Last week I played several hours of Bandai Namco and Supermassive's upcoming ghost ship horror game, Man of Medan. The event's headline feature was the addition of co-op modes, but there’s another notable difference between Man of Medan and its precursor Until Dawn. Players of the latter will be glad to know that, yes, they finally got rid of that “hold the PS4 controller still to stay calm” prompt that kept getting characters killed off when you definitely 100 per cent didn’t move the controller. You now tap a button in time with a heartbeat, hopefully meaning no more accidental deaths for me.
The above change might seem pretty minor, but it’s indicative of how Supermassive Games seems to have approached the development of this new interactive horror game. I went in to my time playing Man of Medan basically wanting more Until Dawn. What it seems to deliver is more Until Dawn, but with some of the complaints about that game fixed, and a few cool optional extras thrown in. If it’s not broke, don’t fix it. If it is broken, fix it. If it won’t break it, feel free to add it on top. A smart approach to revising a formula that most would agree worked pretty well already.
The demo build of Man of Medan I was able to try out started from the very beginning of the game, and took around 90 minutes to reach the introduction of the ghost ship itself. Much like Until Dawn, Man of Medan isn’t in any rush to get right into the midst of its horror setup. There’s a short intro set in the past to establish what the threat will be, followed by a slow introduction of the characters, breathing room to explore their personalities and their flaws, before a slow ramp up from initial threat to the real danger. It’s the same introductory formula used in Until Dawn, and it still works.
The pacing of this opening section is a little faster, which makes sense. Man of Medan is expected to be around four to five hours long, compared to Until Dawn’s eight to ten hours, but with an emphasis on how varied your decisions can make different playthroughs. It is possible for a character to die within the first 90 minutes, so don’t expect safety just because that opening section isn't on the spooky haunted vessel.
With regards to the newly added co-op modes, by far the most interesting to play through was the two-player online mode. Each player is randomly assigned a character, with control switching as the narrative progresses. For scenes where the whole party is together, players will interact with each other, making choices in the same scene and altering each others' odds of success at tough actions. In scenes where the party splits in two, and two different scenes would chronologically play out simultaneously, each player is assigned one of the scenes to play through, before coming back together.
What makes this mode so interesting is these moments where players diverge, and come back together again. In one example, I went diving and exploring a shipwreck, and came up to the surface to find that there was a fire on the boat, and money scattered across the surface of the water. The other player chose to be secretive about what had transpired, so I was sat distrusting another member of my party played by another player. I didn’t know what had occurred, which made a later reveal all the more exciting.
After I finished playing, I rushed up to find my other player, and discuss with them what had happened. The curiosity about what had been missed, why choices were made, and which things were even choice moments for the other player gave a great amount to discuss after playing, and made for a really interesting spin on the formula.
One aspect of this mode which is a little odd is that rather than being assigned consistent characters to play as, over time you each switch who you are controlling. In the demo, there were times where I controlled a character’s decisions, then later the other online player took control of that same character. We were usually aware of the information needed to know what that character had done in the past, and thankfully both me and my online partner played the characters largely the same way, but I could see situations arising where two players wildly differ in opinion on the correct thing for a character to do, and that could cause some odd dissonance in the character’s actions. I have not played enough of the game to know if this will ultimately be a problem, but it’s something worth pondering.
If you need to pause during online co-op, you’re set a short timer lasting around a minute, during which the other player’s screen will be paused. The idea seems to be that you can quickly run to pee, or answer the front door for the postman, and just about get back in time to not miss anything, without leaving your co-op partner waiting indefinitely.
The 2-5 player local mode, Movie Night, is a much more traditional multiplayer affair, and more similar in function to the homemade co-op setups many people created when playing Until Dawn together.
In movie night, the five playable characters in the game are divided up between the players, with one each if there are five players, or some players taking multiple characters if there are fewer than five players. You decide as a group who should control who, and the game tells you when to pass the controller around the room.
Movie Night mode does seem to remove some prompts and choices from the game in order to make sure that the controller doesn’t need passing around every few seconds. Basically, whichever character is the most important and prominent in any given scene is the character who gets to make choices, and the controller is generally passed around each time a scene changes.
During the demo we experienced, there was no option to play the game using multiple controllers, so that everyone could take part at once.
At the end of Movie Night, unique stats are displayed, ranking each player’s performance. You might get awards including fewest missed prompts, most injuries to character, most frequent silences, and similar stats that give a reflection on how members of the group play. This did not appear to be part of the online two player co-op mode.
At its core this is still a choice-based adventure, playing around with horror tropes, where characters can die if you’re not careful. The new characters feel unique, the pacing was solid, and I'm excited to see more. It fixes the few problems its predecessor had, the co-op modes don’t seem to detract from the core experience if you still want to play by yourself, and the world should rejoice that there are no more 'hold the controller still' moments. As this all suggests, Man of Medan is basically more Until Dawn, and that’s no bad thing.