If you go into Supermassive Games Man of Medan expecting it to be the next Until Dawn, you’re probably going to be disappointed.
It’s a much shorter and buggier affair that has you mostly walking down dark, repetitive hallways on a lost ship at sea with controls and cameras reminiscent of the original Resident Evil, and not in a good way. It fails in almost practically every way, and yet I’m still hopeful for future titles in The Dark Pictures anthology, which Man of Medan is the first of.
The game opens with two navy boys out having a drink in what serves as both the setup for the story and setting of the game, as well as a tutorial that teaches you all the mechanics you’ll find throughout Man of Medan. These mechanics include holding R2 to pick up and investigate objects and documents, dialogue options, and a few different types of quick-time events ranging from aiming and mashing R2 for combat, to pressing X in time with an on-screen scrolling heartbeat monitor to keep characters calm, to just pressing or mashing button prompts as they quickly pop up on the screen. Suffice to say, if you hate quick-time events, you’re going to have a bad time, which is made worse because the game often stutters and hitches during these moments, but more on that later.
After a night of drinking, our hunky navy boys head back to the ship before getting in an abrupt tussle with each other over one of them believing the other owns him 50 cents. At which point they are quickly separated and locked up in different parts of the ship by their superior. After sobering up the two find the ship overrun with the corpses of their shipmates, seemingly scared to death as their faces are (hilariously) frozen in mid-scream. Soon they too get a taste of fear, and then the introductory credits roll.
After the credits, you’re introduced to “The Curator” who looks to be the narrator of The Dark Pictures Anthology in the same way The Cryptkeeper was for Tales from the Crypt, Alfred Hitchcock for his titular show, and the various actors that served as a narrator in The Twilight Zone. The Curator is hands-down the best written and acted character in the game, as he’s always a welcomed break from the action when he shows up to drop hints and comment on how you’re doing. Unfortunately, these times are few due to the brevity of Man of Medan, which I easily finished in around 4 hours, and even less on subsequent playthroughs.
From here, you’re introduced to each of the five main characters as they board a boat for a scuba diving exhibition. As each character is introduced you’re told their personality traits and also their current relationship statuses with each other, all of which can change based on what dialogue options are selected throughout gameplay and can be monitored via a menu when playing as each character. In my playthroughs, I haven’t found much value to being explicitly told this information as it should be able to be inferred from any story worth its weight in salt. I also found it off-putting that a game whose premise is you telling the story of these characters starts by practically saying “This is how we intend you to play these characters” at which point it might as well just be a movie, instead.
The five characters are about what you’d expect from most B-grade horror movies. You have the affluent brother and sister, with the brother being an outright dick that flaunts his money constantly, and the sister being a ditzy blond that uses phrases she doesn’t quite grasp like calling her boyfriend an “edgelord” even though he does and says nothing edgy whatsoever throughout the entire game. There’s the guy with glasses who is socially awkward and gets excited about history and science, his jock older brother that watches out for him who is, of course, dating the rich girl. And last but not least, the angry black woman that believes in the supernatural. That said, I don’t think these tropes necessarily take away from the experience, and since you can shape the personalities of each character I found that it was easy enough to make them all kind of likable. On the flip side, if you select dialogue options that make them less nice or cordial to each other you can end up with a cast of characters you hate. I certainly had a much better time when I tried to make everyone nice.
Without spoiling anything, while Man of Medan is a ghost ship story at its core, most of the time and conflict is spent with pirates that take the characters hostage almost immediately. Everyone ends up on the abandoned ship from the introduction of the game, where the main characters must fight to find a way to survive and escape the ship while avoiding spooky aberrations and modern-day pirates. Whereas Supermassive’s Until Dawn was full-blown horror, Man of Medan eres somewhere closer to an episode of The Twilight Zone, in that sometimes the human element is more the focus than the supernatural side of things, which will surely disappoint some. There really isn’t that many scares here, and most of them are jump scares, with maybe 30 minutes to an hour of gameplay feeling like it takes place in a horror film. Otherwise, you’re essentially playing a game about escaping pirates, none of which say “Look at me, I’m the captain now.”
To make matters worse, most of the runtime is spent wondering repetitive hallways with stationary cameras angles that make it hard to see where you’re going. I understand the game takes place aboard an abandoned navy ship, but that doesn’t mean it translates well to gameplay. At times I thought some doors were open, and maybe they were, but the game wouldn’t let me go down them. Rooms that can be entered are mostly small and unmemorable, and typically you only need to enter them if you want to find a piece or lore and/or secret item, all of which have large white sparkles over them, which unlock content in the special feature section of the main menu. So far, the special features I’ve unlocked have been either about the making of the game or the media that it’s been influenced by — yet with oddly no mention of Ghost Ship or Return to House on Haunted Hill, both of which share similarities in different ways with Man of Medan.
As for the acting itself, it’s good overall. There isn’t any standout moments or actors apart from The Curator, but I’d say what is here is better than what can be found in most B movies. Facial animations are smooth and realistic, but not in that uncomfortable uncanny valley way.
There are also a couple of different multiplayer modes included: one for two players online, and another for up to five players locally. The latter is called Movie Night, which I sampled with some friends. Each player is asked to enter their name and select one of the main characters, meaning up to five people can play, or if there are less than five then some player(s) will have multiple characters assigned to them. In this mode, you play through the game as per normal, and when it’s time to play as another character a screen shows up that says it’s whatever players turn to control the next character, at which point you pass the controller to them. This mostly works, since the controls are simple enough for most people to grasp even if they didn’t play the tutorial thanks to on-screen button prompts. I wouldn’t say it adds much of anything to the game, although it lets each person decide how the personality of their chosen character(s) plays out, which can affect the story in some ways.
Another area that Man of Medan utterly fails at is being technically sound and polished, to the point that it basically ruins the entire experience. There are frequent glitches ranging from stuttering during scenes, hitching as scenes transitioned, and even during quick-time events making them even harder to complete. There was more than one scene where black artifacts flickered on the screen every time I played through them. Towards the end, there’s a scene where the same animation is played partially twice in a row as if this were a poorly edited movie, which wouldn’t be a problem if it were some campy grindhouse schtick, but the entire game is played seriously. And, perhaps worst of all, I’m fairly certain I found a continuity error as well, as in the climactic moment of the end of the game a character shows up seemingly out of nowhere that I had just been playing besides moments before, and that other character is oddly nowhere to be seen. Additionally, the accessibility options in this game leave much to be desired, with subtitles and in-game text being so tiny when playing on a 4K TV they are barely legible, giving the recently released Fire Emblem: Three Houses a run for its money.
Imagine seeing a movie on release day in the theatre where there’s frequent hitching between cuts, missing frames, stuttering, graphical glitches, continuity errors, and subtitles that are hard to even read. With any sense, you’d ask for your money back and leave before the film was over. It’s shocking that a narrative-based game would even be considered ready for sale in this state. While these issues can be potentially be fixed via patching, I can only review what I’m given.
I wanted this to be Supermassive’s spiritual follow-up to their smash hit success Until Dawn, but I came away more than a little disappointed with Man of Medan. The story isn’t all that interesting, there’s a lot less supernatural and horror going on than I would have liked, and the game is an unpolished buggy mess that breaks immersion constantly. And yet, I’m hopeful that future games in The Dark Pictures anthology of which Supermassive Games has planned are released more refined and polished.