Republished on Wednesday 29th June 2022: We're bringing this review back from the archives following the announcement of July's PlayStation Plus lineup. The original text follows.
Maybe it's just because our Dad let us watch Jaws when we were six, but we've always been skeptical of the sea. It's wet, and there's weird things in there. Man of Medan – from Until Dawn dev Supermassive Games, and the first in an anthology of horror games falling under the Dark Pictures banner – sees four friends foolishly heading out to sea looking for fun of a nautical persuasion, and finding nothing but misery instead. Seriously, don't go in the water, people. No good can come of it.
Despite us shouting at the telly repeatedly to stay out of the damned sea, our four heroes casually sit around in a boat without a care in the world, drinking beers, and making clumsy passes at the salty French sailor lady they hired to be their guide. Eventually, they run afoul of some pirates – that's the Captain Phillips kind, not the shiver-me-timbers kind – and everything goes to pot. You'd think being sea-mugged by pirates would ordinarily be the low point of your day, but by the time things take a somewhat supernatural turn, we'll bet these kids were all wishing they'd listened to us and stayed firmly on dry land.
Over the course of six hours or so you'll control different characters in Man of Medan, making choices that will affect the whole group, and the story will be molded to suit your decisions or lack thereof. In 2019, this isn't exactly revolutionary, but where Man of Medan – along with Until Dawn – stands apart from most of the crowd is that nobody in this game is safe. You can get everyone killed if you choose poorly, and that does lend the proceedings an air of danger that keeps you on your toes.
Unfortunately, if you don't care about the characters then whether they live or die is not really of much consequence, and this is one of the big problems for Man of Medan. Our heroes come in two flavours: personality-less, or profoundly annoying. And all of the characters are cursed with genuinely, distractingly awful dialogue.
Until Dawn had similarly cringe-inducing one liners and a thoroughly unlikable cast, but it got away with it because they felt right at home in a homage to the cheesy teen slasher movies of the '80s and '90s that inspired it. Man of Medan – while undoubtedly campy – is played straighter than Until Dawn, and so without the game seemingly being in on the joke, the flimsy narrative, paper-thin characters, and shocking writing are both more noticeable and more problematic. The only exception here is a character called The Curator: a well-dressed gent who pops up between scenes to tell you how well or badly you're doing, and is the perfect mix of creepy and charming.
Another issue for Man of Medan is that it's a horror game which is frighteningly unscary. It takes an age for the story to get out of first gear, but once things actually start happening it amounts to little more than a few telegraphed jump scares. There's literally half a dozen different variations on you opening a door, or a drawer, or a locker, and something popping out. For long stretches this is a narrative-based game without much of a narrative, and it's all very tedious, to the point where we actually found ourselves intentionally trying to make bad decisions just to see if anything would happen.
There's also the technical issues to consider. Man of Medan looks fantastic at times, but it's constantly besieged by framerate drops, freezing, and weird animations. We're not being melodramatic here, folks. It's constant. You'll be watching characters talk and for a split second the visuals will freeze, but the audio continues without issue, meaning that the lip-synching is out for the rest of the conversation. One time it froze during a QTE which resulted in one of the cast meeting a grisly end, which was kinda hilarious, but obviously not right. Facial animations are frequently sketchy, with one character in particular often locked in a permanent pout/grimace combo that looks utterly bizarre. We were even blue-screened on two occasions, and forced to reload.
This is all starting to sound rather negative, and that's because we don't really like the game. But that's not to say it doesn't do anything right, or anything interesting. The inclusion of two different multiplayer modes could certainly help you get a little more mileage out of Man of Medan if you're the sort of person who likes spending time with other people for some reason. You can play online with a friend – and only a friend, no randoms – if you so desire, which sees you each taking control of different characters at the same time, both making decisions, but with the story fundamentally unfolding as in the single player experience for the most part.
Movie Night mode is a couch co-op version of the game in which up to five people are assigned characters to control, and the pad gets passed around between them at the appropriate times. While you could do this quite easily without having a dedicated mode by just handing your mate the pad, the game at least tells you when to pass the controller and who to.
While we wouldn't recommend Man of Medan for the story, scares, characters, or writing, if you like the idea of getting your pals round, opening a bottle of claret and a pipe of Pringles, and having a massive argument when your mate accidentally gets his character killed because he was looking at Twitter on his phone, then the multiplayer modes here could offset the weaker aspects of the package.
Also worthy of note are the array of extras Supermassive Games has included here. As you play through the game you can find secrets which in turn unlock videos, ranging from a short documentary on the history of horror anthologies, to interviews with the cast and crew. These aren't earth shattering, but they're a pleasing addition, and you can tell that a lot of care went into this, regardless of how disappointed we were with the game itself.
Man of Medan kicks The Dark Pictures Anthology off with a whimper rather than a bang. The format has a lot of potential, but this was undoubtedly the wrong story to showcase it. The narrative is slight and rarely gets out of first gear, the characters are annoying, the scares limp, and the dialogue unnatural. There's constant technical hiccups. In fact, the scariest thing about Man of Medan is how it ever went gold in the state that it's in.