Man of Medan, the first entry in Supermassive's Dark Pictures Anthology, brings a strong multiplayer focus to the cinematic horror of Until Dawn.
Developer Supermassive has a strong pedigree in cinematic horror. Until Dawn combined the filmic presentation of the best Quantic Dream titles with tight writing, top-tier acting talent, mind-blowing facial capture animation technology, and a genuine love of genre storytelling. All these elements combined to make Until Dawn a surprise hit that put the developer on the map. Followup efforts Hidden Agenda and The Inpatient were less successful, with a frustrating reliance on gimmicks like PlayStation VR and PlayLink undercutting the twisted mysteries at hand.
For their latest project, Supermassive is going back to basics, returning to the realm of pure cinematic horror. Man of Medan is the first entry in The Dark Pictures Anthology. Like Until Dawn, Man of Medan stars a cast of attractive young people thrown into a harrowing horror scenario, while the player is tasked with the responsibility of trying to keep them alive during their numerous trials.
From the start, Man of Medan offers three ways to play: single player, online multiplayer for two players, and a local, "pass the controller" mode for up to five people to enjoy. In single player, the character switches between the five playable characters as the game progresses, and their decisions (and performance during Quick Time Events) determine who lives and who dies. While this mode offers a more traditional experience for fans of cinematic games, the true magic lies with two-player online co-op, called Shared Story Mode. The host can team up with someone on their friends list and play through the game as a team. Sometimes, the two players will be together, but some instances will have the players split up, leading to some asymmetrical scenarios.
While playing solo, the pacing can slow to a crawl as the game switches from one character to the next, showing them all getting scared in their own distinct ways. In multiplayer, however, it's much more streamlined. Each player will still have plenty of chances to control every character, but the whole thing moves by with a palpable energy, and communicating with a partner is key to unraveling the game's central mystery. Communication is also important key in interpreting certain events, since they may only be seen by one player, and not the other.
It's best to experience the game the first time via two-player co-op before giving it a shot in solo play. After getting a fairly thorough understanding of Man of Medan, it's jolly fun to gather a group of friends and act as something of a dungeon master during Movie Night, casting friends in the roles they feel best suit them. Each playthrough of Man of Medan takes between 4-6 hours (a bit less in two-player), but each adventure has a different outcome, especially with the inevitable wildcards which arise in Movie Night. In any given playthrough, all five heroes may survive, or all five might die. In our first go-round, two of the would-be survivors were killed in the final third of the game, but a thoughful (and lucky) second playthrough saw the whole team survive to the end.
The cast of Man of Medan is comprised of a mix of talented actors. The most well-known actor in the cast is Shawn Ashmore (Quantum Break, X-Men, The Following), though he plays an equal role in the ensemble alongside everyone else. Intermittently, Man of Medan will give players a brief respite, returning to the library of "The Curator." Played by The Crown's Pip Torrens, The Rod Serling-esque host of The Dark Pictures Anthology, The Curator is happy to address players directly and tease, encourage, or criticize their choices at various checkpoints in the game.
The facial animation is just as good as Until Dawn, if not better, and every closeup on a character in distress feels like a work of art. The full body animations, by contrast, can sometimes feel a bit robotic, but it's never outright bad. Best of all, Man of Medan runs at a much better framerate than Until Dawn, courtesy of the Unreal Engine 4. There are still plenty of dips here and there, but it feels considerably more stable than its predecessor. Even on PlayStation 4 Pro, textures can take a moment to pop in; this can sometimes lessen the impact of a sudden jump scare when a skeleton face jumps out in front of the screen before its low-res placeholder textures are replaced by the real deal.
Man of Medan is best enjoyed with friends, and part of that is because the main story is pretty thin. Four friends with varying interpersonal dynamics hire a sea captain (the fifth lead) to bring them out to a supposed crash site. After an encounter with a small band of scary pirates, everyone winds up on a mysterious ghost ship. It's a pretty straightforward premise, and the excitement doesn't come from the cliche narrative, but from how much fun it is to have a degree of control over how characters react to these cliches. There is a secret to the horrific events on the ghost ship, but it's so clearly telegraphed ahead of time, it hardly qualifies as a twist.
There is a lot less player agency in Man of Medan than in Until Dawn. There are fewer game-changing binary choices to make, and the QTE events are comparatively simple. There are still plenty of divergent paths and countless possible outcomes, but it doesn't feel as sprawling as its obvious progenitor. Perhaps this relative simplicity was the price Supermassive chose to pay in exchange for its unique and innovative multiplayer mode. For fans of co-op games, it was absolutely the right choice, but for players who prefer going solo, Man of Medan feels distressingly simple, and a big step backwards.
Man of Medan is an adventure best enjoyed with a friend in Shared Story Mode, and then enjoyed with many via Movie Night. Playing alone creates a decidedly lesser experience, but it's nonetheless a must play title for fans of cinematic adventure titles. Supermassive Games plans to create many more entries in The Dark Pictures Anthology; while certainly not without its flaws and shortcomings, Man of Medan is a strong starting point for future titles, and we're eager to see what The Curator has in store for us next year.
The Dark Pictures: Man of Medan is out now on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC. Screen Rant was provided a PlayStation 4 digital copy for review.