Another Halloween season is upon us, which means many things. The air is getting chillier, the leaves are turning colors, and Spirit Halloween stores are taking over. It also means that it’s time for another chapter in The Dark Pictures Anthology. Supermassive Games’ horror anthology has brought fresh terrors to gamers over the last two years. After previously taking us on a doomed trip out to sea and to a haunted town, we are now headed deep underground for House of Ashes.
The year is 2003 and the Iraq War is coming to a close. Despite President Bush declaring Mission Accomplished, there is still much work to be done. Specifically, the chemical weapons the government claims Saddam Hussein is hoarding need to be tracked down. Thanks to the use of an advanced satellite program known as Caelus, though, the facility holding these weapons appears to be located. A Special Forces team, led by Colonel Eric King, is sent to secure the location. Since this is a story from The Dark Pictures Anthology, though, you know that what they will uncover will be more horrifying than any man-made weapon.
As with the previous entries, House of Ashes has players guiding a series of characters through the events of the game. For this expedition, you are given a party of four members of the Special Forces team, as well as one member of the Iraqi Ground Forces. Besides Eric, there is Field Officer Rachel King, who also happens to be Eric’s estranged partner, 1st Lieutenant Jason Kolchek, Sergeant Nick Kay, and Iraqi Lieutenant Salim Othman. There are other characters on both sides of the conflict who come into play, but these five are the core characters you are in charge of.
Let me just get this out of the way now: if you were annoyed with the rug-pulling that occurred at the end of both Man of Medan and Little Hope, you’ll be satisfied with how House of Ashes wraps up. That was my biggest fear coming into the game, and I was glad that Supermassive stuck the landing this time. Additionally, I think the studio has done a better job of defining its cast of characters. They do fall a bit into parody at times, but these characterizations do fit with both the time and setting. Lieutenant Kolcheck has been fighting this war since the start, so it makes sense that he views the citizens of Iraq with such disdain. Ultimately, the choices you make throughout the story will either lead to these stereotypes being shattered, or just further reinforced.
Although House of Ashes features the strongest characterization to date, it’s also the least scary entry in The Dark Pictures Anthology. The word from the studio is that they were inspired by films such as Aliens and The Descent, and you do see that. However, while those two iconic films were able to balance their capable leads with genuine frights, the action here overwhelms the scares. If anything, the title reminded me of something such as Overlord, which has some jolts but is more action than horror. As a whole, I do think the plot is stronger here than in the last two entries, but it lacks the scary thrills that the series previously excelled at.
House of Ashes doesn’t stray far from what The Dark Pictures Anthology has been doing gameplay-wise. Throughout the story, you’ll rotate from one character to another. While controlling these characters, you’ll need to make tough choices and answer some difficult questions. Typically you are given two choices, as well as the ability to say nothing. The biggest addition comes when you are exploring your environment — previously, you were forced to deal with a fixed camera, which wasn’t ideal, but was apt for a horror game. This time around, though, you are given full control over the camera, which lets you get a better look at where you are headed. Additionally, each character has a light source on them, whether it be through a light mounted to a rifle or a zippo lighter. The caveat is that in exchange for a guiding light, you’re slowed down a smidge.
Outside of that, the gameplay mostly consists of different kinds of quick-time events. You may need to hit a certain button in order to dodge an enemy attack, or you may need to keep your heart rate down by hitting buttons based on rhythm. What’s interesting about these events is that there are now times where failing an event may lead to a better outcome. There are also sequences where you may need to line up where you are firing a weapon. In order to foster a better atmosphere with a group, difficulty options have been added for these segments as well. It’s now even easier for less experienced gamers to get in on the fun.
As with all of Supermassive Games’ horror output, House of Ashes is best experienced with others. Whether you are choosing to play through the story online with a friend or sitting around the couch with them, having company amplifies the fun. Playing solo is still enjoyable, and I think it’s worth doing if only so you can find the numerous secrets buried within the cave. However, when going through it with friends, there’s a sick enjoyment that you can get from making it as difficult as possible to prevail. If anything, choosing to constantly make all the wrong choices fits right in with some horror movie protagonists.
Something that helps sell the improved writing for the characters is the mo-cap and voice acting provided by the actors behind each survivor. Playing through on the Xbox Series X, the visuals are consistently excellent. The character models look great, and they do a good job of conveying the emotion your choices may call for. Solid voice acting by Ashley Tisdale (Rachel), Nick Taraby (Salim), and Paul Zinno (Jason) are highlights in that department. And while you spent a lot of your time in musty old tombs, the various locales you explore look great as well. I don’t want to spoil how things end up, but the final main area you come across is particularly inspired.
Although it may not be as scary as previous entries, House of Ashes might just be the best entry in The Dark Pictures Anthology to date. The characters all have strong and well-defined personalities and feel more fleshed out than the crews from both Man of Medan and Little Hope. Additionally, Supermassive Games has finally crafted a solid ending to one of these tomes, which actually entices you to want to play through the story more than twice. Despite the locked-in production schedule of the franchise, it’s good to see that improvements are still being made from one iteration to the next. Hopefully, though, the studio will be able to find a better balance between horror and action for the next entry.
This review was based on the Xbox Series X version of the game. A copy was provided to us by Bandai Namco Entertainment.
Although it may lack the over-the-top thrills of previous entries, House of Ashes is perhaps the best entry in The Dark Pictures Anthology to date. The cast of characters is strong across the board, and the story boasts a satisfying conclusion previous titles struggled to provide.