For better or for worse, all projects put out by Supermassive Games will always be compared to their cult classic Until Dawn. As this review will show, The Dark Pictures Anthology: House of Ashes is as close as the studio gets to their magnum opus, although they do make a few stumbles along the way.
Released just in time for Halloween, House of Ashes is a choose-your-own-adventure style game that is light on gameplay and heavy on cinematics, but is nevertheless guaranteed to have you squirming in your seat. Like previous entries in the series, it presents a large cast of characters that are varied yet distinctive enough to remain memorable. Through the split-second decisions you make, you determine who will live and who will die. It is not always easy to determine what the outcome of your decisions will be, and making quick choices in stressful situations can lead to errors, but that is all part of the fun.
For many who are followers of Supermassive Games, The Dark Pictures Anthology has been a bit of a disappointment. House of Ashes is easily the strongest in the series, however. It polishes all the familiar elements of the series and, while it does not always get the balance between movie and game correct, it does not fail to remain entertaining throughout its runtime.
The Dark Pictures Anthology: House of Ashes was released on the 22nd of October 2021. It is available on PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S, and PC.
Story – All Is Fair in Love and War
House of Ashes begins as a military tale set in 2003. A group of American troops in Iraq is searching for Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction. They believe that their cause is righteous, but there are many moments that bring moral greyness to their actions. The game is not afraid to explore these moral dilemmas, and it is not difficult to see how the scenarios presented parallel real-world geopolitical situations.
Grey areas come in the form of the interrogation methods used by the Americans, the innocent victims of the war on terrorism, and the choice you’re given of whether to use white phosphorus on human enemies or not. Furthermore, while the Iraqi soldiers are meant to be your enemies, you will find yourself in several situations where you end up working together. Of course, the political commentary is not too intrusive, and you are always free to ignore it all and just settle in for some fun scares.
The game takes time to introduce you to the large cast. Most of them are endearing despite whatever personality flaws they might possess. Because of this, there is an almost instant desire to want to preserve all their lives at all costs. Leading the team is Lieutenant Eric King, a cocky yet effective man. His fellow soldiers include Nick and Jason. Mixed into this tale of war is a romance plot thanks to the appearance of Rachel King, who has a complicated relationship with Eric. At certain points of the game, the player is also given control of Salim, an Iraqi soldier.
What is meant to be a dangerous yet straightforward mission goes awry when the ground crumbles, plunging the American troops and the Iraqi soldiers into underground caves filled with ancient architecture. Things seem dire enough, but they soon realize that they are not trapped underground alone. Slowly, they discover they are being stalked by creatures that look like they flew straight out of hell.
There are heavy mythological influences present. Mentions are made to the Mesopotamian demon Pazuzu, who some will recognize from 1973’s The Exorcist. The temple which the characters find themselves is featured in a myth where it is destroyed to stop the wrath of the god Enlil.
Thanks to an engaging cast, a claustrophobic setting, and some genuinely frightening enemies, House of Ashes presents a story that is as engaging as a good B-movie horror film.
Gameplay – Simply Serviceable
Anyone who has had experience with prior Supermassive Games will find very little new with House of Ashes. The most noticeable difference is the addition of difficulty levels which mainly affect the speed of the Quicktime Events (QTEs) which make up the bulk of the gameplay.
QTEs come fast and unexpectedly. They certainly add to the suspense of the game, especially when a simple press of a wrong button can mean the death of a beloved character. Unfortunately, they are also used very sparingly. Most of the game is not a game, it is a movie. That is what you should expect going into House of Ashes. However, while titles such as Until Dawn managed to get the game/movie balance correct by incorporating exploration and other elements that keep control in the player’s hands, this seems extremely reluctant to ever give you to the reigns.
It is within the gameplay that the vast majority of House of Ashes‘s flaws arise. Outside of QTEs, the game offers very minimal exploration. During this exploration, camera controls can be clunky, especially in narrow passageways. Unfortunately, the underground caves which you explore are filled with narrow passages.
There is also a disconnect between some of the gameplay elements and the plot. Throughout the game, there are collectibles. However, what these collectibles unlock is exceedingly complex and, outside of the premonitions, it seems to have no impact on the story. There are charts you can consult, but they do not erase much confusion.
None of these flaws are enough to make this a bad game. When it brings its scary moments, it certainly is terrifying. However, it is a game that is rough around the edges, and it does struggle to find that perfect balance between cinematics and gameplay.
Graphics and Audio – Movie Magic
While House of Ashes has a few missteps in the gameplay department, its graphics and audio are near flawless. It sets out with the highest cinematic ambitions, and it meets them exceedingly well.
The audio is crisp and impactful, especially during moments where it matters most. The echo of voices underground sounds realistic, and the banging of machine guns gets your adrenaline pumping. All the characters have impeccable voice acting, including Rachel who is voiced by Ashley Tisdale.
Visually, all the settings are incredibly detailed. As you explore the underground caves, you come across intricate Mesopotamian artifacts and statues that look stunningly realistic. Where the visuals truly stand out is with the demonic creatures which you face off against. Their scaly skin and sharp claws are rendered to perfection, making it impossible to not get a little nervous when they are around.
Occasionally, lip-synching can be a bit off, but that is just nit-picking. The real glaring issue is the black bars which are present to maintain a cinematic, widescreen perspective. With a screen with the right resolution, it may look great. However, for most displays, the black bars are just a distraction. Although this review was done using a PS5 version of House of Ashes, it is possible to remove these black bars on PC.
The Dark Pictures Anthology: House of Ashes was reviewed on PS5.