Review: Man of Medan offers fantastic co-op and frequent frights

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Disclaimer: We reviewed Man of Medan on a PlayStation 4 Pro system.

SuperMassive Games’ teen horror cliché delight Until Dawn was one of this generation’s most surprising titles. Combining a medley of horror tropes into one Cabin-in-the-Wendigo-filled-Woods adventure and bolstered by a cast of memorable characters , the team’s PS4 exclusive quickly became one of the best Choose-Your-Own-Adventure games ever made.

Distanced from the exclusivity of PlayStation and nestled into the comforting arms of publisher Bandai Namco, SuperMassive is back with a new entry in the multi-choice teen horror adventure. As the first entry in the developer’s horror anthology dubbed The Dark Pictures, SuperMassive’s Man of Medan has a lot on its plate. Not only does it need to act as a solid successor to Until Dawn, but also as an interesting enough precursor to carry on the anthology. Thankfully, it achieves both.

Each character has interesting ties to another. For example, Alex and Julia are in a relationship and, yes, you can ruin it. As a joke, we did a run to test what happens if Julia refuses to say anything when she’s given a choice. We learned that communication is key for a healthy relationship.

Designed as a smaller adventure than the multi-location large-cast experience of Until Dawn, the eerie Ghost Ship setting is a stark departure. Wide corridors and open woods are replaced almost exclusively with the dank, claustrophobic and rusting passageways of the game’s titular location, the real-life missing “ghost ship”, the Ourang Medan.

Playing predominantly as a cast of five – Brad, Brad’s brother Alex, Alex’s girlfriend Julia, Julia’s brother Conrad (aka Shawn Ashmore) and Fliss – it’s a considerably smaller group of pseudo-friends that work well together but don’t necessarily play off each other as well. After an introductory prologue – which we dare not spoil here – Man of Medan’s story hastily begins.

Starting off as a trip to discover a sunken rescue plane downed during World War 2, the banterous group soon find themselves in a situation they cannot escape. Trapped upon the maybe haunted wreckage of the missing Ourang Medan, it’s up to you to help the cast escape from the clutches of an unnatural threat.

Multiplayer allows you to split characters between players. Just don’t accidentally get another player’s character killed.

Just like in Until Dawn, it feels wrong to say that you’re directly playing as the characters that the controller manipulates. Instead, you’re more of a director. Interspersed through the multi-hour adventure are numerous choices – dialogue and otherwise – that have an effect on the overall outcome of the story and, in extreme cases, who lives and who dies.

While the overall basic plot of Man of Medan isn’t as interesting as the game’s predecessor, it’s undeniably gripping due to SuperMassive’s mastery of choice-based systems. It is flaker here than in Until Dawn: some routes that play outward to the true narrative have bizarre outcomes that aren’t set up. One route we played through saw Brad and Fliss team up and explore together, only for the latter to get killed in a situation with Conrad just a few minutes later. When the team grouped up directly afterwards, Brad didn’t even mention that he had been with Fliss.

Many situations in Man of Medan leave characters on their lonesome. If they live long enough to meet up with friends is up to you.

Oversights or inconsistencies are not uncommon as you explore different routes, but none are too glaring outside of this particular issue. As you learn the game’s sometimes overly dark and far-from-performance-friendly environments to discover new items like weapons, documents, gas masks and more, new routes are seemingly always becoming available. While some are more preferable than others – for the longest time we kept accidentally killing Shawn Ashmore’s character in horrible ways – there’s seemingly always something new to try. It’s main story is a short one, but its ever-evolving branches allow for some impressive experimentation.

For those who adored Until Dawn with a group of mates, as many did, SuperMassive has introduced a few extra modes to further entice multiplayer gameplay. While there is an online component that allows you to experience the story with friends from afar, the couch co-op experience is still a sublime addition. After all, horror is at its best when you’re s**tting yourself with your mates and Man of Medan’s simple-but-fantastic controller-swapping Shared Story mode knows that best. Unfortunately, the scares here are only decent at best.

There’s an interesting cast of side characters that we will not spoil here. They’re key to the events of the story.

Despite being a much shorter adventure than its predecessor, the misadventures upon the Ourang Medan are spread out about as much. The supernatural presence of unsightly creatures is distant and often played for tension without any real payoff. It doesn’t help that the creatures’ greatly forms outshine their narrative purpose: we won’t spoil it here but the true threat is rather disappointing and takes away the fear on repeat playthroughs. That doesn’t mean that the game can’t spook you: Man of Medan made me jump, curse, scream and squirm numerous times, just not as much as some of its fantastic horror contemporaries.

Looking back at it, Man of Medan isn’t the awesome successor to Until Dawn we wanted, but it’s a good step to delivering that successor. While it inherits a similar structure – and it’s bizarre performance issues – it just isn’t as enthralling as what came before.  Some routes are disjointed and the cast and environment aren’t as interesting as the sassy clique that fought off the Wendigos, but it’s still a strong horror experience that makes for a fantastic co-op experience. The look on your friend’s face when you accidentally kill his character is one you’ll never forget.

More about the topics: Horror Games, man of medan, pc, ps4, steam, Supermassive Games, The Dark Pictures Anthology, xbox one