Platform: PC, PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S
Release Date: October 22, 2021
The Dark Pictures Anthology: House of Ashes is the latest fright-filled offering from Supermassive Games' ongoing series. For the uninitiated, House of Ashes follows 2020's Little Hope and 2019's Man of Medan as the third entry — of a planned eight — in a series of standalone horror games.
Like its predecessors, House of Ashes borrows heavily from the developer's 2015 breakout hit Until Dawn, essentially serving as an interactive horror film. Featuring multiple protagonists, all of whom can meet an untimely demise before the credits roll, the game favors atmosphere, storytelling and cinematics over traditional gameplay. It's not an entirely passive experience, though, as players can shape the story and (hopefully) keep the characters breathing. Regular choice-and-consequence dialogue exchanges, quick-time events and other split-second decisions could save a life – or snuff it out.
It's a risky-but-engaging formula that works especially well with the series' easily digestible, 6-8 hour slices of horror. It's also a template that's increasingly polished and refined with each new entry. While not without its flaws, manifested in both gameplay and storytelling, House of Ashes represents a noticeable improvement over earlier entries, as well as a promising template for where the franchise is headed. Read on for our full The Dark Pictures Anthology: House of Ashes review.
The Dark Pictures Anthology: House of Ashes review: Story
House of Ashes unfolds in Iraq, circa 2003, just after the U.S. military has sacked Saddam's palace on its quest to uncover weapons of mass destruction. As such, players find themselves in the boots of four American soldiers and one member of the Iraqi army. Unsurprisingly, they soon wind up facing something far scarier than any human threat.
Before we meet our modern-day marines, though, we're whisked way back to 2231 BC, where two enemies reluctantly work together to fend off an ancient, temple-dwelling evil that's relentlessly hunting them both. It's a brief, but effective prologue that foreshadows the story's monstrous threat, as well as the overarching theme of “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.”
While this flashback chilled my spine and pulled me in, the following hour or so of gameplay had the opposite effect. The forward jump to 2003 introduces the soldiers, explains their mission and generally spends too much time on frightless exposition. Worse than that: Many of the characters you meet come off as insufferable military stereotypes.
But there's a silver lining. While you might have trouble swallowing the cast's' sexist comments, mom jokes and other immature exchanges, you'll soon learn that the game makes them unlikable on purpose. The setup pays off in spades when their obnoxiousness and confidence crumbles in the face of an unfamiliar, not-of-this-world evil. Some of the more intolerable personalities die quick, gory deaths; those who survive longer — possibly until the end — are able to redeem themselves.
Aside from this brilliant subversion, the story also holds up better once the scares start in earnest. The squad begins their journey above ground, before a massive sinkhole delivers them into the literal belly of the beast. Once beneath the surface, the narrative pivots from personal problems and snarky banter to stark fear and a focus on staying alive. There are unfortunate exceptions, however, such as an awkward love triangle that continues to unfold even as the characters are being turned to pulp, as well as an occasionally too-casual reaction to the increasingly terrifying circumstances.
For the most part though, the story remains absorbing and appropriately tense throughout, especially when former adversaries begin cautiously aligning in an attempt to thwart their common enemy. In fact, the relationship that emerges between one of the (initially) most unlikable marines and a more amiable Iraqi soldier is among the game's best, most nuanced narrative arcs.
The Dark Pictures Anthology: House of Ashes review: Gameplay
In The Dark Pictures Anthology: House of Ashes, the story and its supporting relationships can become more or less interesting, as player decisions can have a huge impact on both. Early in the game, for example, I had to decide between sacrificing a female character or attempting to save her, potentially putting her estranged husband in danger. I chose the latter option and, while I didn't particularly care for either of these people, not knowing the outcome effectively nudged me to the edge of my seat.
Not every choice-and-consequence situation will set your heart racing. But even the more mundane, dialogue-based encounters make you feel like you're having some sort of impact, even if it's just annoying another character. Some exchanges also appear to have no immediate bearing, but will come back later to reward or punish you.
The game also tests your reflexes with a number of more traditional quick-time events (QTEs), which have you hammering specific buttons under a time restraint to perform an action. These can take the shape of thrilling chase sequences, where a single misstep can lead to an ugly fate, or more mindless, arbitrary tasks, such as opening doors. There's plenty of clever uses of the mechanic, such as spamming a button to keep someone from bleeding out, or quickly mimicking prompts to stifle a victim's pained screams before they draw unwanted attention.
The QTEs generally turn otherwise familiar-feeling cutscenes into pulse-pounding, interactive events, but they can breed occasional frustration and unfair outcomes. Some appear too quickly and vanish just as fast, leaving you with little time to react. They can also unfold so hastily that you may miss what impact – good or bad – you had on the sequence. Thankfully, one of the improvements House of Ashes has over its predecessors is varied difficulty settings, including an option that slows the pace of these blink-and-you'll-miss-them moments.
The bigger issue is the interactions that aren't properly introduced or tutorialized. Case in point: I made it halfway through the story before I figured out how to properly execute the shooting QTE. These less-intuitive interactions are thankfully the exception to the rule, as most do their part to further immerse you in the action. Still, a handful of potentially rewarding encounters fall flat due to this failure to properly teach certain mechanics.
The Dark Pictures Anthology: House of Ashes review: Graphics and sound
House of Ashes complements its “playable movie” formula with a polished visual presentation and a cinematic score. The latter works particularly well. Whether it's a subtle scare, a moment of ratcheting tension or a full-on, nightmare-conjuring horror, the music's always right in step. Excellent, ambient audio work also does its part, from the distant screams of your doomed friends to the scratching nails of an approaching beast.
The Dark Pictures Anthology's third entry is its prettiest yet, sporting immersive, atmospheric visuals that recall the subterranean horrors of modern-day genre classic The Descent. Dimly lit, claustrophobic environments work in sync with a pulled-in camera that creeps just behind your third-person protagonists. Some slow, clunky movement — especially in the tightest of environments — can be problematic, but the appropriately suffocating atmosphere typically outweighs these infrequent annoyances. A free-moving camera, new for this latest entry, also relieves some of the cumbersome navigation.
The game also makes great use of shadow and lighting tech, ensuring you feel compelled to push forward and explore every nook and cranny, even with the knowledge your next move could be your last. The game's ancient, evildoing creatures provide ample nightmare fodder when in full view, but they're actually far more frightening when they remain hidden. Seeing their twisted shadows reflected on a cave wall, or catching a fleeting glimpse of them out of the corner of your eye is always an unsettling treat, while seeing close-ups of their elongated fingers creeping around a corner is a horrifying highlight.
If the visuals falter at all, it's in the character models. Given the game's focus on storytelling and dialogue exchanges, you get lots of face time with these folks. They often border on photorealistic, featuring rich facial details and nuanced expressions. But because they frequently achieve this level of authenticity, it stands out even more when, for example, one of their necks appears oddly rubbery, or a dialogue exchange suddenly falls into uncanny valley territory.
The Dark Pictures Anthology: House of Ashes review: Verdict
House of Ashes is easily the best of the series' three entries. It successfully retains and refines the formula that Until Dawn established, while also building on previous Dark Pictures Anthology games.
The game isn't without its flaws, from its slow start and initially cringy characters, to some ill-explained mechanics. And, despite its improvements over the first two entries, it's not a drastic departure from a formula that favors storytelling over gameplay. The fact that you play as a well-armed military unit, but shoot enemies in an awkward QTE, speaks volumes about the series' priorities.
If you've happily had your pants scared off by any of Supermassive Games previous romps, or are intrigued by the idea of a playable, story-driven horror flick, House of Ashes serves as both a worthy new entry in the series, and a perfect entry point for first-timers.