The Devil in Me presents you with accommodations that are less like a Best Western and more like your worst nightmare. Typically, the most unsettling thing you can find in a hotel is an enigmatic stain on the mattress or clumps of hair in the shower drain, but these are not the case here. The fourth and final episode of The Dark Pictures Anthology’s first season depicts a fascinating facility filled with ghastly deathtraps and creepy animatronics, inspired by a real-life murder castle and its notorious serial killer hotelier. Sadly, it wastes everything on a bland cast of leads and fills its running time with tension-killing pauses that made me wish I could have called the front desk to request an earlier check-out time.
The premise of The Devil in Me is definitely enticing. A small group of filmmakers struggling to produce a documentary on America’s first serial killer finds it impossible to turn down an unsolicited invitation to spend the night in a remote reconstruction of H.H. Holmes’ house of horrors. Although the volume of a silent movie might be easier to turn down, the offer turns out to be too tempting to refuse. In reality, the team is only there to capture footage that will give the production some authenticity and enjoy Grantham Du’Met’s lavish hospitality. But the promise of a bed and breakfast soon gives way to the threat of bedlam and bloodlust as it becomes clear that Du’Met is not only planning to recreate the World’s Fair Hotel’s appearance and feel, but also to reenact the horrifying events that took place within the hotel’s maze-like structure.
The Devil in ME’s roots in actual historical events lends a far more plausible edge to its horror, which I find far more compelling than fantastical tales of ghosts and vampires. This is in contrast to the previous installments of The Dark Pictures Anthology, which were all influenced by supernatural evils. I was more preoccupied with solving its central mystery than I was with ensuring that its five playable leads each remained in one piece by the end. Uncovering the clues about the hotel’s disturbing origins and the true identity of its owner remained a gripping endeavor.
The cast’s main flaw is that they are all so uninteresting that I never felt particularly invested in their efforts to survive their harrowing stay in the heart-stab hotel. The early cast interactions in The Devil in Me provide a broad understanding of the group’s dynamic: lighting tech Jamie and sound engineer Erin are starting a relationship, journalist Kate and cameraman Mark are coming to terms with a breakup, and director Charlie only wants his lost packet of cigarettes. However, the writing isn’t strong enough to put any real meat on their bones before they are destroyed by one of the hotel’s devious torture devices.
In The Quarry earlier this year, developer Supermassive Games did a much better job of adding a believably human element to its cast through friendly quips. Here, however, any attempts at playful banter all too frequently fail, and the lines are frequently delivered with dead-eyed stares and stilted movements that give the impression that each character is literally scared stiff. As a result, when three team members died during my seven-hour play-through, each of their grisly fates elicited shrugs of apathy rather than shrieks of anguish because there is very little warmth to anyone on screen.
Gin and ‘Tronic
However, there was still a good amount of scares, usually delivered by the warped animatronic hotel employees and residents suddenly coming to life. These animatronic hotel employees and residents were first introduced as mostly silent bartenders in the hotel bar. Their design became increasingly twisted as the story moved through the building’s darkest nooks and crannies. The enigmatic masked assailant dressed as H.H. Holmes, who stalks the separated members of your team from the shadows like a bowler hat-wearing Michael Myers, poses a more physical threat. Even though they all rely on the same set of decisions about whether to run or hide and QuickTime events that have long been the norm in Supermassive’s horror template, the occasional encounters with him successfully raise the stakes. However, despite the numerous torture chambers in its sadistic setting, the main thing that The Devil in Me seems hell-bent on killing is time, so much tension is rarely maintained for long. In the hotel’s island surroundings, you can spend long stretches meandering through the gloom, sliding along ledges, and crawling under fallen trees, safe in the knowledge that nothing can hurt you outside of an interactive cutscene. There are definitely secrets to be found, like the premonitions that tell you what might happen to your characters, but there are also boring environmental puzzles and balance beam walks that slow you down.
The mansion itself is full of ornate details and atmosphere—walking down a dark hallway to scratchy opera music playing on an old gramophone makes it seem a little more terrifying—but it rarely feels particularly dangerous to explore. False walls that move around you are there to confuse you and make you panic, but as you move from one end of the blocked hallway to the other looking for the door that doesn’t have a locked padlock icon floating in front of it, they turn out to be nothing more than a minor inconvenience. The Devil in Me can appear surprisingly somnolent, and at times I felt as though I had checked into the world’s most terrifying hotel without removing the “Do Not Disturb” sign from the door.
At the very least, efforts have been made to distinguish the sequences of each playable character. To begin, they have a variety of contrasting light sources to help them see through the shadows. Charlie’s zippo lighter’s flickering flame gives off an amber glow around him, and Mark’s camera flash, on the other hand, only gives a fleeting glimpse of what lies ahead in brief bursts. The latter, like the instant camera in developer Bloodiest Games’ Madison, would have been a great way to startle with frightening flashes, but it is unfortunately not used nearly as creatively here.
The Dark Pictures Anthology series has also included a modest inventory system for the first time, which at least introduces new ways to interact with your surroundings. Erin’s shotgun microphone is used to fairly unsettling effect in one sequence to isolate the tortured moans of an unseen victim. However, many of the unique character-specific tools seem somewhat redundant. Charlie’s business card can be used to jimmy the locks of certain drawers to access additional evidence. Erin’s shotgun microphone is used to isolate the tortured moans of an unseen victim. Jamie has an electrical multimeter to help her fix blown fuse boxes, but its analog display doesn’t seem to show much when you flick the switches in the order that each fusebox’s instructions say they should. In the meantime, Mark’s camera monopod is eventually augmented with a sharp drill bit to become a weapon, but I never got a chance to use it, even though he stayed until the credits rolled. The inventory system appears to be an addition to The Dark Anthology’s formula that is more superficial than Supermassive, even though subsequent playthroughs may well uncover more meaningful uses for these devices due to the narrative’s branching nature in The Devil in Me.
The twisted murder castle in The Devil in Me serves as the literal foundation for what could have been an exciting horror adventure. However, pacing issues and a lackluster group of potential victims result in a slaycation with low stakes, no significant thrills, and no difficult choices to make. The quick-time event-based survival sequences adhere to a stress-inducing formula that is beginning to feel a little bit too familiar, and efforts to bring gameplay variety to each playable character haven’t shaken things up much. The Devil in ME’s tour through a maniac’s mansion is disappointingly devoid of any real menace or surprise, despite having ominous animatronics and a massive aggressor, which means the final chapter of The Dark Pictures Anthology is still capable of eliciting the occasional jump scare.