The immersive, choose your own horror adventure gameplay style of horror fan favorite Until Dawn is back in action. The first in a series of such games that are being released entitled The Dark Picture, Man of Medan is familiar territory for those who loved Until Dawn. I’ve seen it get bashed for being too short, and it astounds me how people in modern day society can’t comprehend simple facts: a) it is part of an anthology of games, essentially chapters in a series, and b) it’s less money than a full priced game. You are literally getting what you were clearly told you are paying for.
As for the game, after a brief “training” session that takes place back in the old days and fails to train you at much of anything, we get into the meat of the game—a group of kids heading out on a boat. Yes! And just like Until Dawn, which starred Hayden Panettiere, the cast in Man of Medan includes the voices and likenesses of several faces you may have seen on TV and in movies, most notably, Shawn Ashmore of horror movies like Culture Shock, Mother’s Day remake, and The Ruins.
After some time on the boat getting to know the characters, all my nightmares came true when two of them decide to go diving…after we are clued in then there’s a shark in the water.
Once you wake from that nightmare, the game leads you to the true setting—an abandoned ghost ship! Eek! Let me tell you, there are some amazing jump scares in this game. I screamed at least half a dozen times! There are some ghostly apparitions, but the most horrific part for me was being chased by a bitch that looked like she just got out of the bath in The Shining.
As for game mechanics, to play through the adventure, you make decisions for your characters that in turn build their personalities, affect how they relate with other characters, and alter possible outcomes of certain situations. During conversations, you will be prompted to choose how to respond to things that are said to you. There are three options. One option is always “say nothing”, which I never chose. Between the other two, I’d say one is always the smart thing to do (especially if you’ve seen hundreds and hundreds of horror movies), and the other makes you a total dick. You can build stereotypical horror characters this way, which is a trap that is easy to fall into, but I chose to make all my characters pretty damn cool instead of cliché.
When a choice is presented, you are given very limited time to make a decision, and to do it you have to move the right stick, which is an unusual control to use for such things. Also important to note is that while there are also quick time events, most of those come near the end. A majority of the game consists only of choices. And as I continued to play, I got the sense that none of the decisions was actually bad, and would not kill off any characters. However, I can’t be sure, because periodically throughout the game, a sort of narrator dude interrupts to tell you how your decision-making is going. He mostly told me I was being pretty dang smart!
You also get to move pre-chosen characters around, but your actions are limited—mostly opening doors, interacting with items, or picking up notes and such to read. These are just pointless tasks, probably in place to make it feel more like you’re truly in control of the characters. There are also pictures on walls you come across that will show you a “premonition” if you click on them. These quick flashes of something to come later in the game are absolutely pointless, because they never give you insight into how you can actually change the vision from happening.
The goal is to try to keep as many of the kids alive as you can by the end of the game. I wanted so badly to keep Shawn alive. I failed miserably at like the last minute. Personally, I think there’s a good reason for that unfortunate loss—quick time events. Rather than being sprinkled throughout the game to give you time to learn how to do them before things get really hairy as in Until Dawn, this game suddenly starts throwing them at you non-stop in the very tail end of the game. I finally learned the right way to apply the controls to the quick time events just as we were about to escape the ship for good…right after I lost Shawn Ashmore, dammit.
Part of what makes the quick time events so challenging is that the time you’re given to hit a certain button before another pops up on the screen is so fleeting you can rarely get them—there’s no warning they’re coming as in some games. They just appear out of nowhere. There’s also the problem of conditioning. Throughout the game there are button reactions that require the mashing technique—hit one button as often and fast as you can to get the necessary result in time (pull a character from danger, hold a door closed, etc.). Unfortunately, when you finally start getting slammed with a series of button press quick times, the symbol presentation on screen looks the same as the mashing technique. So idiot that I am, I was repeatedly hitting the same button as usual, only to have another button symbol pop onto the screen and therefore register that I was pressing the wrong button, totally costing me precious chances to save a character.
And while I’m at it with the button pressing confusion, there are also “heartbeat” moments I never got right. You’ll suddenly hide and a heartbeat pattern will scroll across the screen. You’re supposed to hit the X button each time a squiggle crosses over the marked point to keep time with the rhythm, but the accuracy of button presses seemed delayed, so I fucked up every time on what should have been a simple challenge.
And lastly, there are the occasional “punch” targets. You’re supposed to drag a cursor to a target mark on screen then press X, but for some reason I instinctually tried to use the left stick to move the cursor every time…when I was supposed to use the right stick. Argh!
Basically what I’m saying is I would probably save more than two of the five characters on a second playthrough now that I know what I’m doing. Although, by the time I get around to playing again I will probably forget and make all the same mistakes.
This is NOT the ending I got…
Finally, considering how many scares there are in this game, it’s rather disappointing when the truth of what is going on comes out in the end. However, I’m willing to forgive considering the game since it’s so scary—and also does a fine job of presenting a video game dude in his undies for a while. Let’s hope there’s more of that to come in the next installment.