The Dark Pictures Anthology: Man of Medan Review – PC

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The Dark Pictures Anthology is a new series of interactive horror games inspired by the success of PlayStation’s Until Dawn game from 2015 that created a visionary new genre of interactive entertainment where you played as a group of eight young adults trying to survive in an isolated cabin on a snow topped mountain with a mysterious killer hunting them down. That game used a feature called the butterfly effect to justify the concept of your actions having trickle-down results later in the game as well as these mysterious totems that could hint at future events.

Man of Medan is the first installment in this new series; this time focusing on five college-age kids setting off on a diving expedition to find lost WWII treasure. But even before we are introduced to our primary cast of future casualties we get a sinister prologue taking us back to 1947 where a massive freighter is getting loaded with dozens of coffins while Joe and Charlie, two off-duty shipmates are off getting drunk and harassing the local vendors. This prologue serves as a useful tutorial for navigating the world as well as completing the numerous QTE (quick time events) moments that will pop-up throughout the game. You’ll also get a handle on how to pick-up and flip over lots of readable content that contains most of the backstory and flavor of the game.

In the interest of staying spoiler-free I’ll just say that stuff happens and lots of people die, all witnessed by Joe and Charlie in a rather spooky intro that leads into the opening credit sequence that mirrors the music and visual style of Until Dawn perfectly. Now it’s time to meet the Curator of Stories, this mysterious character who is also mimicking the therapist character from Until Dawn, only he’s not here to analyze you. Instead, he is more like the Rod Serling, or in this case, the Crypt Keeper who plays host to this and future installments in the anthology. He’ll offer you unsolicited hints and mysterious words of warning/wisdom between Acts in the story before sending you back to your doom.

Man of Medan basically plays out like one long 4-5 hour movie broken up by moments of choice, either action or conversation, and the occasional QTE to test your alertness and reflexes. There are also long periods of moving your character around the labyrinth levels of the game, searching for glowing symbols indicating something to pick-up, read, or interact with. Much of the game is played at a plodding pace, and with minimal background music and overly dark environments I actually found myself dozing off multiple times during solo play, once even while streaming. The game has some weird sound issues where the dialogue is mixed very low, so you turn the volume up louder than normal and then you have these super-loud orchestra hits for all these lame jump scares. Seriously, if you played this game with the sound off nothing would be scary because the game totally relies on audio shock tactics to scare you. There were only two or three moments in the game that were genuinely scary.

The bad thing about this less-than-energetic game design is that you get lulled into this complacency of watching a movie with minimal interaction and then when some life or death QTE pops up it’s quite easy to fail. When my game was over there were only two survivors (Alex and Fliss) and I didn’t particularly care for either. Everyone else had died, quite cheaply I might add, through failed QTE moments; some as silly as missing a single heartbeat button press at the very end of a long sequence – RIP Conrad. The game is totally unforgiving on these QTE’s and goes as far as to save the game after each input so if you try to bail and retry the sequence you’ll pick-up right after the failed input. The game forces you to live (or die) with your failure.

There is some good story content in Man of Medan with some fun interactions between the various characters. We have brothers, Alex and Brad, and then Julia and Conrad, brother and sister with the rich parents who are paying for this adventure. Fliss is the local captain who gets increasingly annoyed with her American clients who show little respect for rules and culture. There are lots of interactions in the opening Act that all fuel relationships and traits for each character that all come into play later in the game. There is a surprising amount of flexibility in the pathing of the story based on these choices. On my initial playthrough I had Julia turn down a marriage proposal from Alex, but when playing the Curator mode, an alternate game mode that lets you follow characters that were sidelined in the solo mode, I had no say in the matter and Julia said yes to a proposal that happened off-camera.

Some decisions and actions don’t have as much impact as you might think. Early in the game Julia cut her leg while diving when I missed a QTE and I was sure the blood was going to attract a shark, but that missed QTE only ended up having her character model wear a bandage on her leg for the rest of the game. I was amused that in my game where Julia turned down Alex’s proposal that he was increasingly hostile towards her for the rest of the game. There is also a quirky relationship dynamic with Conrad (the worst flirt ever) and Fliss.

Much like Until Dawn, everyone in this game can live or die, but often that choice isn’t as much about your decisions as it is your reflexes. As the game was winding down my characters were dying right and left and sometimes it can get really confusing when your perception gets twisted and you start hallucinating yours and others deaths. It was only when other characters started finding the bodies did I realize who was really dead.

Interestingly enough, the game defaults to multiplayer either with another friend online or with up to four friends in a 5-player couch co-op mode called Movie Night. This is a great idea assuming you have that many friends willing to embark on a 4-5 hour experience. In any of these modes you simply divide the cast of characters between the number of players, so if you have five people everyone gets to play a single character. This can be problematic because not all characters share equal screen time and if your character dies you just became a spectator. Either way, there are long periods where you’ll be watching others play while waiting for your turn at the shared controller.

Man of Medan has some excellent production values with gorgeous 4K visuals. There is an option for HDR support but nothing I did would let me turn it on. Given the abundance of darkness in this game HDR would be a huge perk. The static camera angles reminded me of the early days of Resident Evil as did the tank-like controls of the characters that pivot and walk around like stiff robots. You can’t run in the game but you can walk fast. The audio is minimal but expertly implemented with a fantastic opening and closing musical number and a great score by Jason Graves. The sound effects, both environmental and actual are sinister and realistic, and my only complaint is once again those loud orchestra hits for the jump scares…totally unnecessary.

I loved Until Dawn so I really wanted to enjoy Man of Medan just as much, especially since this is kicking off what is hopefully a successful series of spinoffs, but the game just came up lacking. The character models and faces weren’t as detailed or emotive and their overt stereotypes made many characters annoying, which led to my disconnect for nearly everyone in the game. The lack of environments also led to some boredom, as most of the game was spent exploring a dark, rusty, moist ship with twisting maze-like passages and rooms that you would never find on a real ship. I will say that on my second playthrough of the game after unlocking Curator mode I was having a much better time. Playing as “the other characters” seemed to be telling a much more interesting story, and I was able to explore the path not chosen for many of my former decisions, some of which didn’t work out in my favor.

The Dark Pictures Anthology: Man of Medan is $30, which might be about $10 too much. I’m treating this like the first episode in a Telltale series, and while it does have much greater production values you are still only going to play this game twice at the most. The Movie Night is a great idea implemented with little effort from the designers that might squeeze an additional playthrough, but just how many people will sit down and play this in a group environment to completion? It will certainly make for some entertaining livestreams, which ultimately sums up Man of Medan as a game that you watch more than you play.