We’ve definitely had better performances in previous games in The Dark Pictures Anthology, and there’s little memorable about the music or audio design, but it absolutely gets the job done.
House of Ashes can, at its best, look stunningly photorealistic, with great facial animations. However, it doesn’t always nail it, and those moments where it goes wrong can completely pull you out of the experience.
House of Ashes’ gameplay is more polished than the previous two games, giving players full camera control when exploring, and offering better pacing between decisions, action scenes, and cutscenes. However, there’s still not a whole lot of game here, and you’ll spend most of your time watching events play out.
A solid concept is let down by slightly subpar performances, dull writing, and a distinct lack of any actual scares for the majority of the runtime. At times, it can feel like a poor imitation of what Until Dawn did so well.
A list that will require you to play through multiple times. There are some fun references to other horror media in the names, but how much you enjoy this list will be directly related to how much you enjoy the game.
November 02, 2021
Three games into The Dark Pictures Anthology, and it’s clear that developer Supermassive Games, the studio behind 2015 breakout hit Until Dawn, is slowly beginning to iron out some of the wrinkles in its cinematic horror game formulae. Presentation is a bit slicker, gameplay is smoother, and the pacing is better. However, at its core, House of Ashes is built upon the same foundations as the previous two games in the series - Man of Medan and Little Hope - giving you five playable characters that you take control of in turn, making decisions and completing quick time events in order to keep them alive, against the odds.
And that’s sort of where the hook of these games lies. You’re playing as the director of a horror flick, as much as you are the characters, and keeping all five unwitting victims alive is as much about making common sense decisions, as it is fighting back against the tropes of the genre you’re stuck in. In this case, House of Ashes offers up its own unique twist on the classic vampire tale, and if you know how these things normally play out (sunlight, stakes, bloodsucking, etc) it's all the easier to fight back. The Dark Pictures hears you screaming “don’t go in the room!” at the screen, and actually listens, letting you push back against the expected results.
Whether or not you’ll want to save all five of your main cast is, however, another question entirely. Taking place during the Iraq War in 2003, you follow a US Special Forces team, as well as an unlucky Iraqi soldier, as they unwillingly descend into an underground Mesopotamian temple. Each character is painted as a complex, flawed individual, but the game doesn’t really give many of them room to grow. When a grown-ass man is squaring up against another guy over a girl, despite the fact that everyone is still being hunted by giant subterranean bat creatures, it's hard to have much sympathy for them at all.
These bat-winged monsters prove to be the main threat in House of Ashes, and the driving force behind the game’s horror. And they certainly prove effective, with their long, unsettling fingers slowly clawing their way around doors, creeping through the dark shadows, and hunting down anything with blood running through its veins. At first, the game is happy to keep these creatures obscured, and it's in these early moments that the action is promisingly scary. However, this doesn’t last long, and by the time you’ve seen the vampiric beasties in all their glory, a quarter of the way through the game, the horror all but dissipates in the cold light of day.
What light it is, though. With the game’s main monsters being deathly allergic to the sun’s UV rays, and the setting taking place in the Iraqi desert, light and dark play a prominent role in House of Ashes. Luckily, the game’s lighting is up to the job, and it often looks pretty stunning, especially on new-gen consoles. Characters’ faces, on the other hand, can be a bit hit and miss. Like Man of Medan and Little Hope before it, House of Ashes does have certain scenes that almost look photorealistic, but frequently characters will jerk their heads in strange directions, or seemingly stare into the distance with cold, dead eyes. This doesn’t happen most of the time, but thanks to the game’s pursuit of photorealism, the few instances it does occur are immersion breaking in the extreme.
If Man of Medan and Little Hope offered up a more Silent Hill-style brand of slow, creeping horror and foggy locales, then House of Ashes’ more action-oriented horror feels a lot more Resident Evil in its design. Playing as a band of soldiers, each character is armed to the teeth with assault weapons, and even if they prove somewhat ineffective against the game’s bothersome bats, it peels away the tension ever so slightly. And those bat designs feel like they could have been pulled straight out of one of Umbrella’s BOW labs. This focus on action results in a zippier pace to proceedings, which is welcome in some ways, but the scares have certainly gone AWOL.
Like the other games before it, House of Ashes is best enjoyed with a friend or four alongside you, whether you’re playing co-op online or passing the pad across the couch (and that musty beanbag you keep for when you’ve got more people round). With each player taking control of their own character or two, there’s more room for missed QTEs, mistaken decisions, and it makes for a good laugh. If House of Ashes was closer to feature film length, it would be perfect, but at 5-6 hours, it can be a tad too long to truly work as a pick-up-and-play couch co-op experience, especially with more casual players. The running time is also enough to dissuade secondary playthroughs, especially with most of the twists and turns out in the open, but there’s always that option if you want to try again in an attempt to save everyone - or no one.
The writing is mostly okay, if a little cliché at times, and the acting often comes across quite wooden, although it's not always clear if this is the fault of the actor, or the slightly shoddy animation. Ultimately, House of Ashes is an enjoyable romp set against the backdrop of subterranean vampires, but it's severely lacking in the scares that we’ve come to expect from Supermassive Games, and does very little to subvert expectations, or stand out in any meaningful way.