Supermassive Games’ The Dark Pictures Anthology got off to a lukewarm start with 2019’s Man of Medan, a game which didn’t exactly set the world on fire, even if I enjoyed it well enough. Last year’s follow-up, Little Hope, was an improvement in just about every respect, taking the same basic framework and iterating on it where necessary to deliver one of the more pleasant surprises of 2020. Now the third entry in the anthology, House of Ashes, is here, bringing the series to the current generation of consoles with what is easily the most technically polished game in the franchise to date. But how does it fare when stacked up against its immediate predecessors?
The year is 2003, at the tail end of the United States’ invasion of Iraq conducted under the pretense of searching for weapons of mass destruction owned by Saddam Hussein. When a group of American soldiers, including estranged couple Rachel and Eric King and Marines Nick and Jason, are ambushed while on a sweep for a hidden weapons cache, they find themselves trapped in the crumbling ruins of an ancient Sumerian temple. Also caught up in the chaos is Salim, a member of Iraq’s Republican Guard who has become disillusioned with war. But the combatants are not alone: an ancient and inhuman evil has taken root in these ruins, and it’s hunting those that dare trespass on its lair. Whether or not the two sides can put aside their differences and survive the horrors within is up to you, the player, and the decisions you make along the way. At various points, we are whisked away to the repository of Pip Torrens’ Curator, the Crypt Keeper-esque host of the anthology who is as delightful as ever.
House of Ashes is noteworthy for its choice of setting. The game pays lip service to the futility of the search for WMDs in Iraq, the PTSD suffered by soldiers, and even references illegal munitions deployed by the United States (although the developers have stated that the game isn’t about war and politics, which I find slightly disingenuous). Not only is the game set against the backdrop of the ill-fated War on Terror, but the developers at Supermassive have drawn from Sumerian mythology and the rich history of the region to set the scene for this latest horror caper. In particular, the ancient Mesopotamian ruler Naram-Sin of Akkad and the mythical curse that supposedly laid low his empire plays a prominent role in the story. As with previous Dark Pictures titles, the horror movie influences on House of Ashes are apparent: most notably, the 2005 British horror film The Descent, as well as (surprisingly!) James Cameron’s Aliens.
It’s unfortunate, then, that most of the cast is flat and uninteresting. While Ashley Tisdale (High School Musical) provides a good performance as Rachel, I found the drama between her and her estranged husband Eric, as well as an ensuing love triangle with Nick, to be uninteresting and shallow. Jason and Salim fare somewhat better, as it’s possible for them to put aside their differences and find common ground in a way I found to be very endearing. There’s also an expansive supporting cast this time around, consisting of the remaining members of the American and Iraqi military units, but they don’t leave much of an impression. This might seem like a pithy complaint — it’s not like the previous Dark Pictures casts were full of nuance — but it compounds another issue I have with the game, which is that I didn’t find it to be all that scary.
Some of this has to do with the gameplay changes, which we’ll get into later, but personally I found that the shift in tone to being more action-oriented seemed at odds with the kind of slower-paced guided haunted house tours these games usually are. There’s no sense of build-up with the party being attacked right out of the gate, and while there are plenty of tense moments, the actual scares on display are weak. One of the things that’s so brilliant about The Descent is that it doesn’t become a creature feature until the midpoint of the movie, building tension through the characters’ sense of claustrophobia and isolation before introducing the more immediate threat of death by cave monster. Having the cave monsters show up from the outset for protracted shootouts and chase sequences is a very different kind of tension, and in my opinion, a less effective kind.
Gameplay-wise, House of Ashes will be very familiar to fans of Supermassive’s previous work, although the developer did make strides to iterate on the formula this time. Once again, players will take control of one of the playable characters and navigate through semi-linear environments, uncovering secrets and performing contextual quick-time events when appropriate. At certain points in the story, there are prompts to make decisions that can have lasting effects on future events and encourage players to replay the game to uncover the different branching paths. Major decisions made along the way are charted in a log accessible from the main menu, redesigned to more closely resemble the Butterfly Effect menu from Until Dawn. The lives of the cast, whether or not certain characters overcome their differences, and even the design of one of the monsters is affected by these choices, and finding all of the different outcomes is rewarding. From the outset, players can choose to play the game alone or cooperatively, either by passing the controller back and forth in Movie Night mode or online in Shared Story mode.
New to House of Ashes is its 360-degree rotating camera, which does away with the fixed camera angles of previous entries. The developers wanted to add an increased emphasis on exploration in this title. While the environments are still largely linear corridors, there are several instances where the player wanders around a more wide-open space to uncover a specific item. It is here that the majority of the game’s secrets and interactive objects are found. Some of those secrets are deviously well hidden and reward thorough exploration. Unfortunately, while this isn’t necessarily a bad change, I found it diluted the experience somewhat, as some of the clever perspective tricks that Until Dawn and Little Hope utilized are no longer present in House of Ashes. Difficulty settings have been added for those who have a hard time with the quick-time events or are looking for a more challenging experience. Players can also freely toggle their flashlight on and off when it was automatic in previous games. This is theoretically a nice addition, but considering how dark some areas are and that you’re never in danger of losing your light source from overuse, why would you bother switching it off? It’s a small but unnecessary change that ultimately works against House of Ashes.
Something in the game’s favor, however, is that it’s easily the best-looking Dark Pictures game thus far. House of Ashes is the first game in the series released for the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series consoles, and it looks the part: environments are lushly detailed and the impressive facial animation on each character looks better than ever. I encountered a bit of texture pop-in every so often, but that was the extent of my technical difficulties, a far cry from the constant stuttering and crashes I experienced in Man of Medan and Little Hope. The music is also appropriately cinematic, with returning composer Jason Graves putting in some good work.
All in all, House of Ashes is a solid new entry in The Dark Pictures Anthology. While I ultimately found it to be a less engaging and frightening experience than its immediate predecessor, it’s still an enjoyable adventure title with some impressive animation work on display. And while I wasn’t in love with some of the changes, I respect that Supermassive Games is listening to fan feedback and attempting to innovate with each successive title. We’re due for at least one more of these games, so I’ll be very curious to see what the Curator has in store for us next time.