The horror genre in gaming has become divided by the bloody and violent on the one side and the more sinister, which creates the feeling of angst and dread, on the other. From Alan Wake, to Outlast, from Phasmophobia to Resident Evil. All of these games cover a broad spectrum of the horror genre. But they all feel like a game. Until Dawn has been the only game that has been able to really capture the player and make them feel like they are truly in control of what is happening in front of them. Supermassive Games has made the Dark Pictures series into the choose-your-own-adventure game much like the books that were so popular when I was a kid. What made Until Dawn such a hit was how it used the horror B movie’s predictability and conventions and doubled down on the cheesiness. We all knew what was coming, but we still enjoyed it.
House of Ashes is the third outing in the Dark Pictures Anthology, while Man from Medan and Little Hope struck a chord with me personally, House of Ashes is a tremendously strong outing and easily the strongest in the series thus far. While Man from Medan focuses on a group of friends who get stuck on a ghost ship, and Little Hope has, you guessed it, a group of friends venturing around a haunted town drenched in witch trial horrors and ghosts, House of Ashes takes a greatly unused aspect in horror games, politics. Albeit American. Much like its predecessors and like I mentioned in the beginning, House of Ashes takes a more interactive story that focuses on creating an atmospheric and gripping storytelling experience, with you, the gamer making some crucial decisions, and some well-timed button mashing, to keep the multiple protagonists alive, or not…
House of Ashes plays off in Iraq, circa 2003 just after the US military has taken over Saddam Hussain’s mansion and possibly uncovered weapons of mass destruction. But, before this happens we are taken back to 2231 BC where we are briefly and quickly tasked to befriend an enemy as you have to hide and try and fight off ancient evil creatures that dwell in the temple in which you find yourself. As an epilogue, it is extremely brief and makes you feel slightly lost as to what is going on, but as you progress more and more of what you saw and heard during this introduction becomes eerily clear. The name of the chapter isn’t called ” The enemy of my enemy is my friend” for no reason…
The into was superb at drawing me in with a sense of “what happens next” but the next hour or so is less exciting and more about fleshing out the characters, although anyone who has watched any sort of period movie can see the painful military stereotypes in each of the characters. While all this does make you almost dislike every single character and therefore probably wish for a quick and grisly demise. This is being done on purpose.
The macho military stereotypes are quickly destroyed when the characters realize they are facing a horror that is not of this world. Some of the less likable characters die-off rather and those who do survive the initial slaughter, can, but won’t necessarily, survive long enough to redeem their character to the point where you might be rooting for them in the end.
While the merry band of soldiers, and their Iraqi counterpart, are fighting it out in a remote village, they are thrown into the belly of the beast, or should I say into the belly, with many beasts! Personal problems are quickly thrown by the wayside as the focus becomes staying alive rather than who slept with who, although this issue stays around while teammates are being turned inside out, literally.
House of Ashes delivers a great story and a frightful experience throughout its playtime. In many titles the fright factor drops off as you get used to seeing the scary monsters but House of Ashes does a fantastic job of keeping the suspense levels high while delivering great character progression and a very surprising and unexpected narrative arc which saw me dispising characters, in the beginning, to want them to survive!
As with the other titles in the series, or anthology, House of Ashes continues with a more of a dialogue selection having an impact on the game and less of a reaction and skill-type gameplay. What makes the game so captivating is not knowing how even the smallest of a decision can influence the outcome. More often than not, the decision does not have an influence on the story right away, but a kind word here could mean the difference between help and no help later.
QTE’s (quick time events) are still prevalent in House of Ashes whether it is ensuring you jump at the correct time or closing the door in time. There are some clever uses of QTE’s though with things like trying to control the heartbeat of the character in a particularly tense moment or copying the onscreen prompts to try and keep a characters’ pained screams to a minimum to not attract attention.
The QTEs are by no means perfect, yes they provide a sense of tension but some of them come too unexpectedly and vanish just as quickly. Often leading to a too drastic end result and feeling of unfairness.
Graphics and Sound
House of Ashes is a more playable movie than a game, and such as all great movies, it needs breathtaking cinematics and a stirring musical score. House of Ashes has both. While playing it on PC with setting cranked up to max did make it look absolutely breathtaking it is the score that truly gives House of Ashes that hair-raising feeling. The score works flawlessly with the frights that get thrown at you. Whether it’s the eerie drip of water, or a flutter of wings in the background, to the distant scream of a doomed friend, or the sudden scratch of nails of impending doom!
Graphically, House of Ashes is once again on par and looks splendid in 1440p with a setting cranked up. Dimly lit and extremely claustrophobic sets a terrifying scene to go along with the horrors you will encounter. The third-person perspective really accentuates the claustrophobia by pulling the camera in tight to the character, which does also create some troubles when trying to maneuver around tight objects. For the first time in the anthology, the camera can be freely moved which does encourage the player to explore more and this exploration is where you will find even more info through foreboding flashes of what might come, as well as manuscripts from explorers who had found the forsaken tombs.
Thanks to the splendid graphics, the evil that lives down under does present a seriously frightening picture when seen, the fear are amped up even more when they stay unseen. Seeing their shadows dance along the walls or catching a glimpse of them or the Curator, will have you sit up in your chair for certain. One of the very few blemishes in the House of Ashes is the character models and their facial expressions, especially the eyes. Yes, eyes are probably one of the tougher features to get 100% accurate but although Supermassive Games and Bandai Namco did such a spectacular job with the facial features, the odd occasion that they do seem wrong, it is painfully obvious. The characters have extreme amounts of facial details and the one occasion that the eyes of a character seemed to look in the wrong direction did take away a bit of the realism that the game does so well to portray.
House of Ashes is by far the best in the anthology at the moment. For the most part, the game was sublime, for someone like myself, who has played the previous games, I knew exactly what was coming and how many of the QTEs were going to work, for those who have not played any of the Dark Picture games, this might be a bit of a challenge. Another of the games’, and whole anthology’s main draw points is the captivating storytelling and the ability to replay the game to achieve a plethora of endings make it even more worth your while.
When Man from Medan, the first of the proposed eight games coming to the first anthology, it was a great idea that needed some polishing. House of Ashes crams amazing storytelling into 6-8 hours of tremendously well-polished bites of horror and suspense. House of Ashes is not perfect but as a story, it’s very close, as a game, it’s damn close with its constant refinement with each outing, I cannot wait for the next installment
Special thanks to Prima Interactive for the supply of the review content