With four instalments under its belt, The Dark Pictures Anthology from Supermassive Games feels like a roller coaster. Following an underwhelming start in Man of Medan, the horror series was getting better and better with Little Hope and House of Ashes. It appears, however, the latter may have been the peak of what the franchise has to offer — at least as the first season comes to an end. The Devil in Me does neither its setting nor inspirations justice, with a campaign that at times feels plodding and far too safe.
Based on the murders of America's first serial killer H.H. Holmes — who claimed his victims through elaborate traps set up in the World's Fair Hotel — a TV documentary team is invited to use a secluded mansion that claims to be an exact replica of Holmes' "Murder Castle" as the basis for their own season finale. With the chances of a second season being funded seemingly slim, the crew takes the opportunity as a lucky break. They happily jump in a blacked-out limousine, hand over their mobile phones, and travel to the residence.
The team quickly discovers the copies of H.H. Holmes' devices are a lot more deadly than they presumed, with trap doors splitting members up and fatal contraptions ready to take their lives. With a killer on the loose inside the mansion, the team must escape.
What follows is your typical Dark Pictures affair. With a cinematic shine, you'll control every crew member, making choices for them and guiding their actions during life-deciding moments. If you've played any one of the past titles or Until Dawn or The Quarry, you'll know exactly what to expect. Rummage through environments, picking up files and lore as you go, before cutscenes seamlessly connect you from one scenario to another with decisions to make and quick time events to master in the middle. It's a gameplay loop that has remained essentially the same for eight years now, and while The Devil in Me does introduce a few new features, they're hardly game-changing.
Characters now have a bit more about them: they can interact with more objects and utilise a simple inventory system to help them overcome puzzles and obstacles. You'll be pushing and pulling crates into place to reach new areas, solving environmental brain teasers to get the lights back on, and using tools to access locked drawers and cabinets. It's also possible to shimmy across narrow ledges, jump from one platform to another, and hide from other characters using L2.
None of this changes how you play the game, but it at least gives you more to do and think about. As we explored the creepy manor, the puzzles made for a nice change of pace while hiding from enemies complements other mechanics like the returning heartbeat mini-game. Despite sticking to the same formula for nearly a decade now, Supermassive Games does just enough with The Devil in Me to keep gameplay engaging.
However, the game’s biggest failing is what it doesn't do. With inspiration taken from both the killings of H.H. Holmes and the SAW movie franchise, the seven-hour experience doesn't explore the moving walls and hallways of the hotel nor the deadly traps waiting at the end anywhere near as much as we'd have liked. Given they're basically the entire point of the game, it's disappointing to come away with such little screen time for the elaborate traps hidden inside the bed and breakfast's walls.
It really feels like a wasted opportunity because the premise of The Devil in Me trumps past Dark Pictures games by some margin. The moving walls are very rarely utilised beyond shots of the killer quickly moving between different places in the hotel, and the traps are few and far between. The latter are frustratingly basic, too. Even though puzzles are part of the game, they're never present in these life-or-death situations — at least in the ones we encountered.
All you're presented with is a decision, with one choice likely killing your character and the other leading them to safety. It's disappointing to see so much potential go to waste on basic judgement calls when traps could have been far more involved with a puzzle to solve under a time limit, for example.
At least their simple nature made it easier for us to keep (most of) our favourite characters alive until the end. Our firm favourite is Erin the intern, who delivers a strong performance alongside Kate the presenter. Played by Jessie Buckley, her delivery has a wide range with a past relationship to deal with, a feud with lighting expert Jamie, and the events of the night to deal with. Charlie, the director of the TV crew, occupies a personality with a good bit of depth that will likely see you warm to the character as events unfold. First appearing bitter and cold, he's a character you’ll likely grow to like.
In true Supermassive Games fashion, their models look years ahead of most other developers with extraordinarily detailed faces and fitting clothing. However, some environments — particularly ones outdoors — aren't as up to scratch. The gardens surrounding the hotel look quite poor, with dull foliage and boring scenery. With the sublime characters in the foreground, what's around them represents a noticeable drop in quality that results in a pretty inconsistent look.
What's even more of a concern is the many strange and awkward transitions between scenes. Including fade to blacks, short load times, glitchy load-ins, and breaks that simply don't look like they should be there, the game comes a little untangled when it's trying to stitch one scenario to the next. This results in textures that haven't fully loaded in while the action commences and buggy animations and lighting. It's a poor look that — to our knowledge — hasn't been an issue in past Dark Pictures titles, so to see problems arise as the season concludes is a minor letdown.
The Devil in Me is another competent and enjoyable enough entry in The Dark Pictures Anthology, but it fails to reach the heights of House of Ashes or even Little Hope. With a lot of potential squandered, it's left to the familiar gameplay loop of past instalments to deliver a robust title. With some new features, the season one finale offers just enough to make the deadly trip worthwhile for fans.