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five people sit on a boat around a lantern as one of them tells a scary story in Man of Medan Supermassive Games/Bandai Namco Entertainment

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Man of Medan review: Fight pirates in a ghost ship, or die trying

It’s going to be very hard to stay alive

Everyone has an urge to shout warnings at horror movie characters, even though we know they can’t hear us.

Developer Supermassive Games is very aware of this compulsion, and used it well in the underrated Until Dawn. The developer’s latest game, The Dark Pictures Anthology: Man of Medan, also lets players exercise that part of their brain by giving them control of a fantastic and (mostly) likable cast of characters as they make their way through a horrific ghost ship.

Like Until Dawn, Man of Medan sits somewhere on the line between a Choose Your Own Adventure book and a horror movie. The game gives you control over its characters, allowing you to choose where they go, what they do, and what they say. The decisions you make for them will help them survive ... or get them killed.

This particular story begins when four friends go on a diving trip to search for a crashed World War II plane. These friends — who are apparently pretty wealthy — rent a boat and have a local captain take them out to the site. They’re soon abducted by a group of fishermen turned pirates, but a massive storm interrupts the attack and forces both the pirates and the group of friends to take cover in a mysterious ghost ship called the Ourang Medan.

a dark ship floats in the middle of stormy waters at night
The Ourang Medan.
Supermassive Games/Bandai Namco Entertainment

The vessel is filled with corpses. Dead soldiers are posed in grotesque ways, with horrified faces, as if some unknown terror has literally scared them to death. Every corridor and cabin contains a victim, frozen in fright and mummified mid-scream.

But these scenes aren’t just meant to shock the player; what’s truly haunting is how gorgeously Supermassive presents the terror in each room of the Ourang Medan. The camera cuts to the interior of each room as characters enter, and it mostly remains in a static wide shot as you guide them around the room.

These moments of stillness lead to fantastic and unsettling images, including a shot in which the camera seems to peer at our characters from behind the head of a corpse that slowly turns to look at them, or a rusted chain and hook looming in the foreground as people explore the room behind it. Static cameras can be frustrating to the player if used poorly. But Man of Medan’s camera follows your movements just enough to let you explore the room while allowing the developers to show you exactly what they want you to see, in the most effective way possible.

The constant unease made me excited, and nervous, to explore each new room as the game found new ways to increase my discomfort. The story of the Ourang Medan, and how it came to be a ghost ship filled with these bodies, is told in pieces found throughout the cabins. The papers, letters, journals, and official memos you discover reveal the mystery of the ship — although, as with many mysteries, the solution is much less exciting than the hints.

The exploration of the ship is sometimes interrupted by cutscenes in which the characters try to piece together the ship’s mysteries while coming up with an escape plan. Each scene gives you control of one character, and you pick just about every line they say from a series of dialogue choices. Other action scenes ask you to choose between options like running or fighting back, and quick-time events often determine how those decisions play out. Missing a button press, or making the wrong decision, might be fatal.

a woman with creepy Joker-like makeup gives a sinister smile while looking at a man Supermassive Games/Bandai Namco Entertainment

Each decision impacts not just the characters’ fates, but the places they go, the people they like, and the conversations they have along the way. And sometimes those decisions may also come with hidden consequences. The game has a sense of unpredictability that quickly made me second-guess each choice, leading to even more tension.

While that uncertainty was fun at first, Man of Medan’s surprises and tragedies eventually lost their sting. I didn’t feel responsible for what happened, since the results of each decision felt so arbitrary. What’s the point of telling a character in a horror movie not to go down those stairs, dammit, if they listen, turn around, and are killed anyway? I often felt like a powerless spectator instead of an active participant in the story.

That constant uncertainty becomes even more frustrating when playing through the story multiple times. Man of Medan doesn’t end when someone dies; instead, the story shifts and changes to adapt to the new size of the group. That means that making different decisions might send you to entirely new sections of the ship you didn’t originally see. I once “accidentally” lost a character that turned out to be fairly crucial to my understanding of the game’s story, and I didn’t find that out until my second or third time through the game.

This could be a selling point or a drawback of the game, depending on how you feel about this style of storytelling. I learned fascinating details about the Ourang Medan and its occupants by playing multiple times, but doing so feels almost mandatory if you want to explore the full ship, learn what the hell happened to these people, or even correct a decision you had no way to understand the first time around.

The real horror, though, comes from the moments when you do have control and all the possible options are bad. Actively choosing to kill someone for the sake of another character, and having to watch what happens next, is the sort of dread that makes these choice-driven games so effective. Unfortunately, these moments never really pop up in Man of Medan, and they’re usually some kind of fake-out when they do, further undercutting the idea that you’re in any kind of control over the narrative.

That’s troubling when I care so much about the characters, which is natural when they’re this well-written and well-acted. I knew exactly who I wanted to survive within a few minutes, and who I was happy to sacrifice. I did my best to protect Julia, a human being made entirely of sass and bad jokes. My feelings ran in the opposite direction regarding Alex, a complete asshole. I was always ready to throw him to the zombies, mummy, krakens, or whatever other supernatural horror I could find.

The characters’ own feelings also matter. If two characters like each other, they may team up or save each other in desperate situations. The people who hate each other may not work together during crucial scenes, or those scenes may not happen at all. Your choices in how they talk to each other, and the decisions they make, go a long way toward determining how closely they stick together, or how far apart they grow.

While the characters and their relationships feel detailed and fleshed out, Man of Medan’s overall story never quite manages to make it beyond its ghost-ship premise. Too much of the tale focuses on the would-be kidnappers for the supernatural terrors to get their due; the horrors of the Ourang Medan feel more like set dressing as the characters chase each other around the ship. Even the explanation of the ship’s ghastly state turns out to be disappointingly straightforward.

a character looks at a piece of paper on a crate. Beside him is a skeleton. Supermassive Games/Bandai Namco Entertainment

Man of Medan knows that being scared is better with friends

Yelling at horror movies can be fun, but why do so alone? Man of Medan’s two multiplayer modes either allow you to play with a friend online, sharing a story in which neither player may see everything, or to play with up to five friends in the same room, passing the controller back and forth so each player controls a character who may die at any time. These social options open up some interesting options for playing with friends, and getting everyone to react when a character dies by surprise makes some of the random outcomes to seemingly rational decisions a little easier to enjoy.

An interactive horror game only works if it scares or surprises you, and Man of Medan does both. But while it makes sense to be unable to save characters in a movie, that can be frustrating in a game in which I’m supposed to have some say in what happens. This is a worthy way to spend a weekend, especially if you’re playing with friends, but just make peace with the fact that you may find it harder than expected to keep anyone alive.

The Dark Pictures Anthology: Man of Medan will be released Aug. 29 for PlayStation 4, Windows PC, and Xbox One. The game was reviewed on PC using a final “retail” Steam download code provided by Bandai Namco. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.