The Dark Pictures Anthology: Little Hope gives me a little hope for the future of Supermassive Games’ horror series. Some smart gameplay tweaks ensure that Little Hope still highlights Supermassive's vital role in the modern adventure space, but it also highlights why the studio's future games need to be better than this for those smart changes to really shine.
Little Hope, like its immediate predecessor Man of Medan, is a mashup of horror tropes and subgenres. It borrows iconography from The Blair Witch Project. It borrows its Puritan-era paranoia from The Witch (and Arthur Miller's non-horror play The Crucible). And its conceit, which finds a group of college students and their professor stranded in the woods after their bus crashes, hangs on a premise that will be familiar for fans of Stephen King's The Mist or John Carpenter's The Fog. As the game progressed, I became increasingly skeptical that those threads would come together in a satisfying way. In the end, they don't, but I still had a good time on the ride to that disappointing conclusion.
Little Hope begins with a flashback to the 1970s and a brief introduction to a troubled family of six. Dad is a heavy drinker. The older sister feels isolated and depressed. And, in a hint at the spiritual warfare that will dominate much of Little Hope's second half, the younger sister has been held back repeatedly after church to speak with the reverend. These glowing embers of drama soon blaze up into a literal raging fire when the younger sister leaves her doll on the stovetop. In the ensuing blaze, every member of the family meets their grisly demise, save Will Poulter's Anthony, who helplessly watches on.
Our focus soon shifts to another group--a professor, John, and four students, Andrew, Angela, Taylor, and Daniel--who are attempting to regain their bearings after a bus crash leaves them stranded in the woods. The bus driver responsible for the crash is missing, and the field-tripping group finds themselves surrounded by a mysterious fog that sends anyone who ventures into it back in the direction they came. Each member of this group is a dead ringer for a member of the family from the game's opening. And, as the group ventures into the abandoned town of Little Hope, they begin to have visions of earlier doppelgangers, former inhabitants of the town caught up in the lethal paranoia of 17th-century witch trials.
Despite the sprawling cast, you only control the present-day versions of the characters. As you do, you make dialogue decisions by pointing the needle of a compass at one of two spoken options or the ever-present option to just be silent. Your choices affect the dynamics of character relationships and also cause changes to their personality traits.
As this story unfolds, it becomes increasingly clear that Little Hope's time-hopping ambitions impede its ability to do much successful character work in the here and now. I have only vague ideas of who John, Angela, Taylor, Daniel, and Andrew are. In previous games, Supermassive has presented characters as well-acted archetypes, then allowed players to further define their personalities within those boundaries--playing to or against type. Here, the types are so ill-defined that it becomes difficult to even have an opinion on what each character would or wouldn't do. In a bonus unlockable interview with Will Poulter, the actor described his character as socially awkward. "I guess he was socially awkward," I thought. But, as I thought back through the game, I realized that impression came from a line where his character, in effect, told another character that he was socially awkward. There isn't nearly enough in the moment-to-moment character interactions to surface these details. As a result, Little Hope's central cast don't feel like three-dimensional characters. Some of them aren't even successful archetypes.
As you explore, you control your character's movement and flashlight beam as the camera frames them in old-school Resident Evil-style angles. This is one of my favorite quirks of Supermassive design; it's one of the few studios in modern mainstream games carrying the torch for fixed camera horror. But the fact that much of Little Hope takes place on a lonely road means that Supermassive doesn't have as much room to play around with point of view. Most of the time, Little Hope employs what amounts to a slightly zoomed out third-person perspective, which feels like a missed opportunity given Supermassive's talent for shot composition.
There are some positive changes, though. Little Hope seems far more technically sound than Man of Medan, and the story handles Supermassive's trademark branching paths more smoothly than ever as a result. While Man of Medan noticeably hitched at times as it attempted to bring everything together and, presumably, cycle between different versions of cutscenes depending on which members of your party were still alive, Little Hope feels like it's telling one seamless story. Little Hope genuinely nails the feeling that everything that is happening is authored. For example, in one scene that could play out with burgeoning couple Taylor and Daniel alone or with the pair accompanied by older nontraditional student Angela, Daniel says something to the effect of, "We'll both get out of this, you'll see." It works as is when it's Daniel and Taylor alone. But it becomes a character-building moment when Angela is present and, excluded from Daniel's "both," pointedly clears her throat. In this way, Little Hope manages to use the constraints inherent to its flexible narrative to do some good character work, even if that work is squandered in their overall development.
Additionally, the QTEs that define Supermassive's adrenaline-pumping approach to life-or-death action are at their best here. Instead of just popping up randomly, the timed button presses now appear first as a warning--smartly positioned on-screen to mirror the placement of the button on the controller--before you are required to press them. This doesn't remove the tension, but it does give you a better chance of succeeding without first spending multiple playthroughs learning the timing.
The Traits system, however, pushes the other direction. As you make decisions, the personality traits, like "Fearful" or "Reckless," are accentuated. If you make enough decisions leaning in one direction, a padlock symbol will appear next to that trait in your character profile, indicating that that trait is now an unchangeable part of your personality. I can explain it now, but it took me two full playthroughs to understand how this system works because none of this is explained upfront. This system, which is opaque and not tutorialized, has major consequences late in the game. But as you play, no context is given for the lock appearing next to the trait, and it's immensely frustrating to see a character's fate tied to a system the game didn't explain. Tying personality traits to a character's fate may make narrative sense, but it's presented in such a murky way that it results in certain late-game character deaths that feel completely out of your hands. While the UI has been improved to its best iteration in Little Hope, the Traits system ensures that shepherding your characters through the game is still a frustrating five-hour-long exercise in trial-and-error.
Still, despite its faults, Little Hope can't help but remind me of the reasons I love Supermassive's take on the modern narrative adventure game. The studio is masterful at producing tension through gameplay as simple as a well-timed button press, and Little Hope is a high-water mark for the studio's technical proficiency. While the story and character work are uncharacteristically lackluster, Little Hope still manages to offer a solid foundation for Supermassive's future.