Harrison Abbott reviews The Dark Pictures Anthology: The Devil in Me…
Annualization can be a double-edged sword when it comes to video games.
On the one hand, churning out a new title every single 12 months like clockwork can entrench an IP in the public consciousnesses, as it has done for Call of Duty, Assassin’s Creed and a litany of sports franchises. Thanks to their punctual releases, these games have gone on to become dependable comfort foods and their staunch fanbases — who know exactly what they’re getting into — return each year without fail.
The drawback of committing to an annualized schedule, however, is that your brand eventually becomes susceptible to fatigue. The titles grow stale and less zealous players get weary of buying the same thing over and over again with no apparent innovation.
Conversely, sequels that are given enough time in the oven are imbued with a grander sense of occasion. Just think how momentous the launch of GTA 6 will be when it finally does come out. Sales will go through the roof, a dubious number of sick days will be taken, and Pornhub traffic will nosedive as everybody jumps into Rockstar’s opus. All because years and years of anticipation leading up to that point.
Meanwhile, Call of Duty is slapped together with such proficient and artless regularity that it is starting to feel like a banal obligation, akin to tax season or your dental check-up. There’s hype among its core audience for sure, but it’s not quite at the fever pitch level of the series’ glory days.
Having produced four entries since 2019, The Dark Pictures Anthology is at risk of falling into that same trap. Each installment has the same basic gameplay, the same collectables to acquire and the exact same opening theme song (which admittedly makes for a rousing introduction).
As such, Supermassive Games’ latest outing, The Devil in Me, has a bit of an uphill battle if it wants to stand out from the crowd. Hell, the studio already released another interactive movie earlier this year and although The Quarry wasn’t technically part of The Dark Pictures Anthology— a separate division took responsibility for that one— it still bore many of the usual hallmarks.
To compensate for this oversaturation, The Devil in Me strives to evolve the formula with some much-needed gameplay tweaks and fresh mechanics. The end result isn’t going to win over any Supermassive sceptics (as the foundations remain pretty much unchanged) but for the converted it might just be the most polished, meaty and surprisingly creepy Dark Picture to date.
In case you are one of the uninitiated, this horror anthology is made up of branching narrative titles that are all hosted by an enigmatic figure known only as The Curator. Think of it a bit like the video game equivalent of Tales from the Crypt, only here you are in direct control of the characters’ decision-making and ultimately get to decide their fates.
While each episode boasts a unique cast, takes place in an original setting, and falls into a different sub-genre of horror, their commonalities far outweigh their respective differences. The story outcomes are always determined by your actions, with you (and potentially another player) getting to wield unchecked power over who lives and who dies.
As the overarching puppet master(s) here, it’s within your remit to make “heart” or “head” choices, influence how well certain people get along, react to QTEs, and find hidden clues that are scattered around the environments. All of which will affect the narrative trajectory in subtle, or not-so-subtle, ways.
How you handle this intoxicating power trip is entirely up to you. Maybe you’ll play matchmaker for a pair of timid lovers, or you could alternatively stir up a feud between rivals. Meanwhile, you could lure a would-be protagonist to an early grave or try to ensure that all your charges make it through to the end credits in one piece.
While the core mechanics don’t vary much between episodes, the different horror scenarios lend each Dark Picture its own distinct flavour. Man of Medan was a classic ghost tale that unfolded against a high seas backdrop. Little Hope was a curious mix of Witchfinder General and the John Cusack thriller Identity. And House of Ashes most closely resembled 2005’s forgotten creature-feature The Cave, albeit with an Iraq War theming.
As for The Devil in Me, it takes its cues from the likes of Saw, Vacancy, and there’s even a dash of The Shining thrown in for good measure.
This time around, you are placed in control of a film crew working on a sensationalist true crime docuseries that covers infamous murder cases. The lurid show hasn’t exactly gotten off to the best start, with dismissive reviews and lacklustre ratings, and so the prospect of it getting picked up for a second season is looking rather doubtful.
For what may well be their final episode, the team have decided to focus on the original American serial killer, H.H. Holmes, and his gruesome murder castle. Incidentally, if you don’t know much about the real history behind this story, the game does a pretty solid job of catching you up on the gory details, but there’s also an exhaustive documentary you can view in the supplementary materials.
Anyway, in a last-ditch effort to rescue his floundering production company, the studio’s director accepts a peculiar invitation from a man named Granthem Du’Met. A serial killer aficionado, this recluse is offering you the chance to visit his meticulous recreation of The World’s Fair Hotel; a literal death trap where Holmes used to lure his victims into acid baths, push them into furnaces and lock them inside gas chambers. Before then selling their skeletal remains to universities!
Foolishly taking the bait, your characters decided to visit this Murder Castle 2.0., in the hope that they’ll at least get some interesting B-roll for their next episode. In the process, they overlook various red flags and agree to a few suspicious provisos that most people would baulk at (like having to get rid of their phones).
However, when they arrive at Du’Met’s macabre tourist attraction, they realize that he wasn’t just blowing smoke. His World’s Fair Hotel is truly a dead ringer for the historic site, complete with an authentic exterior façade and a near-identical floor plan. He’s even managed to procure some costly artifacts, including Holmes’ iconic bowler hat and some keepsakes from his victims.
Of course, this being a horror game, the replica Murder Castle inevitably turns out to be a little too faithful. The place has been rigged from top to bottom with trap doors, secret passageways, tripwires and an assortment of lethal contraptions that seem to have been nicked from Jigsaw’s workshop. Not to mention, there are uncanny automatons that have ostensibly been fashioned after the hotel’s earlier “guests”.
With the stage now set for an evening of bloodshed and psychological torment, the film crew will have to put aside their differences and work together in order to survive. Or not. As always, the manner in which they respond to the situation is totally in your hands.
From a narrative perspective, The Devil in Me is easily the strongest Dark Pictures outing yet. It admittedly takes a while to get going (a by-product of its elongated 8-hour runtime) but once the consequences of your decisions start to catch up with you, then it becomes a genuinely captivating experience.
It helps that the five protagonists are all way more engaging and likeable than their counterparts in past games. With oversized egos and festering resentments, the team at Lonnit Entertainment will butt heads with each other, however, they also feel like a dysfunctional family unit. When the overbearing director, Charlie, shares a fleeting moment of empathy with his beleaguered intern, you want to see them both make it through the night.
For the first time in any of these games, I can honestly say that I tried to keep everybody breathing. Which is interesting because that happens to be a more difficult feat this time around. After all, you can lose your favourite characters over the most trivial infractions, whether it’s taking a wrong turn or just fumbling an unassuming quick-time event.
Thanks to this brutality, there’s a real sense of pressure whenever the H.H. Holmes copycat is prowling nearby. The third act is particularly nerve-wracking, as your stalker is never far from sight and can jump out at any point during (the previously safe) exploration sequences.
On that note, you get the impression that the developers were aspiring to make The Devil in Me their scariest offering to date. Whereas the rest of The Dark Pictures Anthology has been good fun, this one has a much more unsettling tone. The campy splatter has been replaced with sadistic violence, some of the imagery is legitimately chilling and the backstory goes to some very dark places indeed.
Apart from when they were taking you by surprise with loud jolts, the other Supermassive titles weren’t that effective as horror games. They had more in common with trashy B movies and teen-oriented slashers than they did with pure psychological terror. But here, the vibe just feels different.
It’s also a happy accident that it’s launching just a couple of months after Dahmer hit Netflix, because it would make for quite a nice (and adversarial) companion piece. There’s a narrative throughline about society’s worrying tendency to lionize the deeds of evil men, as the game draws parallels between our film crew, a pair of obsessive podcasters, the yellow press and, of course, the H.H Holmes disciple currently trying to surpass his idol’s kill count. It’s intriguing commentary that runs much deeper than you first expect.
As a playable game, The Devil in Me is also leaps and bounds ahead of anything else Supermassive has done. The team has clearly taken onboard criticisms of their earlier work and endeavoured to make it more interactive for their Season 1 finale.
For a start, character mobility has been greatly improved, with you now having the option to run, crawl, shimmy and manoeuvre certain objects. Early on, you’re exposed to all these enhanced traversal mechanics — in a protractor tutorial section —and it feels so liberating when compared to the sluggish movement of previous titles.
I didn’t appreciate just how restricted I was in The Quarry until this follow-up came along and unlocked a sprint button for me. As silly as it sounds, that little change proved to be revelatory, as did all of the other new interactions. Running at a fast clip makes backtracking feel less onerous, climbing introduces a welcome aspect of verticality to levels, and being able to rearrange your surroundings creates scope for environmental puzzles.
Speaking of which, another way that The Devil in Me gets you more involved in the action is by asking you to solve occasional problems. Most of these challenges are relatively lite — with you having to deduce passcodes, rewire circuits or figure out ways around obstructions — but they keep you engaged nonetheless. Plus, it’s nice to have something “gamey” to do for a change, other than just wandering around looking for glinting items on the ground.
That being said, even the exploration is more rewarding now thanks to the aforementioned mobility tweaks. The areas are sprawling and there’s actually cool stuff to find if you keep your eyes peeled. You might shimmy across a broken bridge to discover a secret room or crawl beneath a log to access a location that was initially hidden from view.
There are these small coins to harvest as well, which can be exchanged with The Curator for diorama models in the main menu. It’s not a major addition by any means, yet building up your collection can be rather addictive.
Although it doesn’t get anywhere near as much mileage, there’s also a kind of quasi-stealth mechanic that can be reasonably suspenseful. At predetermined junctures in the story, the killer will burst into a room without warning, and you’ll have only a few seconds to identify a suitable hiding spot. There’s not much depth to it beyond that (don’t go expecting Thief or anything) but it can still get your heart racing when you have an exhilarating close call.
The biggest update though is the new inventory system, which helps to make every single character feel wholly unique. In a nutshell, all five protagonists have an exclusive piece of kit that is related to their specific day job. Cameraman Mark has a flashbulb for temporarily illuminating dark spaces, lighting technician Jamie carries a tool for rewiring electronics and Charlie uses his business card to unlock desks.
What’s interesting about this is that the longevity of each mechanic is tied to how long the associated character manages to stay alive. For instance, if Mark kicks the bucket early on, then you’ll barely have any chance to fiddle around with his DSLR. Likewise, if you cause sound engineer Erin to die prematurely, then you’ll lose access to her directional microphone.
The latter device was a particular highlight for me, as it enables you to properly appreciate the detailed audio mix of The Devil in Me. Stick on a good pair of headphones and you’ll be enveloped in a really immersive soundscape, as each foley noise imparts a valuable piece of information.
The timber of a squeaky floorboard tells you how old certain parts of the building are, with the higher levels clearly getting neglected in favour of the refurbished lobby. Elsewhere, the faint pater of rainfall helps you to orient yourself in relation to the outside world, and the killer’s proximity is often communicated by the volume of his encroaching footsteps.
Visually the game is no slouch either. The Dark Pictures Anthology has always boasted high fidelity graphics, with some of the most believable environments and character models around. That standard hasn’t slipped here, with all of the assets holding up to incredible scrutiny. Looking at Pip Torrens’ likeness (in his Curator avatar), you can see the individual creases in his forehead, his sunken eyes and the microscopic hair follicles on his upper lip.
Just as much personality has been infused into the World’s Fair Hotel too, which Supermassive has recreated with the same exacting thoroughness as their villain. The wallpaper is peeling, paint is visibly chipped, and you can even make out finger smudges on windowpanes (under the right lighting conditions). In short, it’s a truly gorgeous and atmospheric location.
All in all, The Devil in Me represents a huge step forward for the Dark Pictures Anthology and even gives Until Dawn a run for its money. If you’ve enjoyed any of the previous outings, then this is a certified must-play.
+ Compelling story with an intriguing mystery and likeable characters
+ Your decisions actually matter and even the smallest mistakes can have fatal consequences
+ Terrific sound design and scrumptious visuals
+ Various quality of life improvements help to make exploration fun
+ New mechanics keep things fresh
+ Effective scares and disturbing atmosphere throughout
+ Great replay value and worthwhile bonus features
– Does take a little while to get going
– The Shining tributes can get a little heavy handed
Code provided by publisher. Reviewed on PS5 (also available for PS4, Xbox One, Xbox Series X and PC).