The Dark Pictures Anthology: House of Ashes review - caught between a video game and a movie
A horror game for everyone, but at what cost?
House of Ashes, the third game in Supermassive Games' The Dark Pictures Anthology, is the best game the studio has released since PS4 exclusive Until Dawn. The Sony-published game just hit all the right notes and was a huge surprise on its release. House of Ashes suggests the studio still has what it takes, but for whatever reasons it's still not quite back to that level that enabled them to create a horror video game classic.
For me, House of Ashes' biggest problem is tied to what it seemingly wants to be: a movie and a video game. This is a video game, but it's one of the least interactive I've played in a long time. It feels a lot like a 3D point and click adventure, with the occasional QTE thrown in or a cursor you need to move to aim at an enemy. This is a game anyone could play, which is something you can rarely say, but because of this I found it rather outstays its admittedly already brief runtime.
As a user-friendly game, and one that you're encouraged to play with friends, the horror tale told here is too long. Supermassive was no doubt keen to deliver a campaign of reasonable length, but as a video game the basic mechanics simply aren't interesting for that length of game. Cut the whole thing down to a snappy two hours, trimming off scenes of reflection, and this might just have been a brilliant interactive horror movie.
There are definite moments of excellence in House of Ashes. When you are given control of one of the core five playable characters in a more confined area, the camera opting to hover over your shoulder, the game delivers atmosphere in spades. It's claustrophobic and tense, and my brain immediately jumped to Aliens and The Descent, but here those moments are essentially glass bottom boats you ride from one encounter to another. They are scary at first, but once you've clicked that you're fine, the fear is gone.
There's no combat in House of Ashes that isn't either in a button-pressing QTE (tap Square to stab a monster) or an Operation Wolf on a console-style bit of target shooting where you simply move the aiming cursor loosely over the target and hit fire within a time limit. In making the game highly accessible almost every moment of superbly crafted terror can never reach its potential.
I've not talked about the story yet as it's largely a bit cliche, especially in the opening stages. You're given some backstory about an ancient terror living underground in a Sumerian temple. Fast forward to the Iraq War and we get to meet a bunch of war movie stereotypes whom you can only shape a certain amount. Salim, an Iraqi soldier, the only non-US character who is playable, stands out. He's got the saddest backstory and the most conflicted role in events, and crucially doesn't come across like a jerk.
There is the expected amount of tension between the US marines and the Iraqi soldiers, but attempts to make the whole thing feel less Oorah comes across as a bit forced (Man is sad because he remembers killing an innocent civilian, the constant hammering home of "the enemy of my enemy is my friend"). The game tries to touch on difficult subjects, even 9/11, but it's rather surface level. Some of the marines redeem themselves a little by the games' conclusion, but it's fair to say that the acting is better than the story being told.
House of Ashes, despite my issues with its length and lack of gameplay, has plenty of good moments. Most of these are tied to hastily-pressed on-screen button prompts, which can be easy to miss and have pretty dire consequences. These QTEs work well, but they just aren't backed up by enough horror due to the aforementioned danger-free gameplay sequences.
There's also a large part of me that wishes the tone was a few notches lighter and more schlocky. This is a story that takes itself a little too seriously. One of my favourite moments came late on, a character bursting into the scene heroicly with the line: "Hey fuck face, I've got something for you!" It was perfect. It's what I want from games like this. Yet, in terms of "Americans start cheering in the cinema" moments, this is the only one I can recall happening.
There's a lot to like in House of Ashes. It can look great (but also a bit ropey at points), the acting is largely excellent, and your actions (or lack of) can really impact the story. Yet, the game element is lacking, which in turn makes the gameplay sequences where you're in proper control end up lacking in scares. This is a fun time, especially if played in a group or online with a friend, but I was more afraid of button prompts than the monsters.
Disclaimer: Version tested: PS5. A copy of the game was provided by the publisher. Also available on PS4, Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S, and PC.