The Dark Pictures Anthology: House of Ashes review: As above, so below

The latest chapter in The Dark Pictures Anthology takes us below the surface for a haunting new story.

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The Dark Pictures Anthology was born out of the runaway success of Until Dawn, Supermassive Games’ 2015 choice-based horror game. Each entry in the franchise has brought new characters, new settings, and new scares. The third and latest installment in The Dark Pictures Anthology is House of Ashes, a story that channels claustrophobic horror. Though it certainly has its shortcomings, The Dark Pictures Anthology: House of Ashes is the best in the series thus far.

The descent

The Dark Pictures Anthology: House of Ashes is set in 2003, during the early days of the Iraq War. A team of United States soldiers are on a mission to locate and seize a weapons silo allegedly being operated by Sadam Hussein. When scouting the area, a gunfight breaks out, only to be broken up by an earthquake that sends both American and Iraqi forces tumbling below the surface.

At first, the characters are still concerned with discovering the weapons stache, as well as eliminating any hostile forces, but it’s soon discovered that the real danger in these underground tunnels is far from human.

Players bounce between five characters in House of Ashes: Rachel King, a C.I.A. Officer, as well as Nick Kay, Jason Kolchek, and Eric King, who are all members of the Marines sent on the mission. Lastly, there’s Salim Othman, an Iraqi soldier who’s looking to make it back to the surface alive and see his son.

As for the story itself, I found that House of Ashes really gets going after the characters have been thrust into this mysterious underground temple. The opening hour of the game is heavy in exposition, with a lot of characters outright telling you their backstories and relationships. That said, it’s understandable that there’s a bit of a rush to get details out, as the game only takes around 5 hours to complete.

The Dark Pictures Anthology: House of Ashes is inspired by movies like The Descent, where characters are trapped in a location and the viewer feels an overwhelming sense of claustrophobia. Supermassive Games captures this feeling quite well, and there’s several scenes that feel lifted straight out of a Hollywood film. There’s one particular scene with Rachel King that’s excellent at building up that feeling of dread, and was one of the standout moments for me.

Think on your feet

If you’ve played any of Supermassive Games’ interactive horror stories, then you’re aware that it’s gameplay is primarily made up of quick time events, where the player is prompted to press different buttons, and must do so within a small window of time in order to successfully execute an action. This is the case in House of Ashes as well, and I found myself a bit disappointed that there’s little innovation done to the system.

I’m a big fan of the way Supermassive implements quick time events into these games. In fact, I feel that the fear of not knowing what command is going to be thrown at you next just builds on the horror of the story itself. That said, I was expecting the system to take another leap, or at least have a new gimmick that felt exclusive to House of Ashes. There’s your standard button-mashing, aiming crosshairs, and maintaining a steady heartbeat, which we’ve seen before.

The creatures in House of Ashes use echolocation to see and target enemies. This was ripe for a new QTE mechanic that leaned further into the idea that you have to remain dead silent around such creatures.

In the same way that a lot of big horror franchises fall into common tropes, the Dark Pictures series has ironically begun to fall into its own. One of those tropes being the painful slowness in which every character moves. In most cases, it’s a casual walk, and it makes even the lightest level exploration feel like a chore. There were instances where I neglected to check out collectibles and clues for the sake of not having to retrace my steps across a long area and then come back. I’m convinced that you could beat this game in 2 hours if everybody could at least jog.

The butterfly effect

The butterfly effect has been a pillar of these games since Until Dawn, and it’s once again a standout in House of Ashes. There’s consequences to just about everything that players say and do, both large and small. With Bearings - which can be found in the menu - you can see all of your major decisions, as well as their direct consequence. Some consequences are felt immediately, some come back to bite (or benefit) you much later.

There was one instance where I had to quickly recall a (seemingly) small decision I had made earlier in the game. I guessed incorrectly, and a character died because of it. I felt just as guilty sitting in front of the screen as my character in-game felt.

I was impressed with just how many different directions the story could go in House of Ashes based on the decisions I made. Any of the five playable characters can die in a vast majority of ways, and the combination of who’s still alive, when, and where, leads to unique conversations and scenes.

Because of the nature of how it’s designed, House of Ashes is a game that you’ll need to play through at least a few times in order to get an idea of the full story. Those repeat playthroughs can be further varied by going through the Curator’s Cut, which allows you to play through sequences as different characters. It also adds scenes not seen in the Theatrical Cut of the game.

Of course, the story itself wouldn’t have a leg to stand on if it didn’t feature characters that were worth caring about. I found myself getting invested in the motivations of a lot of the characters, which I wasn’t expecting. I came into the game worried that it would want me to root for these characters because they’re American heroes taking out the bad guys, but it actually dives much further than that, in most cases.

I related to Nick and his diplomatic approach to situations. He was scarred by the realities of war long before he found himself fighting demonic creatures in a Sumerian Temple. Salim’s drive to make it home in order to see his son on his 18th birthday had me hellbent on making sure he made it out at whatever cost.

Just like in the movies

House of Ashes is incredibly cinematic in its presentation. What really improved the game’s visual identity is the fact that the developers have fixed one of the biggest long-running issues in the series - the camera. The camera is no longer fixed, and you can freely move it 360 degrees at all times. It allowed me to better explore areas while not feeling confined or restricted.

I thought that the performances in House of Ashes were really strong, but some of the dialogue structure made certain lines feel awkward and out of place. There were times in which I’d choose to respond to something with calm and caution, only for my character to fly off the handle minutes later. It’s one of the downfalls of having a game with so many potential dialogue options, it can’t all flow perfectly together.

I found that the sound design was really well-done, with the music and ambience helping to amplify that sense of dread that’s ever present over the story. The sounds also play into the scares, with music picking up to accompany a fast-paced sequence, or things getting totally quiet moments before a jump scare.

Until Dusk

The Dark Pictures Anthology: House of Ashes is another fun horror romp from Supermassive games. The game improves upon its predecessors by finally removing the fixed camera, and I found several of its characters to be endearing and worth caring for. Though it still falls into some of the same issues as past games in the franchise, The Dark Pictures Anthology: House of Ashes is worth playing if you’re a fan of the interactive horror/drama genre.


This review is based on a digital Steam code provided by the publisher. The Dark Pictures Anthology: House of Ashes launches on October 22 for Xbox, PlayStation, and PC.

News Editor

Donovan is a young journalist from Maryland, who likes to game. His oldest gaming memory is playing Pajama Sam on his mom's desktop during weekends. Pokémon Emerald, Halo 2, and the original Star Wars Battlefront 2 were some of the most influential titles in awakening his love for video games. After interning for Shacknews throughout college, Donovan graduated from Bowie State University in 2020 with a major in broadcast journalism and joined the team full-time. He is a huge Star Wars nerd and film fanatic that will talk with you about movies and games all day. You can follow him on twitter @Donimals_

Pros
  • Multiple directions and ends for the story
  • Endearing characters
  • 360 camera
  • Visually impressive
Cons
  • Characters walk painfully slow
  • Inconsistent dialogue
  • Lack of innovation with quick time events
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