Horror is hard to do well. True horror is a mix of tension, proper pacing, and managing the audience's expectations. It's very easy to rely on too many jumpscares, or to promise on a grand, creepy mythology that you can't deliver. Supermassive Games' Until Dawn rode that line very well. The PlayStation 4 exclusive was a solid horror experience where your choice drove who lived or died out of a cast of stupid but ridiculously good looking twentysomethings.
Four years later, Supermassive is still honing its certain brand of horror gaming with the Dark Pictures Anthology. The series begins with Man of Medan, the story of stupid, good looking twentysomethings trapped on a cursed boat in the Pacific Ocean. On the decks of a derelict cargo ship, the cast has to deal with a crew of pirates and the paranormal happenings that killed the original crew of the SS Ourang Medan.
The formula established in Until Dawn hasn't really changed here. As the player you still explore an environment where something is lurking in the darkness. You'll have conversations that will drive character motivations and face quick-time events that will test your reflexes. You'll also find documents and other items that will help you glean what's really going on in your haunted location.
What Supermassive has changed are the particulars. On a basic mechanical level, the second type of quick-time event where you have to stay still in order not give away your position has shifted. Until Dawn was a PlayStation 4 title and those events required you to hold the DualShock 4 steady. Man of Medan is a multiplatform game, so these sections now have you tapping a button to the rhythm of a heartbeat. I actually preferred the older style, but that's because I tended to miss one beat toward the end of each section.
I also found the quick-time event timing to be fairly tight in Man of Medan. I don't have any empirical evidence, but it felt like the QTE prompt was a hair shorter than it was in Until Dawn. I actually went through most of the latter game nailing the QTE scenes, but in my first runthrough of Man of Medan, I missed a number of them. Failed scenes usually lead to worse situations for the cast, like when one of the characters straight up died when I missed the last prompt of an escape attempt. Finally, I ran into a few performance issues on my PlayStation 4 Pro, with the occasional hitch or frame rate drop; one happened during a QTE, which is probably not when you want the game to grind to a brief stop.
Given the anthology format, Man of Medan is also a shorter game than Until Dawn, which took around 10-12 hours to complete. My first shot of Man of Medan took around 5-6 hours, or roughly half its predecessor. The major change here is that Supermassive has instead tried to make the experience more dense and prone to further changes on replays. There's a complex tree of character motivations that change depending on the choices you make with each character and how they interact with others. It's somewhat closer to Telltale's "X Will Remember This" system. It changes responses drastically; someone is more likely to follow a given plan or idea if they have a good relationship with your current character. It's another snag to consider when you're responding to a conversation, as being a snarky asshole can now leave you a lonely survivor or errant victim later on.
There's also the Curator's Cut, which unlocks after you finish a single run of the Theatrical Cut, which is the main playthrough. This shows events from the point-of-view of other characters?—you only directly control one character at a time?—giving you a little more insight into the mindset of the rest of the cast. This actually feeds into the real major change in Man of Medan, a strong focus on communal play.
Playing through the story by yourself is actually the second option available to you when you boot up Man of Medan. If you choose the first option, "Don't Play Alone," you're given two choices: Shared Story or Movie Night. Shared Story is how Supermassive intends Man of Medan to be played, with you can have another player experiencing the story in real-time through different viewpoints. This can include two characters in the same scene, leading to moments where you need to work together. Or perhaps you're in different scenarios, like one player dealing with a conversation onboard a small sailing vessel, while the other dives in a lost wreck. As part of the spooky happenings, you'll sometimes find yourself reacting to horrors that your partner can't see; all they know is you stopped for some reason.
It's an amazingly effective concept, because instead of being in control of all the characters, one half of the game is out of your control. It adds loads of tension, because you're never quite sure what the other player is going to do: will they help you after you failed a QTE and tripped, or leave you to the maniac that's chasing you both? You don't really know in the moment. Part of watching a horror movie is always thinking, "I wouldn't do that in that situation." Man of Medan lets you put those instincts to the test. Unfortunately, you can only play the Shared Story with friends, there's no matchmaking if you don't know someone else playing Man of Medan on your platform of choice.
The other multiplayer mode is Movie Night, where you and up to four friends tackle Man of Medan in couch co-op. Movie Night lets you designate who is controlling which character and when that character is active, the game will let you know you need to pass the controller on. It's Man of Medan acting almost as a party game. I tried it out with two people and had fun, but found that Shared Story was a far better two-player adventure.
Shared Story alone is such a fantastic addition to the Dark Pictures Anthology that I'm a little sad to say that I didn't really enjoy the story it was propping up. There's a sense of pacing that Until Dawn had that's missing here. The threat is established early in the game, after the death of Hannah in the intro, Jessica is dragged away by something fairly quick after the characters reach the mountain cabin. Then, the tension ebbs and flows as the separated characters learn the truth about what's stalking them on the mountain, a threat that changes over the course of the game.
Even Man of Medan's introduction is a bit of a slow start, detailing what happened to the original crew of the SS Ourang Medan. You'll play through five scenes just getting to know the cast before any real threat appears. You don't get to the Medan, where the real story takes place, until around eight scenes into the game.
I also wasn't entirely appreciative of the secondary threat or the twist that underpins Man of Medan. In Until Dawn, the Masked Man is a decidedly slasheresque threat to contend with, only to be replaced later with something more horrifying. Without spoiling, the direction of the story in Man of Medan leaves you with a primary threat that's far less scary than either of the antagonists in Until Dawn. And once I had experienced it, it actually drained some of the tension from subsequent playthroughs.
I like the infrastructure that Supermassive Games has built here, with a good number of improvements over Until Dawn. But all this is meant to drive the story experience and that's where Man of Medan faltered for me compared to its predecessor. To use 2019 horror films, I wanted a Ready or Not, and instead I got a Happy Death Day 2U; I expected better. I hope it does well enough though, so that I can see this structure applied to a better story, hopefully in the next Dark Picture.
With Man of Medan, Supermassive builds on the foundation established in 2015's Until Dawn. While the core of the game remains the same, driven by dialog, choices, and quick-time events, the developers has added some multiplayer action to the mix. The two-player online Shared Story is the primary highlight here, allowing two players to simultaneously determine the course of the story. Unfortunately, the story itself isn't as good as the horror yarn spun in Until Dawn.