The Dark Pictures Anthology: House of Ashes
Developer: Supermassive Games
Publisher: Bandai Namco
Genre(s): Horror, Adventure
Platform: Xbox Series X (also available on Xbox One, PS4, PS5, and PC)
Age Rating: PEGI 18
Release Date: 22/10/21
A code was provided for review purposes
Supermassive Games is back again for yet another horror-filled adventure. When I reviewed Little Hope, their last game in The Dark Pictures Anthology, while I thought it was a good game and an improvement over Man of Medan, I still acknowledged that it would be a divisive entry for players, particularly the story. You can read my full review for that game here. But how does the newest entry, House of Ashes, fare compared to the rest?
Like previous games in the anthology, House of Ashes follows a new group of characters as they are thrown into terrifying and tense situations. By a combination of exploration, choices, and quick-time events, you’re tasked with guiding them through the adventure to safety (or purposefully to their deaths for the more heartless among you). Anyone and everyone can either survive or perish depending on your actions. That premise still manages to hold strong and draw you in.
An Explosive Start
The game begins thousands of years in the past. In the midst of a conflict between two warring sides, they’re besieged and slaughtered by unknown forces during a solar eclipse. Fast-forward to 2003 and the Iraq war, where we’re introduced to our group of protagonists. US Air Force Lt. Colonel Eric King, CIA Officer Rachel King, as well as two marines, Jason Kolcheck and Nick Kay. Then there’s Iraqi soldier, Lt, Salim Othman. After a briefing, the US forces are sent to investigate an Iraqi village where deadly weapons are supposedly being held. Soon after arrival, gunfire breaks out between the two sides, but tremors cause the ground to collapse, casting our characters into the depths below. It’s an action-packed first hour that easily sets the tone for the rest of the game.
Enemy of My Enemy
Waking up, they find themselves in sinister caverns and long-forgotten ruins. However, down below, the two sides must put away their differences and work together against an even greater threat lurking in the shadows. What follows is a thrilling and suspenseful escapade, as you navigate the protagonists through these ruins. With plenty of drama, twists, and revelations galore, it’s a story that’ll keep you on the edge of your seat. I also appreciated the more straightforward nature of the plot, as opposed to the psychological horror of the last two games. It makes the stakes much more real, and your connections to the characters and their plight more tangible by the end.
I will say that the overall tone of the game is on the more action-horror side. If Man of Medan and Little Hope are the original Alien film, House of Ashes is like James Cameron’s Aliens. There are still terrifying moments, but it leans towards action as opposed to straight-up horror. I personally loved the change-up, as it makes for an exciting adventure and suits the narrative well. Not only that, but the choice-based gameplay adds a level of variety and real player agency rarely seen. Depending on the choices made and success in QTEs, my experience could be vastly different from yours. The replayability continues to be a strong point for the series.
One of the most important factors to nail in these games is the characters. If they’re unlikeable, bland, or underdeveloped, then it’s hard to feel invested in what’s happening and sours the adventure. Luckily, House of Ashes gets this right, offering the best group of individuals in the anthology so far. They each have their own different personality, and the dynamics between them throughout the roughly 6-hour runtime make every moment interesting. I genuinely grew fond of every character by the end, where even Until Dawn didn’t manage that.
The added layer of mistrust and tension that comes from having characters from opposing sides is a brilliant choice. Seeing the interactions between them as they struggle and learn to trust one another in order to survive is an effective theme. The game really does do an excellent job at making you get attached to characters you might not have liked at first. I hated Jason in the beginning, but he ended up being one of my favourites. In my playthrough, seeing his growing friendship/camaraderie with Salim was brilliant. Given their initial hostile relationship, becoming a dynamic duo of sorts was a highlight of the entire experience. The character arcs for the most part are really well done. Also, Salim is the best character and MVP of the group by far.
Secrets and Clues Around Every Corner
A good chunk of your time is spent exploring the various areas, interacting with the environment, and finding secrets and documents. While the game plays out similarly to previous entries as a third-person adventure, there are changes. Gone are the fixed camera perspectives. Instead, you can much more freely move the camera around.
This has some benefits as well as drawbacks. It feels nice to be able to properly look around each location, and it can be helpful in creating a foreboding atmosphere in claustrophobic sections. However, this change also results in a loss of carefully curated scares that fixed-camera angles allow for. Not to mention that clunky movement can also be a detriment in some scenarios. One time I was blocked in a room by an accompanying character and had to spend 5 minutes struggling to push him out the way. While movement can be a bit sluggish, you’re not doing anything gameplay-wise for it to become a real issue.
Secrets, documents, and the like are scattered throughout the game. These provide information and clues both small and crucial to the world and history. From context about the ancient past to more recent events and people, these are often needed to have the best understanding and appreciation of the narrative House of Ashes has crafted. I highly recommend seeking out as many as you can find.
Actions Have Consequences
The choices and actions you make throughout the game form the main basis of the experience. The cutscenes feature various dialogue options for you to choose. From defiant responses, caring words, to even staying silent. You get so many chances to curate the story and characters to your desire. Whatever you pick, the relationship between people will be affected in a positive or negative way. This can lead to dialogue changes as well as potentially impact crucial moments down the line.
In most other games, I despise QTEs. The Dark Pictures Anthology is one of the only instances where these mechanics not only feel right at home but elevate the experience to a whole new level. You’re regularly bombarded with segments of gameplay that require you to quickly react and input different actions. From pressing correct buttons, both on their own and in time to a heartbeat, as well as aiming and shooting specific points (or not). It never fails to keep you incredibly on-edge, where a single mishap could potentially cause the death of a character. Not to mention that sometimes the best action is to do nothing. It’s brilliant, and it adds a good depth to the gameplay and story that’s so unique to the series.
House of Ashes also includes various difficulty and accessibility options for you to make use of. It’s quite extensive, where you can alter rapid button pressing to holding, remove time-out penalties, etc. In addition, you can also play the game in co-op mode, opening the game up to multiplayer mayhem where you could work together, or sabotage each other. The gameplay remains really well done and perfect for this blend of horror and branching narrative. The replay value is exceptional.
One thing that has stayed consistent throughout the series is the visual fidelity. It can quite often verge into photo-realism at times. In particular, the environments are full of graphical splendour. Early cavernous segments look especially striking, where the rocky terrain is partly illuminated by the breaching sunlight. This top-notch detail extends to character models, who are life-like in their expressions and features. Yes, it can sometimes look a bit awkward, but it’s the best implementation in the series yet. Playing on the Series X in the performance mode was brilliant. It still looks super sharp while also managing a mostly smooth 60fps.
I couldn’t talk about the visuals without mentioning the impeccable and unsettling creature design. The bat-like entities are dangerously sleek as well as pretty unsettling. House of Ashes does decently well to limit how much the player sees of them for a few hours. However, the more action-oriented style of this entry means that they do end up being shown too much once they are fully revealed. When this happens, they do lose some of that scare factor, so the gameplay itself is left to carry the tension and unease. But overall, the design is really quite something.
I feel as if Supermassive Games have once again come into their stride. While the first two games in the anthology were fairly divisive, House of Ashes is a definite step forward in most aspects. This horror adventure weaves together an intriguing plot, a great cast of characters, stunning visuals, and engaging gameplay into one, action-packed package. I really enjoyed my time with it, even though it wasn’t as frightening and ominous compared to prior games.
If House of Ashes and the teaser for The Devil in Me are anything to go by, it looks as if The Dark Pictures Anthology continues the upwards trajectory towards the excellent heights reached by Until Dawn in 2015.
4 out of 5
You can purchase House of Ashes from the Microsoft Store here.
You can find and read our reviews on OpenCritic.