Being in the army must be terrifying enough without throwing ancient, underground monsters into the mix.
But that’s exactly where five active soldiers find themselves in House of Ashes, the latest instalment of Supermassive Games’ horror-flavoured Dark Pictures Anthology. Following on from Man of Medan and Little Hope, House of Ashes may be the best tale in the series yet, and for very good reason.
If you’ve played either of the previous Dark Pictures Anthology instalments, you’ll be immediately familiar with House of Ashes‘ presentation. The story is told by the curious and rather creepy Curator, a storyteller who single-handedly nails the unsettling atmosphere that many horror games never manage to achieve. But of course, it’s the yarn he weaves that provides the core experience of the game. Players take control of five characters, the fates of whom are directly in their hands. That’s right; the actions you take (or sometimes, don’t take) directly influence who lives and who dies.
This time, it seems trickier than ever to keep every character alive until the end. In both Man of Medan and Little Hope, it felt rather obvious what actions would lead to the demise of certain characters; simply being successful at every quick time event was usually enough to save everyone. That’s not the case here. There are instances where you need to actively oppose something that the game presents as your only option – i.e. refuse to do a quick time event in order to achieve a potential outcome. Other decisions you make matter too, and as a result House of Ashes has more player choice than the previous games. There are more ways for your characters to meet their demise than ever before, for example, and even if they do survive there are multiple outcomes for their fate.
There’s also more than a handful of very obvious quality of life improvements made here which sets House of Ashes apart from its predecessors. Most obviously, this is the first game with a native PS5 and Xbox Series X version, so it looks incredible when playing on that latest hardware. It’s also adopted a new 360-degree camera as opposed to the fixed, cinematic camera that Man of Medan and Little Hope championed. It doesn’t feel any less cinematic; instead, it’s designed to allow you to feel more in control and be closer to the action than before. For the most part it pays off. In tight areas it can be a little unwieldy and stiff to position exactly where you’d like, but it’s rarely an issue.
The Dark Pictures Anthology: House of Ashes‘ story takes a little while to get going because it firsts spends some time introducing you to the characters. There’s Rachel King, a CIA Field Officer and her estranged husband Eric King, a lieutenant colonel. Part of Rachel’s team is sergeant Nick Kay and first lieutenant Jason Kolchek. They’re all of the American army, but you’ll also take control of Salim Othman, a lieutenant of the Iraqi Ground Forces. Each character has their own personality traits, though you’ll be able to choose how to react in certain situations, highlighting or downplaying certain elements of their behaviour. The acting of each character is on point, and their facial animations are mostly excellent, so it’s easy to feel close to every member of the team – even if one or two of them have something of an abrasive personality.
As the game begins, then, you’ll see each character in their daily role as part of the army. For the American forces, that means planning to infiltrate an area where Eric believes the enemy is storing a hidden weapons cache. For Salim, that means getting pulled away from a rare day off to counter the American attack. Ultimately they all end up in the same place – and as gunfire and explosions disturb the ground below them, they end up falling into an ancient temple, long-hidden under the earth.
Survival ultimately means working together; whether Iraqi or American, it seems down there, there’s a much greater threat to them all than each other. House of Ashes wastes no time in introducing the horrifying creatures that lurk below. I won’t delve any deeper into the story, but after a slower start, the pace quickens and never lets up. It’ll take around six hours to complete, and almost every moment of that keeps you on the edge of your seat. As for how it ends – that would be telling. But if you found yourself as disappointed in Little Hope‘s twist ending as I did, House of Ashes will be very much a welcome surprise.
There are some excellent moments of true horror, brought about by slow-burning tension and placing the characters in mortal danger. Supermassive Games also isn’t shy to show us the monsters we’re facing off against; over the course of the game we’ll learn more about them, their threat becoming ever greater. There aren’t many jump scares here; rather, the dread and terror comes from the game’s incredible atmosphere. The underground temple, cavernous, dark and looming, is every bit as intriguing but frightening as it should be. Poking around in the dark, with only a small torch to light the way, is constantly tense and you’re never sure what’s going to be waiting for you around the corner.
Like the previous games in the series, House of Ashes can be played solo or in local or online co-op. The game’s ‘Movie Night mode’ allows for a controller to be passed around up to five players, each taking control of one or a number of the characters. It remains an excellent way to play, because just like an excellent horror movie, this game tells a story that’s worth sharing with friends.
House of Ashes is by far the best entry into The Dark Pictures Anthology yet. Supermassive Games has outdone itself in terms of visual design, storytelling and pacing, and the result is a game that’s absolutely dripping with foreboding atmosphere. The story, playing out over six thrilling hours, keeps you on the edge of your seat from start to finish – and with so many possible outcomes, chances are you’re going to want to jump straight back in. For horror fans, this is an absolute must-play.
The Dark Pictures Anthology: House of Ashes Review – GameSpew’s Score