another one of your friends play the game at the same time. When choices are presented to either of you, the other player is alerted that a choice is being made. Each of these still have an impact on the story just like a single player game would. The other mode is Movie Night. In this mode, you and up to four other players pick a character to play as and rotate out of the lead position. If one player messes it up for everyone, you can give them loads of crap. It can be a fun time with friends, but I can see it being a struggle to get that many friends together at once to play a four hour game.
In conclusion, The Dark Pictures Anthology is starting off fairly well. While the story is engaging through most of the experience, the twist soils it and the narrative does not feel complete until you finish both sides. The gameplay is not as smooth or refined as its predecessor and does not run well. First-timers to narrative-driven horror games should enjoy this, but for those with a PS4, Until Dawn remains a stronger recommendation.
The Bottom Line
Man of Medan is an okay introduction to Supermassive Games's stories for Xbox and PC players. PS4 should stick to the previous titles