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Man of Medan review: cooperative genius

By Richard Wakeling. Posted

The Dark Pictures: Man of Medan reveals its hand early on. It shares much in common with Supermassive Games’ previous title, Until Dawn, but the addition of co-op proves to be a stroke of genius.

The prologue takes place during the Second World War as two US soldiers, after a night of heavy drinking leads to a mishap in front of their commanding officer, find themselves placed in the brig and medical bay aboard the SS Ourang Medan. Cast in the role of one of those soldiers, I woke up dishevelled and confused in the brig, whereas my friend, playing alongside me, found himself in the medical bay.

After exploring our surroundings, we eventually meet and begin exploring the bowels of the ship together. Something has obviously gone awry, with the rest of the crew either dead or prowling the corridors in a frenzied panic. That’s when my compatriot asks if I just saw a small child dash across the hallway in front of us. I hadn’t seen anything.

Eventually, we were split up. I won’t spoil the grisly details, but after stuffing myself inside a locker to hide, I was suddenly riddled with bullets. Who was on the other end of that gun? My friend, of course. Though it wasn’t a locker he was lighting up – not on his screen, at least.

The facial mocap is excellent, allowing for some emotive performances. Aside from the stilted prologue, the voice acting is strong overall.

Therein lies the brilliance of Man of Medan’s co-op: by splitting the branching narrative between two players, there’s an inherent unpredictability in the way events can unfold, and more ways for Supermassive to toy with you both – to the point where you might attack one another without even realising it.

Admittedly, the story’s disappointing beyond the central mystery, and there’s a lack of character development that makes it hard to care what happens to the cast. But the co-op elevates each faltering aspect of Man of Medan to such a degree that playing the game solo’s almost redundant – if you’re going to play it, you need to do so with a friend.

There are certainly enough characters to go around as the narrative shifts to the present day. You’re part of a scuba diving expedition on the hunt for the wreckage of a sunken World War II plane. The whole trip’s funded by two affluent siblings who are accompanied by one of their boyfriends, his brother, and the small vessel’s captain.

The no-nonsense Captain Fliss is the most interesting of the bunch, with the rest of the cast occupying their respective roles as familiar horror movie clichés. Until Dawn was much the same way, yet it managed to subvert expectations as the story unfolded until its characters were better-rounded, which in turn made you care whether they lived or died. At roughly three hours in length, Man of Medan doesn’t give you enough time with these characters for something similar to happen.

Monster designs vary in quality, from cookie cutter zombies to two-headed monstrosities. The best of the bunch might be the WWII pin-up model.

The early stages provide room to get to know each one to some degree, but once they arrive on the SS Ourang Medan ghost ship, any notions of character development are thrown out the window in favour of jump scares and spooky goings-on. As a result, I was never really bothered about the fate of any of the characters beyond Fliss, and even then her early intrigue never goes anywhere.

The central mystery is definitely interesting, revolving around the fate of the Medan’s crew, and why everyone’s seeing ghouls and ghosts. There’s such little fanfare when you uncover what’s really going on, however, that the reveal feels more like a throwaway piece of information.

Like Until Dawn, Man of Medan splits your time between moments where you’re free to explore and pick up notes and other trinkets, QTE-centric action sequences, and conversations built around dialogue options. Player movement is cumbersome, particularly when you’re working in tight spaces, and simply interacting with items is overly finicky.

QTEs are what they are, but they at least keep you on your toes, especially when one wrong button press could result in a character’s death. The story is shaped by a plethora of branching paths where anyone can die at any moment, and the story will continue on.

Throwing two players into these high stakes is ingenious, because you might be forced to face the consequences of your partner’s actions, and vice versa. There are times when you’re together, and times when you’re split up, which is when the game starts manipulating each of your perspectives.

Fixed camera angles are used when you’re allowed to explore the ship, harking back to survival horror classics like Resident Evil.

Our playthrough would have gone a lot differently if we weren’t relaying information to each other. In hindsight, the ideal way to play Man of Medan would be either without voice chat, or in a way where you decide to conceal information from each other. As a result, we managed to avoid any major character deaths aside from one right near the end. Although this didn’t stop me from swinging a knife at my mate’s face when I thought he was some kind of zombified monster.

The three-hour runtime is indicative of Man of Medan’s lower price point, but it does make it easier to go back through the game and explore the various ways the story can unfold. That story – and its characters – are disappointing when compared to Until Dawn, but again, the addition of co-op adds something new and wholly unique to the branching narrative genre.

Supermassive does some interesting things with the concept that elevates what would otherwise be a serviceable horror game and little else. There’s certainly potential here for the rest of the Dark Pictures anthology. Here’s hoping future entries manage to coalesce each element into a more enjoyable whole.

Highlight

The best horror frequently arises from a fear of the unknown. By playing Man of Medan with a partner, scenes are occurring concurrently, so you’re each experiencing half the game. Some of the best moments came when my mate was simply describing what was happening to him and my imagination had to fill in the rest.

Verdict: 70%

Co-op elevates Man of Medan’s spooky romp through a branching ghost ship.

Genre: Branching narrative horror
Format: PS4 (tested) / XBO / PC
Developer: Supermassive Games
Publisher: Bandai Namco
Price: £24.99
Release: Out now

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