Like some cruel twist of fate, The Dark Pictures Anthology games have always fallen short of the game that inspired the series, Until Dawn. Both Man of Medan and Little Hope offered plenty of thrills and scares but paled in comparison to the choose-your-own-adventure standard bearer Until Dawn. Can Supermassive Games step out from their own shadow with this third instalment in The Dark Pictures Anthology, House of Ashes.
This time around, action is primarily set under the Iraqi desert in 2003 as Coalition forces search for Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction. After receiving special “intel” of where these weapons could be being held, a team is sent out to investigate a secluded farm and find the entrance to the underground facility. Instead, an earthquake hits them and opens up various holes into the ground where they fall through.
What they then find is an ancient Akkadian temple over 4000 years old. In trying to get back out, the team quickly realises that they are not alone underground. As well as a few Republican Guard members that have fallen into the temple, something more frightening is also hunting them down.
Once again, there are five characters whose every decision is in your hands for the next four or so hours. They are Eric, Rachel, Jason, Nick and Salim. To make your decisions have a bit of extra weight, there are some really interesting dynamics going on within this group this time around. Rachel and Eric are married but going through a rough patch having not seen each other for a while. As a result, Rachel is having an affair with Nick. Salim on the other hand is a member of the Iraqi army in amongst the other four who are all American. You control these characters’ decisions and destinies in a way that The Dark Pictures Anthology does better than most; all of them can survive, all of them can die.
Some of the supporting cast share character models from previous Dark Pictures characters. Add to this the enigmatic Curator once again being present and the mystery and intrigue surrounding The Dark Pictures as an entity is definitely not lost in this new anthology entry.
For all these interesting group dynamics though, House of Ashes is a slow burner. There is a lot of time spent at the beginning introducing these dynamics before the group even gets to the temple. Then, once trapped in there, the group is left to fight their own fights for the most part, only really coming together for the third act.
This third act though is up there with some of the best moments in the entire anthology and Until Dawn so far. A new foe is introduced and the pace changes dramatically. Without giving too much away, the game takes a massive diversion and the bubbling undertones of science-fiction are brought to the forefront. Then just when you think your remaining characters are safe, the real finale offers one final opportunity to kill off everyone left standing.
It is during this third act that the ever-dependable Jason Graves soundtrack marks the change in pace and location. He is once again in charge of the soundtrack having done a stellar job in previous instalments, but this third act change of pace really brings it all together. Borrowing elements from Jerry Goldsmith and others, this science-fiction portion sounds as good as it plays.
Gameplay mechanics are tweaked in between instalments of The Dark Pictures, and House of Ashes is the most rounded one yet. Improvements first brought in during Little Hope such as a QTE warning are still present, along with difficulty levels, a flashlight button and a fully controllable camera brought in for House of Ashes. The result is the most ‘explorable’ Dark Pictures game to date. The Akkadian temple is full of branching corridors where exploration can mean the difference between life and death. The usual secrets are there again to help flesh out the story, with premonitions also returning to give you an insight into potential future events.
The horror in House of Ashes is vastly different from previous entries. There is far less of a reliance on jump scares – both a good and a bad thing – and maybe even horror in general. It is much more focused on action, as much as these interactive tales can be, and it feels at times you are playing through a new Aliens or Predator game; not traditionally horror films, but not completely devoid of it either.
If Man of Medan and Little Hope were survival horror games, House of Ashes is an action horror tale. And it’s this change-up that keeps The Dark Pictures Anthology series an exciting prospect; you might not enjoy one title as much, but you know the next one will be completely different again. And as usual, the next title – The Devil in Me – changes everything again. From that initial teaser, this looks to be a Saw-like setting for the season one finale; with traps and blood aplenty.
House of Ashes also marks the series’ debut on next-gen consoles, and this represents a marked improvement. The lighting in the temple plays a huge part and the effects from illuminating areas with the flashlight look sublime. Character models have improved across the board and the faster loading times have papered over the cracks that were present on previous gen titles. You do still sometimes get a slight pause or a brief look at a different scene before the correct one loads in, but these are a lot less frequent now. Even in Movie Night and Shared Story – multiplayer modes that make a welcome return – things feel improved across the board.
Speaking of, these multiplayer modes are still the best way to play The Dark Pictures titles. Shared Story in particular gives differing perspectives on events as you play simultaneously, and Movie Night is just the perfect horror experience with a small group of friends in the same room. House of Ashes is still great as a single-player game, but these titles are far more enjoyable when shared with others.
Despite the slow nature of the first half of House of Ashes, when it gets into its stride it is a homage to classic science-fiction action horror titles that will leave you on the edge of your seat. The scares may not be as obtrusive as the previous titles in the anthology, but this may then appeal to those that aren’t necessarily horror fanatics. The gameplay improvements are welcome, as are the character dynamics. They are definitely clichéd but give that little bit more wiggle room to role play these characters. For fans of the series, House of Ashes is a must-play. If you’ve yet to give The Dark Pictures Anthology a go, this is a great starting point.
Journey beneath the Iraqi desert in The Dark Pictures Anthology: House of Ashes on the Xbox Store