Supermassive's Dark Pictures anthology gets off to a promising start, but this first nautical instalment winds up a little too promptly.
The thing I liked best about Until Dawn - Peter Stormare's pop-eyed turn as your personal psychiatrist aside - was that it kept you guessing about the kind of horror game it was. Teen slasher flick or Paranormal Activity wannabe? Creature feature or Machiavellian revenge fable? Cabin in the woods, or mountain of madness? The game's red herrings are as plentiful as the branching plot's butterfly effects, and it's a delight to sift direction from misdirection as you slowly divide the offensively photogenic cast into victims or survivors over 12 hours of play.
Man of Medan, the first in Supermassive's biannual Dark Pictures anthology series, tries its hand at similar intrigues. Is the new setting just your garden-variety ghost ship, hold creaking with lost souls, or something less... by the book? Like Until Dawn, the game parades a variety of phantasms before you, some hovering like dust motes in an unfocused corner of the screen, or illuminated for a heart-stopping instant near a hatchway. It also clots your path with archive material from the ever-popular Dear-Diary-Argh-Argh-Argh subgenre, all in a bid to mislead its player as to the precise terrors at stake. This may seem like absolute catnip to any Supermassive devotee, and there are some smart, if slightly broken new multiplayer features to amplify the thrill of playing as a group, but Man of Medan has one elementary problem: at three to five hours across, it's a little too scanty to make the most of a very ominous premise.
Following a brief, nerve-rattling trip to the 1940s, Man of Medan begins on a launch out in the South Pacific. Here you meet stars Alex, Julia, Conrad, Brad and Fliss - respectively, the jock, the rich girl, the lech, the nerd and the lone adult in the room, all caricatures plucked from the annals of horror cinema, all on some level absolutely begging for a harpoon to the neck. The cast are here to investigate a sunken plane wreck, but complications ensue and the scene shifts to the corridors of a spectral long-forgotten warship.
Play switches between characters at chapter breaks, and sees you combing interiors for glowy objects to interact with (hopefully ones that won't interact back) and logbooks or photographs to peruse. Every so often Something Ghastly shambles out of a cupboard and it's time to QTE your way to safe harbour, either moving the cursor to a target, choosing between (equally dangerous-sounding) left or right options against the clock, or just hitting buttons on cue to avoid a fall. The game does away with Until Dawn's motion-sensitive elements, but adds an equally harrowing timing mechanic in which you tap along to your character's heartbeat while hiding from a threat.
Should you tap awry, fear not - the characters can all be diced like tuna without breaking the narrative, and you'll want to play through at least twice to get a sense of how the outcome differs when certain people do or don't make it to the credits reel. Between acts, a fourth-wall-disregarding Curator of Stories played by Pip Torrens (Tommy Lascelles off The Crown) snips and sneers at your decisions from the comfort of a moody library. As cryptic interlocutors go he's not quite on the same level as Stormare, but then again, he'll presumably see more development over the course of the anthology.
The game also retains Until Dawn's premonition artefacts, now oil paintings of ship disasters rather than totems. No longer ordered into explicit types, these give you a two-second snippet of events to come - the better not to duck when you should have jumped, or flee when you should have stood your ground. Besides keeping everybody upright and breathing you'll also be managing the evolution of relationships between characters, which are laid out as bars and keywords on the pause screen (it's fun to mull over these stats, but not necessary to understand what's going on). There's not enough time for this to really come to anything, though. Nor is there enough time for the aforesaid butterfly effects - here called Bearings - to multiply and chime together quite as engrossingly as in Until Dawn. I came away feeling like I'd played half a game, my hands full of dangling threads from the intro.
It's churlish, of course, to castigate Man of Medan for shortness given that it is part of a series, developed in a fraction of the time of its troubled predecessor, and sold for half the price at release. But I do feel like Supermassive could have spent those three to five hours more effectively. The first act aboard the launch winds on too long, stealing energy away from the more creative scares aboard the Man of Medan itself. Some of the latter shocks are marvellous - Brad and Fliss especially find their way into something of a deja vu scenario - and there's a late-game revelation that throws the grislier encounters into a new light. I could have gone for a lot more of that, and a bit less build-up.
Until Dawn was a game best enjoyed in company, as groups of players gathered to pass around a controller, share the adrenaline spikes, develop favourites among the cast, and speculate about the game's wider mystery. It was a game that understood that nothing glues people together like fear. Man of Medan builds on this with some devious if somewhat undercooked multiplayer elements. The online Shared Story mode is most ambitious - it divides the plot's cast and chapters up between two players, allowing you to sabotage each other's best efforts at the cost of shortening the playlength still further.
Local co-op mode Movie Night is more fun, however: it assigns each participant a character or characters, reinforcing the who's-your-favourite element, and scores everybody individually at the end of the act (my sisters have the distinction of being our group's top Ditherers and Sleuths, while I was roundly congratulated on my ability to get people slaughtered). The downside is that you can't predict the order in which characters will star, so some players might be left drumming their fingers for several chapters, but all the same, it's a clever addition to a surprisingly sociable formula. I look forward to assigning characters to family members in future Dark Pictures games, though next time, I'm hoping for a little more meat on the story's bones.