LTG Halloween Review: “Man of Medan” (2019)

By Marshall Garvey In 2015, UK developer Supermassive Games added a pinnacle chapter to the survival horror genre with their first foray into it, Until Dawn. The game’s story of a group of attractive teenagers isolating themselves in a remote lodge to mark the anniversary of a friend’s death seemed like one unbecoming of a…




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6 minutes

By Marshall Garvey

In 2015, UK developer Supermassive Games added a pinnacle chapter to the survival horror genre with their first foray into it, Until Dawn. The game’s story of a group of attractive teenagers isolating themselves in a remote lodge to mark the anniversary of a friend’s death seemed like one unbecoming of a game that would make a lasting impression. The very premise of young adults getting picked off in a cabin in the woods…it doesn’t require explanation as to why that’s been done to death. 

Yet the game took its self-aware cliched plot and spun something surprisingly fresh. In addition to enough twists to the familiar story to make it stand out, it excelled by managing to be exceptionally intense. The blood-curdling rendition of the wendigos, and the chilly setting of the snowbound woods, made the player feel the brutality of trying to survive until the morning light. But the factor that really drove it home was the cast, led by Rami Malek’s emotionally distraught brother (turned sadist) Josh, a performance that helped build his path towards playing Freddie Mercury himself. 

Fans have clamored for a sequel in the four years since, myself vociferously a part of that chorus. Whether or not we get it, Supermassive is at least doing the next best thing for now with a line of spiritual successors called The Dark Pictures Anthology. This series of standalone horror games will ostensibly fill the void of a sequel in the near future. 

The first is Man of Medan, which takes the legend of the S.S. Ourang Medan and gives it the survival horror treatment. The game’s premise certainly sets up a world of potential. Haunted cabins in the wilderness are played out both as straight horror and as parody, but ghost ships are a strangely underutilized premise. A horror game on a vessel is something I’ve hoped for since my childhood spent playing Titanic: Adventure Out of Time, which while a time-travel historical detective tale traumatized me (and others) with its creepy music, level design, and animation. 

In terms of gameplay, Man of Medan wisely sticks to the established formula of the original game. The player controls a group of good-looking twentysomethings who go out of their way to put themselves in a situation that’s bound to lead to their doom. The gameplay is minimalist, made up of simply moving the character through creepy environments and determining their fate through a mixture of dialogue and action choices and quicktime events. 

This time, it’s Alex (Kareem Alleyne), Brad (Chris Sandiford), Julia (Arielle Palik) and Conrad (Shawn Ashmore), who go on a diving expedition in the waters near French Polynesia under the guidance of boat captain Fliss (Ayisha Issa). However, their trip is upended when they’re taken hostage by a group of pirates. Their misfortune eventually takes them to the Ourang Medan, a fabled ghost ship from World War II packed to the hilt with cursed spirits that cause terror both real and imagined. 

The biggest, and best, difference in Medan from UD’s gameplay is replacing the “Don’t Move!” quicktime event with one where the player has to press X in tandem with the character’s heartbeat. On a visceral level, the original game’s feature naturally translated the paralyzing fear one would feel when stalked by a masked killer or monster, especially in the pulse-pounding finale with the wendigos in the cabin. One problem: the most miniscule twitch of one’s hand was enough to screw it up. The only solution is to just put the controller on the floor the entire time, which, while saving the player much grief, still feels like a cop-out. 

Here, that suspense is instead rendered through a sort of rhythm mini-game where the player has to press X with a heartbeat. This function is equally frustrating at first, but once you get used to it, it’s a huge improvement. Until Dawn’s tight story pacing and ability to immerse the player was often disrupted by the frustration of accidentally screwing up an almost impossible command. Man of Medan makes it a bit more challenging, but at least doable.

Visually, the game is pristine. Until Dawn’s atmosphere is hard to top, but this game does its rendition of the ghost ship trope justice. The setting is perfectly realized, the Medan’s rust-strewn hallways and sparsely lit cargo holds creating a suffusive sense of dread throughout. The demons (or are they?) that jump out of the darkness are impeccably grotesque too. It’s not an experience without hiccups, however, as there is a good deal of pop-in during cutscenes on the PS4 version. 

A surprising gap between the two games comes in the main cast of characters. The comparison may not be entirely fair given Until Dawn now possesses the retroactive novelty of launching Rami Malek to Oscar-winning stardom. Yet even before that, the characters’ insufferable vanity somehow managed to make them endearing. The terror as the long night in the woods wore on made the player feel a strange desire to keep as many of them alive as possible, and thus a great sense of frustration when some seemingly nondescript decision led to one of their deaths. 

Man of Medan’s cast, meanwhile, just feels like a random group of characters. There are similar love triangles, but the story doesn’t crank them up to the deliciously hammy extent that Until Dawn wisely did. It doesn’t feel like there’s a big payoff to any of it, either. Regardless of who lives or dies by the time the rescue team arrives, it doesn’t feel as dramatic as the finale of Until Dawn. Even when someone dies through a tragic twist of fate, there’s little resonance. 

Which leads to another shortcoming: length. The game is surprisingly short, and would have benefited from a running time similar to that of Until Dawn. This is all the more apparent given it hinges on spur-of-the-moment decisions with far-reaching implications. Given it’s the first installment of a multi-game anthology, Man of Medan will hopefully pack more punch as one part of a longer lineage, with the next set to come out in 2020. But on its own, it feels incomplete compared to its predecessor. 

Altogether, Man of Medan is a decent continuation of the style Supermassive Games executed so brilliantly in 2015. But while it hits all the right notes technically, it doesn’t infuse them with the same level of charm. Maybe as part of serial-like lineup of episodes, it will pack more of a punch down the line. For now, though, gamers are better off just making sure tripping on a branch doesn’t lead to Ashley’s death again.