The Dark Pictures Anthology: Man of Medan full review

If you were a fan of the PS4 horror exclusive Until Dawn, then follow-up Man of Medan - the first part of studio Supermassive's new Dark Pictures anthology series - probably looks exciting, if somewhat familiar.

There’s a little bit more to it than that though. Yup, once again Man of Medan is a slickly realised interactive horror story in which you’ll flit between characters and act through a combination of quick-time events and timed decisions, but this time you won’t have to do it alone: Man of Medan is multiplayer.

Unfortunately, while the multiplayer delivers it's mostly by masking the flaws that leave the single-player floundering in its wake - not helped by persistent performance problems on the PS4.

I've played through The Dark Pictures Anthology: Man of Medan ahead of the game’s August 30 launch - when it will arrive on PS4, Xbox One, and PC, all for the friendly price of £24.99/$29.99 - and here's the good, the bad, and the ugly of it all.

The first thing to note is that while there is multiplayer, you can still play through Man of Medan’s story entirely on your own if that’s how you prefer things - playing with friends is strictly optional. You also get the choice between two modes: a 2-5 player ‘movie night’ mode, in which you’ll pass a controller around to share responsibility for the big decisions; and a 2-player online co-op which splits things up a little differently.

To recap for those who aren’t familiar, Man of Medan is the first game in The Dark Pictures Anthology, a new series of small, standalone horror titles. You’ll control a group of characters as you navigate a different horror story each time, making decisions that will determine who lives, who dies, and what happens along the way.

Each story in the anthology will be different, joined together by the connective tissue of the mysterious ‘Curator’ - a great nod to classic horror anthology movies. Man of Medan picks up on a group of 20-somethings off on a diving holiday. We’ve got a few of the usual archetypes - the nerd, the jock, the playboy, the stuck-up girlfriend, and, uh, the sexy woman in short shorts that the camera keeps ogling - and an encounter with moody locals that eventually leads them all to a long-abandoned WWII freighter with a spoooooky secret.

Much like Until Dawn the aim is clearly to be filmic, with a photorealistic art style, cinematic aspect ratio (letterboxing and all) and performance capture throughout - including from former X-Man Shawn Ashmore. And for the most part the game is pretty beautiful, with detailed animations (that only occasionally slip into the uncanny valley), intricate backgrounds, and some occasional camera angles (fixed, like an old school Resident Evil) plucked straight out of the best of horror cinema.

The game seamlessly slips between playable segments and cut scenes - so delicately that at times you won’t even realise it’s happened - though with quick-time events liable to pop up at any time, you’re never entirely safe to put the controller down.

The cinematic aspirations are clear, though like Until Dawn before it Man of Medan shows the format's limitations. It's an old adage that editing is the heart of cinema, and interactivity still gets stuck in the way of that - it’s impossible to set pacing within a scene when players need time to decide what to say or do, leaving plenty of awkward pauses. Even outside of the interactive bits the camera cuts can be a touch jarring - presumably the result of the algorithm trying to figure out which shots to build into your playthrough, based on your actions thus far.

Still, there’s a comfortable charm to these games, and throwing another player into the mix adds a welcome wrinkle. Playing in the 2-player online co-op, the game puts each of you in charge of different characters at different times. At points you might be in control of each side of the same conversation, at others you might get to separately roam a shared environment, while at yet others you might play through entirely different scenes going on simultaneously.

It’s an unusual asymmetry to a multiplayer experience, as you’ll each go through utterly different encounters that nonetheless impact each other’s game and the shared story. The result is a frantic back-and-forth as you try to find out what the other player did to cause whatever new catastrophe has popped up, or what they saw that you missed.

Sharing an interactive story inevitably brings with it complications though. For one thing, the web of different interactions mean that it’s impossible to divide the playable characters down the middle and assign some to one player and some to the other, so you’ll often take control of someone that your partner was playing as earlier - and you’ll have to live with the decisions they made, and decide how consistently you want to play with the character choices they’ve already made.

One perk of playing in multiplayer is that it goes some way to papering over the cracks that creep into the story otherwise. One minor plot point early on involves Shawn Ashmore’s Conrad spotting an entrance into a submerged plane - information that was relayed to one character in three separate conversation, with them acting like it was brand new to them each and every time.

Later on in the game I had a character essentially teleport across the ship to make an unexpected appearance in a pivotal scene - despite having been left on a cliffhanger with an entirely different character the last time I saw them. It shouldn't come as too much of a shock to say that an interactive narrative game lives or dies by its narrative, and when it breaks that badly the game's immersion is shattered for good.

The story itself is good schlocky fun, and does a nice job darting back and forth on whether or not the central plot is supernatural or not. If you only follow the cutscenes you'll get the gist of it all, but dig into the documents and secrets littered around the setting and you'll get more insight into what's really going on. It's definitely shooting for lowest common denominator horror though - like Until Dawn this comes from the school of thought that horror should be silly dumb fun and not much more, so expect naff dialogue and silly twists rather than anything especially thought-provoking. 

There's plenty of branching, and to Supermassive's credit it at least feels like the game gives the player more control over how the story sprawls than Until Dawn did, tracking how every line of dialogue affects character traits, which items are where, and ultimately who lives or dies.

As before, a lot of that still comes down to quick-time events, and they are still about as frustrating as they ever are. There are good and bad ways to handle QTEs, and let's just put it this way: killing off a main character early in the game after a player passes four QTEs and fails the fifth is the bad way.

Performance problems only make matters worse. I reviewed Man of Medan on a PS4 Slim, and suffered some of the worst framerate and stutter problems I've had on any game so far. This was pre-release code, and hopefully a post-release patch will improve performance, but persistent lag and split-second quick-time events make for incredibly unhappy bed fellows.

Finally, as with Until Dawn, replayability is one of the key selling points. Complete the game once and you can jump back in and pick up from any scene - but only in the same mode you've completed it. So if you want to play through both on your own and with friends, get used to working through the sluggish first couple of hours again and again.

Verdict

Set aside the multiplayer and Man of Medan feels like a slight step back from Until Dawn. The branching narrative is more ambitious than ever, but the tech can't quite keep up, with characters jumping around at random, story threads stopping in their tracks, and performance problems bringing it all to a stuttering halt.

Most of those flaws can hopefully be fixed with some aggressive patching, but until then Mad of Medan falls short of its promise - which is especially frustrating, because in its best moments there's a real charm and some genuine scares. The £24.99/$29.99 price tag helps matters, but broken is broken, no matter how much it costs.

Still, the multiplayer element is a proper, capital-I Innovation, and means that Man of Medan offers a co-op experience genuinely unlike anything else on the market - and one that masks most of the other flaws. Until Dawn was always best experienced with a friend there to shout at your bad decisions, and now you get to shout at each other instead. That’s progress.