Good Idea, Mediocre Execution
A few weeks ago, I wrote an article about Until Dawn (2015), a horror video game that introduced me to the world of Supermassive Games. After Until Dawn’s huge success, Supermassive released several shorter games that have similar mechanics, collectively named The Dark Pictures Anthology (2019–present). Since I loved Until Dawn so much, I decided to play all three of the currently available Dark Pictures games with a friend. Now that we’ve finished them all, it’s time for the reviews! I will format these as a series of three individual game reviews and then one or two articles that address The Dark Pictures overall, so I hope you’ll stick around to see my final conclusions.
I should start by warning you that we went into these games a little skeptical, seeing as they seemed to have gotten more mixed reviews than the beloved Until Dawn. Nonetheless, we bought the discount pack of three games and dove in with the first installment, The Dark Pictures: Man of Medan (2019).
And Man of Medan was… eh. After finishing, we were left feeling indifferent and a little exhausted. The game seemed like a classic case of good idea, mediocre execution.
One of the main issues was the imbalanced plot. The game centered around a group of young adults who went out for a scuba diving trip and ended up stuck on a haunted World War II ship. It was played in three acts, and things finally started getting good in Act II. We got to see some pretty creepy, inexplicable stuff on the ship, and we were collecting clues from different rooms to piece together the bigger picture… until suddenly the balance shifted and the foreshadowing in the clues became way too obvious. In my opinion, we ended up guessing the big reveal of the finale way too soon, so then we just had to play the rest of the game knowing pretty much exactly where it was headed.
I think the story was interesting and certainly had potential, but the execution would have felt much better if the game were longer and the clues to solving the mystery were more evenly distributed throughout the plot. As it was, I felt like the game gave us clues too quickly, making the ending too predictable for us to fully enjoy a slow unraveling of the mystery.
And then came the problem of the main characters and their relational decisions. As in Until Dawn, a key component of the game, particularly at the beginning, was deciding how various characters should treat each other—essentially, we had to decide if they should argue or try to keep the peace. But the choices felt too easy! The cast wasn’t very dynamic to begin with and the dialogue options gave players the ability to easily cultivate a relatively passive, peaceful group.
Until Dawn had some hot headed characters who rarely had a passive dialogue option, forcing you to always choose the lesser of two evils. Relationally, it was often a question of which character’s feelings we should hurt when. In Man of Medan, on the other hand, the characters felt so generic that they were pretty much entirely moldable to our will. Supermassive gave us the option to make almost every character calm and logical, so it was easy for all of the characters to end up the same, and the relationships had the potential to become somewhat stale.
What’s more, the decision-making in Until Dawn just felt so much more opaque—we would have to choose dialogue or actions without fully understanding their effects. In Man of Medan, every time you made a decision, there were little visual cues that would give hints about the specific traits your character would gain if you chose a certain action. As a result, this game just seemed to have lost a lot of the ambiguity and moral guesswork that made Until Dawn so fun. With Man of Medan, there was a fairly clear path toward a peaceful group and there weren’t very many obstacles stopping you from playing the game to that end, so it felt more like logical problem solving and less about the emotional story between the characters.
At this point, you’re probably wondering if there was anything good about the game. One thing we did love was the new “Movie Night” feature, which allows multiple people to play in the same timeline. Until Dawn is officially a one-player game, but Man of Medan allows friends to play together, with each person controlling a few different characters. This setup made each decision and quicktime event feel way more high-stakes because we were playing as part of a team. We were familiar with the Until Dawn-style gameplay and we knew that we could accidentally kill someone with one wrong click, so every single moment felt vital to helping not only ourselves, but also each other. Plus, it actually felt possible to keep everyone alive, so that seemed more like the goal. On the other hand, Until Dawn felt like it was more about difficult decisions, and you were sometimes prompted to kill one character to save another.
In the end, the characters and story of Man of Medan generally exhausted us after a while, but I suppose with what the game lost in storytelling, it tried to make up for in problem solving. It departed from the moral dilemmas and interesting character relationships that made Until Dawn so fun, and became more about just choosing the right thing to keep everyone alive. The result was that we were less emotionally attached to the characters, but somehow more invested in seeing them live, in a strange way.
And with that, I’ll save some more analysis for my review of The Dark Pictures: Little Hope (2020). Despite the fact that Man of Medan didn’t wow us, I hope you’ll read on to see what we thought of the next game!
The Dark Pictures: Man of Medan (2019) Official PS4 Trailer