Shaun Munro reviews The Dark Pictures Anthology: House of Ashes…
It’s not unkind to say that The Dark Pictures Anthology – Supermassive Games’ attempt to spin interactive horror game Until Dawn into a wider “universe” of stories – has proven itself a deflating enterprise so far.
Neither Man of Medan nor Little Hope got close to capturing their progenitor’s gonzo – if itself deeply flawed – sense of fun, and so it only made sense to expect similarly forgettable returns from the third title in the series, House of Ashes.
And though the latest bite-sized cinematic horror experience still bears most of the expected issues, it is at least a baby step in the right direction, while serving as a stunning show-piece for new-gen consoles (being the first game in the series to release on PS5 and Xbox Series X).
The stage is set with an ancient prologue in the Mesopotamian city of Akkad, rife with hints of curses and mysterious monsters, before we flash forward to 2003. During the Iraq War, a group of U.S. Army officers and CIA operatives are tasked with raiding an underground storage facility believed to be housing chemical weapons.
Inevitably things don’t go as expected, and both American and Iraqi soldiers end up falling into a secret underground Akkadian temple, which plays host to all manner of terrifying creatures and dangers. But of course, the real threat to each person’s survival just might be each other.
Despite its inevitable descent into supernatural hooey, it’s easy to respect the effort to make House of Ashes actually about something compared to its predecessors. The spectre of the Iraq War still looms large in reality, and so it’s refreshing to see a game engage with the destructive power of American imperialism and the PTSD it causes on all sides.
With the central survival horror story kickstarted by the dubiously motivated search for Saddam Hussein’s apparent stockpile of weapons of mass destruction – a search that proved infamously fruitless in real life – there’s a clear desire here not to fall into the trap of flag-waving jingoism present in so many military-themed games. Rather, it dovetails neatly into the more heightened, horror-with-a-capital H that soon enough abounds.
That the game’s various character choices allow players to choose how much they want them to be gung-ho caricatures is one of its smartest creative calls – and also that, unlike Little Hope, it doesn’t feel the urge to over-burden itself with silly, predictable plot twists.
That said, despite the admirable swing at nuance, there’s nothing here that’s majorly complex or clever; in fact it’s often laughably shallow and on-the-nose. Still, it has more on its mind than mere genre homage, and the effort is appreciated all the same.
The dialogue once again isn’t great, full of corny one-liners that some may find charming in their campiness, but when characters say things like, “We’re not so different, you and I” with a straight face, it’s hard not to feel like it’s at least a little bit lazy.
Gameplay-wise it’s totally par the course for the series; walking around, examining objects, taking part in Quick Time Event (QTE)-driven action, and occasionally suffering through heartbeat-steadying rhythm mini-games. Though this is appreciably the most action-packed game in the series, the core gameplay remains the weakest part of the package; it’s not terribly engaging and rarely justifies not being a mere cutscene.
The issues are myriad; floaty controls reminiscent of Red Dead Redemption 2‘s quest for awkward “realism,” poor collision detection with objects and other characters, and a frustratingly unwieldy camera that makes even surveying the environment a real chore.
QTEs are also often more annoying than fun on higher difficulties; several times taking a quick sip of a drink or scratching my head at the wrong moment caused an annoying failure. At least the game is forgiving enough not to kill characters off on the basis of one too-slow button press.
Like the previous games, the fact that you can’t move at more than a slow gait feels like a craven attempt to ensure players don’t speed through the game in record time. Speaking of which, House of Ashes is noticeably longer than the prior spin-off titles, running around 5-6 hours depending on your own meticulousness. To some this will be a welcome expansion, yet honestly neither the story nor gameplay are remarkable enough to warrant a larger canvas.
The biggest problem, though? It’s just not very scary or even much gory. Despite some solid atmosphere and a laudable lack of outright jump scares, the tone hews closer towards action-thriller than true horror, which is especially disappointing as it’s very clearly inspired by Neil Marshall’s classic 2005 horror film The Descent. Without giving anything away, the game’s primary enemies have been massively overdone in the horror sphere in recent years, and even their designs here feel utterly generic.
The minimal scare factor isn’t for the cast’s lack of trying, though; as CIA officer protagonist Rachel King, Ashley Tisdale may not be as typical or genre-friendly a pick as prior headliners Shawn Ashmore or Will Poulter, but she nevertheless renders Rachel as a likeable, easy-to-root-for hero.
Though the bulk of the characters are thin, fairly uninteresting sketches, the cast makes a strong effort to lend them shade and emotional authenticity regardless. It’s just a shame that a large chunk of the game is saddled with a gooey, time-devouring love triangle subplot involving Rachel.
House of Ashes is most diverting as a technical showcase for Supermassive and new-gen platforms; played in 4K HDR on PS5, the lighting detail throughout and ultra-faithful facial renders are simply mesmerising. Some graphical pop-in aside, it’s incredibly impressive, aided by gorgeous visual direction; the cinematography and camerawork truly evoke the vibe of a movie in ways the other prior Dark Pictures games didn’t quite nail.
The sound design is also terrific, from the sharp voice acting to the sound effects both ambient and ear-splitting, and Jason Graves’ moody musical score. It all adds up to a firm sense of atmosphere but again, not quite enough to make this truly scary. The scant use of the PS5’s fantastic DualSense controller to enhance the experience also feels like a massively missed opportunity.
Far more unfortunate, though, is the fact that the level design for the middle 50% of the game is a relatively dull array of near-copy-pasted temples and caves, lacking the ornate style that might make them interesting. It doesn’t help that you’ll occasionally need to play consecutive sequences where separate characters move through the same area.
The game begins and ends with more compelling locales – and there’s briefly a gorgeously hellish one in the middle – but the majority of the play-time is spent skulking around a scarcely distinguishable batch of tunnels and expanses.
Beyond the base solo adventure, the usual multiplayer accoutrements are on offer; “Shared Story” mode lets you play co-operatively with a friend, where certain scenes play out from different new perspectives for each player. Then there’s “Movie Night” mode, where up to five players can play pass-the-controller style, each taking the reins of a single character.
Though Supermassive once again hopes and expects players to get their money’s worth by playing through the story many times, as with Man of Medan and Little Hope it’s tough to imagine many wanting to spend upwards of 20+ hours playing through a fairly so-so campaign three or four times.
It’s a possibly-unpopular opinion, but I expect these games would be far more effective at half their length, whereby Supermassive could release a new one every six months instead. Taking what is fundamentally a cheesy horror movie concept barely worthy of a 100-minute film and bloating it out to the length of your average mini-series ultimately makes the end result feel rather exhausting.
That said, House of Ashes does just enough to deliver the basic goods for horror fans, marking a modest step forward for the underwhelming franchise.
+ Stunning graphics.
+ Terrific sound design.
+ Interesting themes.
+ Solid performances.
+ It’s the best Dark Pictures game so far.
– Repetitive environments.
– Mixed bag of characters.
– Ropey dialogue and plot.
– Wonky controls and camera.
– It’s way too long.
– Generic enemies.
Reviewed on PS5 (also available for PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X/S).
A review code was provided by the publisher.