From The Devil in Me it was reasonable to expect horrific ingredients amalgamated with each other through a well-known recipe. On the other hand, this is the last chapter of an anthological series which, net of the individual differences between the various episodes, followed a somewhat homogeneous narrative and playful path (do you want to recover the progenitor? Here is the review of Man of Medan). The fourth act of the first season of The Dark Pictures Anthology, on the other hand, dares a little more than its predecessors and takes a path that could indicate the structural future of the horror adventures of the prolific (perhaps too much) Supermassive Games.
And if the dictates of the playful and stylistic approach have remained almost unchanged, children of well-framed game design rules, the change of pace, the dilation of the times of the story and the thematic overabundance of The Devil in Me unfortunately reduce its voltage load. The team’s attempt to move a little beyond its comfort zone, to partially experiment with new gameplay logics and induce the player to follow a path with less rigid exploratory tracks is appreciable, nevertheless the final result gives the impression of be both functional and frayed, glamorous yet disproportionate.
The horror expands
The writer considers the starting inspiration of The Devil in Me one of the most engaging of the collection. The atrocities perpetrated by the serial killer HH Holmes at the end of the 19th century could have been the impetus for the composition of a story which, right from its assumptions, is free from any supernatural element (at this link you can find the special Horror Stories which have inspired The Dark Pictures Anthology).
No more ghosts, monsters or presences belonging to folklore: in The Devil in Me there is a very concrete danger, born from the aberrations of the human mind, from an immoderate cruelty and an omnivorous ferocity. An apparently probable nightmare, in short, which sinks its bloodied limbs into news events. The beginning of the game nourishes this charm, seasoning it with a macabre taste, but then the horror begins to water down its flavor, in an undulating trend, made up of peaks and descents, which gradually drags itself with difficulty towards a conclusion that takes on tones quite divergent from the more Machiavellian ones of the incipit. The primary cause of this fluctuating progression is to be found, in our opinion, in the overall duration. It will take more than 7 hours to reach the end credits, a longevity certainly wider than that of the previous chapters. The main problem lies in the fact that this extension of experience is the result of a dilatation of the rhythm that is not always balanced as we would have hoped. Hiccups of high tension alongside phlegmatic breakers, inserted with the aim of enticing the player to carefully analyze the scenario.
Even more than what happened in House of Ashes, in fact, the collection of documents is essential for putting the pieces of the story back together, which becomes explicit only in flashes (here you can recover the review of House of Ashes). In some moments, The Devil in Me timidly follows the logic of an investigator, and asks us to recompose the pieces of his criminal mosaic.
A choice that on paper is consistent with the narrative assumptions and certainly represents the most stimulating idea of The Dark Pictures Anthology, but which collides with an inconsistent realization. The Supermassive Games title wants to tell a lot, perhaps even too much and starts from a brilliant flash inspired by Holmes and then deviates on other themes. Each of these ideas has a variable – but always significant – degree of interest, yet unfortunately none find the way to fully express themselves.
A crew against a killer
A ramshackle troupe of documentarians makes up the cast of this final act. The group is making an episode of a TV series (qualitatively questionable) dedicated to the bestiality of Holmes, and what better opportunity to save a project adrift than to shoot the scenes in a mansion rebuilt by a generous rich man, mostly fanatic of the aforementioned killer?
The protagonists thus walk towards a place erected to fully resemble the famous Castle of Horrors in which the assassin carried out his ingenious murders. Accepting the tycoon’s suspicious invitation, in a context of absolute secrecy and even with the obligation to hand over cell phones in advance, already requires a pinch of suspension of disbelief, mitigated at least in part by the desperation that moves the irascible soul of a director intent on saving his career at all costs. Needless to say, the “set” will prove to be a nightmare, within an ad hoc orchestrated environment to trap these naive poor and exploit them as victims of a deadly game, including torture, murder and psychological blackmail. Also in The Devil in Me, like the previous episodes, interpersonal relationships will move the threads of the story, and the decisions we will take in key moments – accompanied by the failure or success of some QTEs – will mark the fate of who lives and who dies. Nothing different from what we have already been used to, but with the slight aggravating circumstance of being faced again with reports that recreate the same behavioral patterns as in the past chapters. Here we will once again be dealing with a couple in crisis, or with characters who seem more sacrificial victims than real protagonists. The characterization of the members of the troupe therefore did not seem completely homogeneous to us, and alongside actors with a more multifaceted thickness we find others written with a personality that does not always manage to pierce the screen.
A more open structure
The greatest merit of Supermassive with The Devil in Me lies in the partially successful attempt to propose a not too linear progress structure. It will always be the game itself that imposes control of this or that character on us, but the exploration of the hotel and its surroundings becomes slightly less rigid compared to the past.
The other innovation is represented by the use of the inventory: each protagonist has specific tools that can be used if necessary to open locked drawers and find new clues, or save our lives in times of need. However, if we exclude some freer junctures, even the use of objects appears quite guided, with very little room for experimentation. In short, it is basically an excellent idea, which would however have deserved a more focused implementation. Thus inserted, this mechanic seems more like an experiment that perhaps will experience a superior integration in the second season of The Dark Pictures Anthology.
Even the mobility of the protagonists has been expanded, and those actions that were previously delegated to simple QTEs now require more active participation, such as moving crates or supports to reach elevated surfaces. However, all within environments that are always well delimited and weighed down by quite cumbersome movement animations, which do not lend themselves to more airy exploration.
In short, The Devil in Me seems to offer playful suggestions that have unexpressed potential in the form of still immature drafts. For now, that may be fine, also because expecting a complete upheaval from the final chapter of the first season would perhaps have been too optimistic. What matters is that similar ideas find a more convinced implementation in the future. There is little to complain about, however, as regards the atmosphere: the set of The Devil in Me is very rich in detail and full of anxiety. In the face of a visual rendering that can be superimposed on that of House of Ashes, it is the management of ambient sounds and the evocative staging of specific sequences that has convinced us without reserve, for a horror that, when committed, skilfully plays with violence and tension both physical and psychological.