Platforms: PC (reviewed), Xbox One, PlayStation 4
Dark Pictures Anthology: Man of Medan, is an innovative storytelling experience that’s ten times more fun with friends. DPA: MoM tells the story of a group of friends on diving trip gone wrong. Tropical paradise quickly turns into a nautical nightmare aboard a WWII-era ghost ship.
Supermassive Games kept everything from Until Dawn that worked and everything that didn't. Choice-oriented gameplay with lethal consequences? Yay! Half-baked dialogue and mo-cap graphics that plunge deep into the uncanny valley? Boo. But despite its flaws, it's a compelling experience that you'll want to revisit several times. And it's short enough that you can explore alternate choices without wasting too much time. DPA:MoM isn't perfect but it's definitely worth checking out for the horror / story game crowd.
Bring a friend
DPA:MoM has options for solo play, Shared Story online co-op, or Movie Night couch co-op. Each one is worth trying, but Shared Story is by far the best mode.
Solo play works like Until Dawn. You control different characters throughout the game and try to keep everyone alive. It's fine to play this way, but less fun than playing with friends.
Movie Night is great for large groups of friends who love to shout at the screen in bad horror movies. When the game starts, players pick characters and the game cycles between them. If you have fewer players than there are characters, players take turns drafting characters.
When it's your character's turn, the game instructs the current player to hand off the controller. When a friend and I played this mode together, we switched off about once every ten or fifteen minutes.
Shared Story is played online with two players. You play two characters in the same space working together. You also see a great deal more of the game than you do in Movie Night mode. The game gets wild fast, and I suggest using voice chat for maximum amusement.
A mystery game in horror drag
While DPA:MoM has a few good jump scares, it's not great at creating a sense of creeping dread and doom. You're always afraid that one of your characters are going to die, but you aren't filled with constant dread in the way you are in Amnesia: The Dark Descent or Alien:Isolation.
The game's hooks stem from the mystery at its core. The game has enough atmosphere and paranormal activity to keep you guessing and drive you forward, and one playthough isn’t enough to reveal the entire mystery, and if you lose someone, you can try to protect them to see what you may’ve missed.
A friend and I completed a Movie Night playthrough and followed it up with a Shared Story playthrough. We tested alternate versions of our previous choices and discovered a lot more about the plot and setting. It was absolutely worth playing through twice. While I wouldn’t play it through a third time with the same friend, I definitely want to get a group of five together to play a Movie Night and watch them react to the twists and turns of the game.
The core of the gameplay is built around binary choices (run or hide, grab the knife or escape) and dialogue trees. There's also a bit of investigation as well, which mostly consists of reading documents left behind by the ghost ship's previous victims. You also engage in combat by moving a reticle inside of a timed circle and pulling the right trigger.
DPA:MoM has QuickTime events, and while I'm not a fan of "press X to not die" gameplay, they're not too frequent. My main problem with it is that failing QTEs can mean losing a character, which feels cheap. If I'm going to lose someone, I'd rather lose them due to making bad choices rather than being fat fingered.
The game also features accessibility options for people who are bad at QTEs or have trouble with them due to disabilities. It also has color blind options. Kudos to Super massive for making their games inclusive.
Motion capture comes so close to portraying a human being that it draws a distracting amount of attention to the times when it fails. I stand by my assertion, made elsewhere, that studios would be better served with artistic, stylized characters rather than motion captured photo realistic ones. If your graphics drag attention away from your story and damage immersion, then they aren’t doing their job.
Believe it or not, that is not a picture of Julia grimacing because she just stepped on a rusty nail. This is her smiling because she's happy to see her boyfriend. Yes, I’m sure. Julia is much less frightening to look at when she’s terrified.
Motion capture graphics plunge into the uncanny valley almost all of the time, and DPA:MoM is no exception. Facial expressions are the weakest part of any motion captured game, and they're the part you really need to get right for narrative games like Man of Medan. Smiles are the hardest expression to do well. Thank god this is a horror game; almost no one smiles after the first hour or so.
All that being said, the environments and monsters are well-designed, well-animated, and fun, if not entirely original.
“Since when do you say ‘dope’?”
“Since I realized it’s tight.”
That’s the “How do you do, fellow kids?” dialogue string that’s so bad that I’m hoping it was intentional parody. Don’t come to Man of Medan for the writing. Its dialogue is jammed full of misused slang, awkward phrasing, and corny dialogue that the actors clearly struggled with. On top of this, we don’t really get a sense of who these people are and never develop any emotional attachment to them. Each of them is a broad horror movie archetype (the hot girl, the jock, the nerd, the spoiled rich kid, the experienced tough one) and the characters rarely evolve past that.
However, the plot and horror scenario are strong. The mystery at the heart of the game is intriguing and keeps you playing for the duration (about 4-6 hours). Since you can lose any character at any time, your decisions have real weight. And there aren't any glaring plot holes to distract you. And the characters only make “too stupid to live” choices if you want them to.
Notes on content:
While the game has no nudity or sexual content, at one point an antagonist threatens a main character in a vague way that could be read as a rape threat. Nothing comes of it, but that's not the kind of content that you want to stumble across by accident.
Also, during the tutorial section, you encounter two problematic Chinese stereotypes- a Fu Manchu and a Dragon Lady, complete with cheongsam. It's weird and awkward, but you don't encounter anything else like that in the game. I don't think it was intentionally racist, just lazy writing. It’s one thing to fall back on horror movie archetypes; it’s quite another to fall back on racist stereotypes. But this moment is brief and didn’t last long. Also, the three main PoC characters are decently well-handled and non-stereotypical.