Supermassive Games has kicked off their Dark Pictures Anthology, and it's a flawed but thoroughly intriguing package.
2015's Until Dawn showed us for the first time what Supermassive Games could do when it came to horror, as the studio excelled at displaying and subverting stereotypes within a narrative that had plenty of choice and consequence. They weren't afraid to kill characters off and twist the story in dramatic ways with one choice or Quick Time Event from the player, and they decided to keep on scaring fans with The Dark Pictures Anthology, which kicks off with Man of Medan.
While Until Dawn toyed with the idea of the slasher concept, throwing a bunch of teens into a cabin in the woods just like Friday the 13th, Man of Medan is tackling the idea of a ghost ship, popularised in films like... well, Ghost Ship. We play as five young individuals (we don't know exactly if they're teens) who go on a diving voyage to find an undiscovered wreckage, but things aren't as they seem, and soon they find themselves in a lot more trouble than originally anticipated.
This is a smaller cast than Until Dawn, but we still get close insights into each of the unique characters. Conrad (Shawn Ashmore) is the laid back brother of the confident Julia, both of whom are wealthy, while medical student Alex is Julia's boyfriend, and Brad is his nerdy little brother joining them on the voyage. Rounding off the crew is Fliss, stubborn captain of the Duke of Milan, the boat they set out on at the very beginning.
If you've played Until Dawn, the basic controls will be familiar, as you're choosing what to say or do, inspecting clues in the environment, and tackling QTEs in as quick a time as possible when they pop up on the screen. There are a few other mechanics to spice things up a bit though, as the mechanic that had you hold your controller still to stay calm in tense situations is gone (we all know you just put it on the floor anyway), and now you have to press a button in time with the heartbeat indicator provided.
The totems of Until Dawn are also gone in favour of pictures which, upon examination, reveal a premonition as to potential events that could happen in the future. There are plenty of these to discover, as well as secrets (which get updated with extra information as you go) and other items in the environment. Discovering all of these is key to unravelling the mystery around you, and of course, they also provide an incentive for completionists and those who want to see absolutely everything.
It's hard to talk much about the story without spoiling things, but for the most part, we were impressed. There's a mixture between the supernatural and a very real threat, and this duality helps keep things tense at all times, especially since you're constantly questioning everything around you as you switch between the characters. Each has their own ordeal to contend with, and they always do the one thing you shouldn't do in scary stories - they split up constantly, leaving themselves alone and vulnerable.
The narrative itself is packed with choices; a dense, interweaving web of branching pathways. Not only does this make Man of Medan enjoyably replayable, but it also raises the stakes, as one wrong move can lead to a no-backsies death for one of your main characters, even within the first hour (don't ask us how we know). You can get them killed at any point, and for most people, the goal would be to keep all of them alive, or you can try and kill them if you so wish. After all, you're more of the director than the actor as you pull these strings, and during our many playthroughs, we were constantly experiencing different things as we made new choices.
At all points in the game we can keep track of the characters' relationships with one another via a tab on the menu, which show choices you've made and whether they've negatively or positively impacted the bonds between them. Bearings can also be kept track of as well, i.e. the choices that you've made which will have lasting consequences on the plot, so you can see what to change (or keep the same) next time around.
Your companion throughout all of this will be The Curator, portrayed by Pip Torrens. He works in the same way as Dr Hill did in Until Dawn, as he talks to you at regular intervals to judge, advise, and discuss your actions in the plot thus far, talking to you as the player rather than any of the five main characters. This provides nice breaks in the action, and gives you clues, should you choose to accept them...
The camerawork is another excellent feature in Man of Medan, as every camera has been lovingly placed by Supermassive around the area. These are almost fixed, reminiscent of something like Resident Evil, rotating around from prescribed positions to follow your merry group of survivors, and occasionally they'll reveal disturbing details in the background or foreground. Sometimes they'll even be placed behind certain objects, with your own character out of focus in the background, and there's a reason for every angle and shot - to get the most out of the physical space and create a disturbing atmosphere.
Speaking of environments, these are incredibly detailed as well and they're packed with stuff to see. There are the aforementioned environmental items, some of which are easy to miss (or inaccessible if you chose a certain path) but the tight corridors and rooms themselves make for the ideal scare factor, with low lighting and blind corners aplenty for things to jump out at you.
Saying that, jumpscares aren't exactly overused in Man of Medan, and Supermassive hits a nice balance with them. They never happen often enough to lose their effectiveness, but you're constantly lulled into a false sense of security before they hit you. Other than that the scares come from not knowing what's coming up, since reality itself is questioned towards the beginning, which means that all you think you know is thrown out of the window, making you question if your mind is playing tricks on you.
We've come this far without mentioning one of the core differences between Man of Medan and Until Dawn, which is that this game includes multiplayer, both online and offline. The former is called Shared Stories, and this is all about inviting a friend into your game to play as other characters as you experience the story yet again, and while this might sound like it could compromise the story focus, this isn't the case.
Each person operates pretty much independently, moving around the game world and experiencing the story as they would alone, and in fact the only time you notice them is when you're waiting for a reply when talking with their character in-game. The rest of the time they're just playing their role as that character, and what makes this so effective is that it opens up even more of the story, and subsequently decisions can impact the story for both of you, unlocking avenues even for those who have scoured the entire game alone.
The offline portion is called Movie Night, and here you can sit down with up to five people and assign people characters, passing the controller as you go. This means you can all shape the story together on the couch, except this works like the traditional campaign. With each person taking charge of their character's destiny, this is another great way of making Supermassive's brand of horror cooperative without losing its signature flavour.
Now that all of the above is out of the way, we come to our biggest issue with the game when playing on PS4 - the technical state. When we were playing we noticed stuttering, jittery gameplay, severe FPS drops to the point where it jolted along one frame at a time, freezes, mouth sync moving way out of line with the audio (and subtitles), loading times in between different shots of characters in one scene, and texture pop-ins. It needed a lot more polish, without a doubt, and that's a real shame considering the areas it excelled in.
What's more, there were other minor niggles as well. As with Until Dawn, the facial animations were still a little off at times, like when characters contorted their mouths for smiles or talked without looking each other in the eye, and on top of that the tone of the dialogue didn't match up with events either. We won't spoil the example, but after one tragedy a character immediately makes cheesy lines about Titanic - very inappropriate.
(Note that patch 1.09 has been promised by Bandai Namco, which may well improve the game's performance. At the time of writing though, this has yet to be delivered.)
The technical state of the game is enough to put a dampener on what's actually a very intriguing, if not short, first entry in The Dark Pictures. At four or five hours long, this is a drop-down from Until Dawn, but it's more focused as a result, and with more games coming in the series we have high hopes for what's next in the Anthology. We just hope they can give it the development time it needs to work as it should because the performance issues shouldn't be the scariest part of this experience.
7 / 10
Really dense and interweaving narrative with lots of choice and consequence, Packed full of secrets, Atmospheric and detailed world, Convincing characters.
Horrible technical state, Facial animations are off at times, as is tone of characters, Lots of loading screens.