Man Of Medan is a perfect game to play while huddled around with friends during Halloween, but pacing issues and technical problems keep it from being truly great.
Man of Medan is a horror game about a group of rich idiots going somewhere they’re not supposed to go. Alex and his nerdy brother Brad are on vacation with Alex’s girlfriend Julie and her brother Conrad. They want to go diving to explore some undersea wrecks, even if it means skirting local laws to do so. After pissing off a group of fishermen, these reckless young people get taken aboard as derelict ship rumoured to be full of gold and tied up. Then, both the kidnapped and their captors start seeing disturbing apparitions.
I want to love Man of Medan without hesitation. The latest game from development studio Supermassive Games improves on the formula from Until Dawn in some respects, and it definitely spooked me. Still, there’s too much that holds to the game back for me to recommend it without reservation.
The strongest highlight is a simple one: you can play this game with friends. Man of Medan has a mode called “Don’t Play Alone” that allows you to assign characters to the people you’re playing with so that you can pass the controller around. It’s not too fancy; you tell the game how many people are playing, give those people nicknames, and then the game will throw up a splash screen when it’s time to pass the controller to someone else. Formalising something that people did informally with Until Dawn still goes a long way towards making this game easier to get into for people who don’t normally play games. I especially like that you only need one controller, which means that if you want to get a friend in on the action, you don’t even have to buy anything new. You can also play the game online with a friend.
I played the whole game with my boyfriend, sharing a controller between us. I had originally intended to play Man od Medan solo, but after playing for about an hour with my partner, he was hooked. As we neared the end of the game, I realised that I wasn’t sure I wanted to play this game alone. Beyond getting scared by the ghosts and ghouls, I wasn’t sure the narrative would keep me hooked on its own.
While the characters are pleasant enough to be around – I especially like Brad, who starts off panicked and ends the game a lot braver – the game suffers from pacing problems, especially in the latter half. Alex in particular started making decisions that felt more like the plot was driving his character, rather than the character driving himself forward through organic choices. When Alex suggested further splitting up an already split party, my boyfriend and I laughed out loud. Given everything the characters had been through, and the dangers they knew were lurking on the ship, it just seemed like a ludicrous choice.
Maybe those kinds of details wouldn’t bother another player, but because we also had technical problems when we played, they seemed all the more egregious. Near the end of the game especially, my original PlayStation 4 struggled to load textures, and we had frequent frame drops. Most annoyingly, those dropped frames made it harder to register button presses, which made quick time events much more difficult. This game’s tense moments and big decisions nearly always rely on the player’s ability to perform quick time events, so that’s a big issue. One late game plot point that more or less decides the fate of your adventurers comes down to one of these quick time events, and it sucked to fail it because of a dropped frame.
Even if Man of Medan didn’t have those framerate problems, the controls are still an issue. Characters in Man of Medan control like mack trucks, barrelling down hallways and past the thing you want to pick up with wild abandon. Frequently my boyfriend and I would walk back and forth past a grabbable object, trying to get our character into the exact place where we could pick it up, and still failing repeatedly.
It’s easier to let moments like these roll off your back when you’re with another person. My boyfriend and I have a good rapport, and we made jokes to each other to ease the tension of not being able to read a piece of ephemera on the ground when our characters couldn’t manage to stand in the exact right spot to grab it. But that tension was present, and it was even more bothersome when I played alone. The more time you have to focus on the game’s imperfections, the more they come strongly into focus, to the point that Man of Medan can briefly stop being fun. The frustration passes, but the damage is done.
It isn’t like we had a bad time with Man of Medan. I’m already planning on whipping it out for a future Halloween party. It’s just that the closer you look at it, the more its world falls apart. In the back half of the game, the plot couldn’t seem to decide whether the kidnappers or the things lurking in the shadows were the more deadly threat. Without a clear focus, I lost sight of what I was supposed to be afraid of. While the overall mystery was still compelling, the story ends abruptly – so abruptly that my boyfriend and I assumed we must have missed a scene. I don’t need everything tied up with a bow, and in fact I prefer my horror stories to be messy, but I couldn’t help but feel that I missed some connective tissue taking me from a final encounter with a kidnapper to our adventurers sailing off into the sunset. It’s not great to end a game asking, “that’s it?”
Man of Medan
BACK OF THE BOX QUOTE: "Bad dreams, darlings...."
TYPE OF GAME: Halloween party fodder
LIKED: Charming performances, pretty spooky, and Shawn Ashmore
DISLIKED: Technical issues galore, story ends abruptly
DEVELOPER: Supermassive Games
PLATFORMS: PlayStation 4 (played), Xbox One, PC
RELEASE DATE: August 30, 2019
PLAYED: About six hours
Of course, one of the draws of Man of Medan is that your choices drive the story. In particular, I liked checking on a menu screen called the Bearings, which shows a catalogue of some of your choices and their consequences. Sometimes, you don’t know exactly how they’ll play out. It’s pretty obvious that the “Proposal” Bearing gauges whether or not Alex will propose to his girlfriend, but it’s less obvious how the knife your characters found in the kitchen will factor into the plot. Maybe I’m just a nerd who likes these kinds of statistics – and I definitely am – but it was more obvious how my choices were changing the story when I looked at this menu screen. Knowing that I had made choices that really mattered made me more invested in the story’s outcome.
One thing I unequivocally love about Man of Medan was the Curator, a smarmy Brit played charmingly by The Crown’s Pip Torrens. He acts as an omniscient narrator, judging your performance as you play. He oozes with disdain for you, and I was glad every time he showed up to tell me that I sucked. Characters like him put me in the exact right mood for a cheesy, not always consistent horror movie. It’s like having Vampira introduce this week’s B-movie: with everything put in that type of corny context, I can forgive most narrative slip ups.
I’m interested in playing Man of Medan with more groups of people to see where else its story could go, and to see if it reaches more satisfying ends than the one I got. Ultimately, though, I fear that it’s destined to be more of a cult classic than a blockbuster.