The Dark Pictures: Man of Medan wants to showcase the power of choice and consequence in video games, something which has evolved significantly during the current generation. Some of the most highly rated games of the last few years have been applauded for giving the player choices that have far-reaching consequences. Man of Medan makes the process quite literal – a sinister character called The Curator addresses the player directly, and lets them know how their decisions have caused death or salvation, suffering or success. But Medan misses the point. It’s not the volume of choices and consequences that leads to satisfaction; it’s the payoff from a critical decision when the player is invested in the characters and the story.
While not quite on the level of 2018’s Detroit: Become Human, the game really does have an impressive number of branches as its cookie-cutter cast of B-movie youths try to escape a ghost ship from the Second World War — a quick scan of The Dark Pictures: Man of Medan achievements list will show you just how complex things can get. A player can easily believe they have made all the best decisions and still come away with an unfortunate death, or a total failure, and those nasty surprises are certainly worth applauding. But the game has several major frustrations that break immersion, which means that it’s hard to care when a character is killed off.
The first issue is the story itself. The ghost ship setting is pretty pedestrian and casting a bunch of stereotypical horned-up 20-somethings into the narrative leaves precious little room for subversion or innovation. There’s an insecure student wondering how to impress his rich girlfriend, there’s a dumb dude with a trust fund getting everyone into trouble, there’s a nerdy nervous history buff and there’s an arrogant outsider with a shady past. Their clashes and connections are as predictable as you might expect. If you’re into B-movie horror none of this heavy stereotyping will put you off, but the dialogue sinks below even B-movie standards. There’s nothing natural about how any of the characters speak to each other, and in a game almost exclusively focused on interpersonal relationships this is a pretty big problem. Aside from a few cheap shocks, the lack of emotional depth also robs this horror adventure of any memorable scares.
It’s a shame, because there are a couple of shining performances from actors doing their best with the script they have been given. Veteran actor Pip Torrens’ role as the overseeing Curator is fun to listen to throughout, and Shawn Ashmore surprises as the idiotic clown with more money than sense; it’s fun to watch the former glum protagonist of Quantum Break lean in to the hammy script. The rest of the cast are fine, but their fight against an awkward script can be seen plainly on the character’s faces.
Oh, the faces. Unfortunately, Medan’s facial textures and animation also break immersion savagely. In a different genre it might not matter that everyone looks like they are wearing a rubber mask and a weird gurning facial tick, but the very nature of Medan means that character close-ups form a huge percentage of the game’s critical moments. It’s hard to say exactly where things have gone wrong here, but it might be simply that the developers went for realism but didn’t have the resources for a full actor mo-cap. In fact, apart from Ashmore, it’s hard to say whether the other voice actors have been mo-capped at all, or if another face was used. Either way, it sinks the cast deeper into the uncanny valley. Perhaps a more impressionistic art style rather than a stab at realism would have served Man of Medan better.
If you can get over the lacklustre story and characters – and that’s certainly possible in a lot of video games – you are left with Man of Medan’s gameplay. Unfortunately there’s really not much to praise here either, as it relies on sluggish walking and collectible hunting interspersed with quick-time events and Telltale’s infuriating approach to landing a punch – except with an even smaller landing circle and window for opportunity. Tank controls really don’t help here either; while they make everything even more tense in a Resident Evil chase sequence, in Medan you’re only controlling the character’s movements in dull investigative sections. With the return of full-motion video as a genre among indie developers, it’s hard to justify why Medan has traversal and quick-time combat at all; it could survive on its binary cutscene decision making and branching dialogue alone.
If this had been the case, the game’s couch party mode would be even more fun. It’s probably the best way to play Medan anyway – passing the controller so each person in the room makes decisions for a specific character. Unfortunately those QTEs and walking sections stop the game being universally accessible to everyone in the family, especially those less familiar with a controller. There is an attempt at accessibility adjustments which should be applauded – QTE timeouts can be removed, and button-mashing moments can be switched to a button press. The real crime here is that button-mashes and precision attacks are, bizarrely, still bound to a timer even with the QTE timeout toggle off. Combined with the fact that it’s impossible to see any difference between a QTE prompt and a button-mash prompt and even the most capable gamer will likely have a few unfair fails. Subtitles, too, need a lot of work; they’re laughably small and often completely out of pace with the cutscene. Hopefully these accessibility issues can be ironed out in a patch, and certainly addressed before the next Dark Pictures installment next year.
We hope so, because beneath all of the game’s issues is a certain B-movie charm that works well if you’re playing in a group. Bad dialogue can somewhat be forgiven when you laugh it off with friends, and there is a certain Pavlovian desire to replay a different outcome if things go wrong – or if things go right and you just want to see more carnage next time around.
You’ll have to replay a heck of a lot to get through the Man of Medan achievement list. A huge amount of the list relies on totally different decisions at critical junctions – naturally this includes getting everyone killed and getting everyone out alive. Some will need a whole new full playthrough, while others can be cobbled together with a mercifully granular Chapter Select option. It’s only available after completing a full playthrough though – don’t overwrite your finished save when you select a chapter, otherwise you’ll be locked out of Chapter Select until you finish the whole game again.
SummaryMan of Medan is a game we want to love – for all of its B-movie nonsense and cookie-cutter characterisation, there’s a “so bad it’s good” vibe that would be entertaining for playing in couch co-op. Unfortunately even this slight praise is undermined by some frustrating gameplay and a host of easily avoided accessibility issues. Players will probably find themselves rattling through the game just to see things through, and might even get a kick out of tweaking some outcomes – but the first Dark Pictures tale is unlikely to linger in the memory for long.
The reviewer spent 15 hours alternately killing and saving angsty youths to grab 15 of the game's 30 achievements. An Xbox One digital code was provided for the review.
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