Need to know
What is it? A cooperative slasher movie where anyone can die.
Expect to pay: $30/£25
Developer: Supermassive Games
Publisher: Bandai Namco
Reviewed on: RTX 2080, i9-9900k, 32 GB RAM, SSD Multiplayer: Two-player co-op
Man of Medan, the first entry in Supermassive Game's Dark Pictures Anthology, isn't particularly scary. If it were a movie, it'd be the kind that releases direct to video, one of those schlocky DVDs lining the convenience store displays stuffed between the trail mix and sunglasses. The usual character archetypes are there: the nerd, the hunk, the blonde, the stranger, the horny creep that no one should put up with but do because at least one death should be cathartic. Queue up the ghost ship, murderous pirates, and cheap jump scares galore.
As a film, it would be fun, but familiar and forgettable. You have to have a taste for it. But as co-op adventure game, Man of Medan is unparalleled.
Man of Medan plays a lot like Supermassive's previous PS4 exclusive, Until Dawn. Think of it like a movie where you take control of one character at a time, oscillating between action scenes broken up by quicktime events and dialogue choices. Occasionally there's a small stretch of exploration where you're given some time to look for story clues, weapons, traps, and soak in the setting. It's very Telltale (RIP).
Except this time, role-playing stupid adults in a dangerous situation together is officially supported, both locally and online.
Early into my online co-op playthrough, when my coworker Joanna and I manage to coerce our ship captain into letting us explore a sunken plane at the bottom of the Pacific, we don't play two characters in the same scene. We play two characters in different scenes running simultaneously.
I take over Julia and Alex's scuba-diving scenario. As a young couple haunted by the spectre of marriage, every conversation tests Alex's insecurity in their relationship. Playing Julia, a free spirit with rich parents, I reject Alex's probing questions and stick to the matter at hand: the skeletons chilling in the plane's rapidly disintegrating chassis.
I mash X as part of a surprise quicktime event to avoid cutting my exposed thigh on a jutting piece of rusted metal. Joanna laughs at my shrill yip over Discord. Much later I'll yell "LEECHES!" louder than I ever have and Joanna's laughter will rise to meet it. The jump scares might be cheap and plentiful, but with a friend they're also hilarious, assuming you're not on the receiving end.
Meanwhile, Joanna's playing as Captain Fliss, cooly rejecting Conrad the Creep's every pickup line. (In my second solo playthrough, they get to second base. I was curious!) But I only know what Joanna tells me, so when she says a boat is rapidly approaching our own, I start to worry. I really start to worry when the boat speeds off and drags the diver line across the front of the plane, knocking the cockpit clean off.
Imagine how I feel when I see two explosions up top as I surface. Do I swim up and risk giving Julia the bends or stay cool and depressurize with her neurotic boyfriend? At least he didn't just ask Julia to marry him this time around. The next playthrough, he does, and I send Julia paddling to the surface ASAP. No thanks, pal.
It's my turn to listen to Joanna panic and explain what's happening while juggling her own potent dialogue choices or quicktime events—I'm in the dark. Eventually Joanna gets some vital info across that informs my next move. We take our time to depressurize, but in my next solo run I give Julia the bends on purpose. Then I make her drink beer. Things don't end well for Julia without Joanna's moral guidance.
Alone, I'm a nihilistic monster. Together, we're the hot people rescue force playing what essentially amounts to telephone and two adventure games simultaneously. It's a tense, hilarious combo.
Apply that framework to even more threatening and complex scenarios. Rather than relationship problems, safe diving protocol, and mystery explosions, it's all vengeful men with knives, grim spectres, and the kind of monsters you may or may not expect to find on an abandoned ship with a dark history. Things get messy.
Half of Man of Medan keeps Joanna and I separated, playing unique, interconnected scenes at the same time. And based on the clues our characters discover, the decisions we make for them, and which discoveries and decisions we choose to share, we're able to both avoid disaster and steer headlong into it. To make things trickier, not every character's perspective is completely reliable, not every successfully tapped-out quicktime event is a win, and not every noble choice leads to a noble outcome. Picking up on little details pays off in that first run.
It's a fascinating way to experience a story together, where you can steer relationships and the action based on what you've observed and what you've shared, articulated by extremely punishing quicktime events. And yeah, punishment is good in a schlocky B-movie, but sometimes those quicktime prompts are downright unfair.
Deaths aren't always as ceremonious as the movies make them, occasionally coming out of nowhere due to a single missed button press. Our playthrough's hero died because of a misread and again in the same spot on my solo venture (but with a different hero). Some quicktime events just require quick button presses, while others require rapid button mashing, and both look way too similar to parse in a pinch.
At least the deaths are pretty. Man of Medan is a graphical stunner supported by unnerving voyeuristic camera angles. Realistic animations with syrupy controls mimic the vulnerable, clumsy nature of each character, though it's all occasionally compromised by questionable facial tics. Supermassive nails teeth but not how the muscles around them work. Expect a few strained, uncanny smiles.
It's not as fun as co-op, but Man of Medan is still spooky and surprising alone, replacing friends with intel. In solo and pass-the-pad play, pausing displays tools for analyzing choices, relationships, character traits, and clues for steering the narrative in new directions—helpful stuff. I wish it was available in online co-op too, for the more studious and patience team, but I can see how it might mess with the flow. I enjoyed relying purely on one another to piece our story together anyway.
While my solo story ended with a completely different cast and lasting consequences, I don't have much desire to poke around the same three-ish hour long B-movie scenario to see every potential outcome. The characters are too cliched and the plot too simple to make it worth the close study. I've seen Scream 3 once and that's enough.
But as an ambient experience played over time, Man of Medan's variability is wide enough to return to for the social experience. I'm excited to play it with more friends, to see whether anyone can scream "leeches" louder than me, to see who they're happy to off and who they want to save. What kind of incompetent hot people death-cocktail can we make together, I wonder?