The Dark Pictures series is an anthology of survival-horror games developed by Supermassive Games, and published by Bandai Namco. Each title is inspired by a different subsection of the horror genre, taking a wide inspiration across the board. Every game has its own cast of characters, telling its own contained story, where your choices as the player matter more than anything else.
While eight mainline games are currently planned, only four have been released for now, with a spin-off also available. The series is structured into seasons, with the first season reaching its conclusion with the fourth game. The second season is confirmed to begin with the game Directive 8020, with its release date currently unknown.
The Dark Pictures: Man of Medan (2019)
The first game in The Dark Pictures series, Man of Medan follows a group of five young adults as they search for a lost World War 2 shipwreck, inspired by the myth of the Ourang Medan. A storm leaves them trapped on a ship named the SS Ourang Medan, where it becomes apparent that they aren’t alone. What began as a search at sea, quickly becomes a fight for escape and survival.
You control each of the five characters, making decisions on behalf of each. The choices you make are made with either the character’s ‘head’ or ‘heart,’ a unique approach to a common mechanic. These have a massive impact on the game’s story, and in many cases can be the difference between life and death. Knowing that no one is invincible makes every decision a real nail-biter, with endings for just about every variation you could imagine. The game even has ‘Dark Pictures,’ a set of collectibles that give you visions of what could happen later in the game, choices depending.
The Dark Pictures: Man of Medan takes a more cinematic approach than most horror games. It mostly evokes the work of developer Quantic Dream with titles such as Beyond: Two Souls and Detroit: Become Human. It’s this approach that makes the game such an immersive experience to play through.
Where it does differ, however, is in its multiplayer offerings. Most games of this ilk are often a single-player exclusive experience, but The Dark Pictures: Man of Medan offers a ‘Shared Story’ and ‘Movie Night’ mode. ‘Shared Story’ allows two players to jump in online, and play through the story as a duo. ‘Movie Night’ is for local co-op, where five players can choose their character and pass the controller to make decisions. In a world where local co-op is becoming less of a priority for developers, it’s an interesting experiment that certainly has the potential to improve the game massively.
The Dark Pictures: Little Hope (2020)
Released a year after the original title, The Dark Pictures: Little Hope stars actor Will Poulter in a game that largely follows the formula of the first release. You’re still taking part in a cinematic adventure where your choices affect the overall outcome. These are still life and death-decisions. However, this time around, you’re doing it with an entirely new cast to that of The Dark Pictures: Man of Medan.
Witch trials are the main theme of this game. After their bus crashes in the abandoned town of Little Hope, their exploration leads them to some horrific discoveries. They find a town stuck in the 17th century, with ghostly visions of people from hundreds of years ago. While The Dark Pictures: Man of Medan was told entirely in the present, Little Hope uses flashbacks to jump between time periods. The characters find themselves stuck in the past, where they must unravel the events leading to the infamous witch trials. Their actions in the past affect the present, a tangled web to try to navigate.
In terms of gameplay additions, there isn’t much to write home about here. The ‘Dark Pictures’ mechanic returns, allowing you to see a vision of potential futures. As does the ‘Shared Story’ and ‘Movie Night’ multiplayer modes, making the game a great choice for groups of friends. There were a few smaller gameplay refinements, too. For example, players can now walk faster after feedback from the original game. Quick time events are now easier, too, giving you more time to react. Players found themselves inadvertently killing off characters in The Dark Pictures: Man of Medan, and this was the solution.
The Dark Pictures: House of Ashes (2021)
Once again, The Dark Pictures franchise dives into a new time period with House of Ashes. This time set around the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the game follows five individuals who find themselves stuck in an Akkadian temple after an ambush. This time around, the main threat is vampires, with the main characters needing to work together to escape unharmed. Ashley Tisdale portrays the lead here, the next high-profile actor in the series after Will Poulter.
By now, you get the gist in terms of gameplay. Cinematic presentation, branching choices, multiple endings. It’s all still here as part of the series’ DNA, and better than ever. The only huge difference comes in the way of difficulties. For the first time in the series, you can choose between ‘Forgiving,’ ‘Challenging,’ and ‘Lethal.’ These difficulty options affect the speed of quick time events, as well as the buttons you can press to complete them.
It’s all still here – the ‘Dark Pictures’ mechanic, the multiplayer modes. If you’ve played the previous two titles, then The Dark Pictures: House of Ashes will be an immediately familiar experience.
The Dark Pictures: The Devil in Me (2022)
The Dark Pictures: The Devil in Me is the most recent mainline release in the series. With Irish actress Jessie Buckley in the lead role, the game follows a documentary crew invited to stay in a replica of murderer H. H. Holmes’ ‘Murder Castle’ on a stranded island, where it quickly becomes apparent their lives are in severe danger. The game follows the night of the event, as the five-person crew fights for survival as they attempt to leave the island.
While the gameplay does remain largely the same as the other Dark Pictures games, there are a couple of innovations. For the first time, there’s an inventory system for characters, allowing you to keep items that could be useful later. Many of the puzzles are now tool-based, which has never been the case before. You can also run, jump, and climb, a level of movement the series had never implemented before. This allows for a ton of new gameplay situations to occur.
As the final game in the first season, it makes sense that innovation wouldn’t be top of the priorities. Hopefully, Directive 8020 will see a bigger leap in the gameplay quality. While the current status quo works, it would be a shame for the series to continue to stagnate with gameplay mechanics dating back to 2019.
The Dark Pictures: Switchback VR (2023)
The Dark Pictures: Switchback VR is the first step into virtual reality for the series. Released exclusively for PlayStation VR2, the spinoff game is a huge diversion from the mainline titles. Where the main Dark Pictures games are a story-focused experience, Switchback VR is a rail shooter. It’s a total genre shift, and a spiritual sequel to Supermassive Games’ other VR rail shooter, Until Dawn: Rush of Blood.
The Dark Pictures: Switchback VR lets you ride a horror-themed rollercoaster, taking you through a variety of locations featured in the first four games. It gives you a pistol to fire at targets, where you can earn upgrades by shooting at boxes. Along the way, you’ll collect various special objects such as the Flare Gun, which will assist in solving specific puzzles or obstacles.
While VR adds a huge layer of immersion, the game doesn’t really feel like The Dark Pictures. You’re in the same areas, fighting the same enemies, sure. But at its core, The Dark Pictures is about choice and consequence. You don’t get that here. It’s a fun distraction for now, but Directive 8020 can’t come soon enough.
The image featured at the top of this post is ©BANDAI NAMCO.