Bandai Namco took us to a boat in Hamburg to experience the horror of Supermassive's first Dark Pictures game, and they certainly had some surprises.
We're just under two months away from the release of Supermassive's Man of Medan, a nautical thriller that's kicking off horror anthology The Dark Pictures. That being the case, last week we were invited to board a boat in Hamburg to try the game out for ourselves. This was a tantalising offer in itself, but Supermassive also had a big announcement up its sleeve, one which the studio dropped on us before we were let loose in the game.
The big announcement was the news that Man of Medan would actually include multiplayer in two forms - Shared Stories and the Movie Night mode. The developer explained that they didn't want to reveal these features until players could actually get their hands on them, and we can understand why. Had you told us that multiplayer was planned for the story-driven horror title we would've been very worried indeed, but after getting a good grip on what Supermassive is working on, our fears were laid to rest.
We were split into two groups to play the extended demo, which is actually the opening of the game itself. There's a point to this, as each room contained one player in the Shared Stories demo, with their partner in another room entirely. It was a logistical nightmare for the organisers (trying to resolve tech issues between two rooms on a dark boat is never fun), but it illustrated the concept and why you don't even need to talk to your partner to have fun.
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Essentially you play through the story as you would when playing alone, but another player controls other characters in the scene. The opening, for example, sees you play as two soldiers in an Asian country, and while you're playing through the scenes as one of them, your companion has their own experience with the other.
What works perfectly is how your experience is largely unaffected by the other player, as they're having their own experience that you don't need to engage with. Each is experiencing their character's story just as they're used to in Until Dawn, and they're free to explore as they wish, regardless of what their friend is doing. In fact, the only time you'll notice that you're playing with another real person is when the message "your friend is deciding" comes up during dialogue between characters, and aside from that, you could've told us we were playing a single-player demo and we'd have believed you.
Now that we've explained the concept, let's get into what we played. The opening section serves as a prologue in which the two soldiers are reprimanded for staying out too late drinking, which serves as a tutorial for quick-time events (QTEs), exploration, and all the controls Until Dawn players will remember fondly. When their commander catches both of them, one is thrown in the brig and another taken to the medical bay (he got a punch for his antics). Upon waking, the injured man releases his friend from the brig, and they find that the ship is littered with corpses and mysterious events have gone down... we'll say no more than that.
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Fast forward to the modern-day and we're in French Polynesia, meeting the cast that we've seen in trailers and promotional material already. First up we meet brothers Brad and Alex, the former of which is a nerdy, shy type, while the latter is a bigger brother, a medical student going out with Julia. Julia is an outgoing type, and her brother Conrad (Shawn Ashmore, no less) is more on the arrogant side of that fence - a joker without care for the rules. Last up is Fliss, the captain who's a stickler for the rules.
Of course, these are general outlines for the characters and as with Until Dawn, you can play them as you wish. There are a few UI adjustments, but as with Supermassive's 2015 hit the format is the same in terms of choices regarding dialogue and decisions, all of which will have an impact on future events and relationships. It's a testament to how much can change in one 90-minute section alone that we talked with another journalist at the event and realised they went down a totally different path to us, and discovered story notes that we had missed because of our actions.
As if all of these diverging narratives weren't enough, Shared Stories allows for even more story branches to emerge. After all, one player is experiencing their own story, while the other has an entirely new experience, with each affecting the narrative in their own way via their decisions. For example, in one scene we played as Julia venturing into a sunken wreckage with Alex, while our partner was up top experiencing a scene with Conrad and Fliss on the boat (we'd made Brad sick by choosing to have a beer earlier, so he was absent). When we watched someone else play it, seeing that boat scene was a totally new experience with new clues to discover.
This brings us nicely to the Movie Night mode, which we played with four other people. This is a local mode that requires one controller, as you each choose a character to play as during the campaign, and you play through, taking turns as the game dictates to play through the whole thing together. Supermassive told us that they'd heard feedback that players had enjoyed Until Dawn frequently together, and they've made that even easier with this mode. This is also where we got to see even more story notes as players with more of an inquisitive nature than us discovered hidden details, of which there are an astounding number here. We can't quite say that there's more than ever before, but curiosity will definitely be rewarded, and discussing with friends will no doubt yield the phrase "no way, you found that?".
Even the smallest details can affect the stories in a big way. For example, something we found in the wreckage was discussed during a later BBQ scene, which gives clues as to the fate of the plane, and there was an interesting moment where we realised from seeing multiple playthroughs that a perfume bottle in a suitcase was either put back in the case or on the side depending on what character picked it up in the first place, which then affected whether it could be used in combat during a later scene.
The section with all five characters laid out the premise of the story, which sees the group go after an uncharted wreckage without notifying the authorities, something that Fliss thoroughly disapproves of. They discover something in the wreckage but find themselves clashing with a group of unfriendly faces, and that's where the demo stops. We didn't get a huge sense of where the story is headed, but we got a taste of what Supermassive is doing this time around, and we were interested to see some key differences coming from Until Dawn.
For example, the first scenes with all five are in the blazing sunshine, and this tropical vibe offers a unique visual identity. What's more is that pictures are now the equivalent of Until Dawn's totems, and finding these will give you an insight into future events, which is a bit more organic than finding totems around the place. We also won't be required to hold our controller steady in key moments any more, as this has been replaced by a heartbeat mechanic that tells us to press a button in time with the on-screen heartbeat to stay calm.
Some bugbears are still present though, despite our excitement regarding Shared Stories and Movie Night. When playing the multiplayer mode we heard repeated phrases, for example, like the same thing being said when we talked to Fliss and when our partner did too, something we overheard since we were nearby. It also breaks the immersion a little to just stare at a character's blank face while your buddy decides what to do, frozen with indecision.
Speaking of faces, some of the awkwardness from Until Dawn carries over here too. 90% of the time this isn't a problem, as the faces all look polished and realistic, but sometimes the animations feel awkward and jagged. For exmple, one time Alex was listening to Fliss talk and he kept rotating his head sharply like a robot, with a little uncanny valley seeping in as he looked over her shoulder, not quite at her as she was talking.
Aside from these small issues though we were surprised to walk into the event and see that we were playing multiplayer, and even more surprised when this didn't affect our experience as much as we might have thought. It plays just as if you were playing alone - aside from a few pauses here and there - and it's been intelligently designed so as to not interfere with the all-important story.
With a deeper taste of the narrative and characters, and confidence that we'll be able to enjoy the horror either alone or with friends, we've got a lot of faith in Supermassive to deliver when it comes to Man of Medan and The Dark Pictures. We only got a taste of what awaits next month, but it already seems like something horror fans should be paying attention to, especially if they enjoyed Until Dawn's unique cocktail of exploration, spooks, and engaging personalities.