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Imagine yourself walking through a tunnel in the underground ruins of the ancient Sumerian Empire. The camera focuses tightly behind your back, adding to that sense of claustrophobia and dread as you clunkily move through the caverns. Suddenly, you hear the distinctive screams of famed High School Musical diva Sharpay Evans from ahead. You know you’re about to be met with a heart-pounding fight against some godforsaken terror that will be sure to test your quick-time event skills.
This is what it’s like to play every game in The Dark Pictures Anthology series, and its latest tale, House of Ashes, is no different. If, like me, you think Until Dawn was one of the most interesting games to have come out of the last generation of consoles and haven’t minded the growing pains Supermassive Games has had to try to anthologize the series, House of Ashes is its best work since Until Dawn in 2015. However, if you’ve become bored with the formula or never liked it in the first place, the latest story probably won’t change your mind.
In some ways, that’s the rub of this entire review. Supermassive hasn’t made any, well, massive changes to how its games play or look outside of new difficulty options. The facial capture is still mostly great, though sometimes the characters’ necks look like they’re made out of liquid. Environments look stunning at times while others will remind you that Supermassive is no longer working with a big budget from Sony. Movement is clunky even though we now have full control over the camera during exploration. The bulk of the gameplay in House of Ashes’ six-or-so-hour runtime comes down to making choices and performing different types of QTEs. It’s a formula that Supermassive has used to varying success over its last three Dark Pictures games, but in the right circumstances it still pays off.
Without going into spoilers, House of Ashes is very much a step up in storytelling compared to the previous two games in the Dark Pictures series. Both Man of Medan and Little Hope tried to subvert expectations in ways that never felt in the spirit of Until Dawn. House of Ashes swings the story pendulum back and ends with the prospects for an entirely new direction for the series. Following the reveals in Little Hope, I was left fascinated to see what the team would do next. That’s not because I’m continually chasing the excellence that is Until Dawn, but because the direction the franchise might take next is as interesting as The Dark Pictures Anthology has ever been.
I don’t want to oversell the story, though. There are still instances of weirdly stilted dialogue and certain aspects of the plot don’t really pay off in meaningful ways. Plus, the whole idea of a game set in the middle of the Iraq War with Marines going into a secret compound to search for Saddam’s biological weapons can be off putting knowing what we now know about how that particular conflict turned out.
There’s also some potential for character arcs to feel either unearned or heavily cliched. I mean, you can probably guess what might happen when a young Marine and an Iraqi soldier are forced to work together. It can, of course, change depending on your choices, but it never feels like Supermassive is breaking new ground with its character work. If anything, the characters continue to be the weakest part of The Dark Pictures Anthology, though the participants in House of Ashes are a small step up from what we’ve seen in Man of Medan and Little Hope, with Salim being the most notable.
What House of Ashes does do well is the same thing that made Until Dawn so special. Supermassive excels at building tension throughout its best moments, and it subtly uses the environment to help do that. For example, House of Ashes mostly takes place in an underground ruin. Think of films like The Descent for a solid reference point. In both that movie and this game, the creators use tight camera shots as the characters are sneaking through tunnels to add an extra sense of claustrophobia, which increases the scare factor. You never know what’s going to be around that next bend, and Supermassive is superb at mixing in both jump scares and other ways to keep you on your toes.
And for fans of the gory deaths that are seen so often in horror games, the new difficulty options make the QTEs even harder. You can, of course, turn things down to easy mode for a fun night with friends. On that note, we should mention that co-op is the best way to play these games. Whether in the same room via Movie Night or online, this is a fright that you’ll want to share. If you want to take things up a notch and really see some blood and guts, the tougher difficulty options will oblige. I mostly played on the middle difficulty (Challenging) and didn’t have too much trouble, but bumping things up to Lethal tested me – as it should.
The Dark Pictures Anthology: House of Ashes Screenshots
On top of everything else good about House of Ashes is a central mystery that’s a return to form for Supermassive. After two back-to-back middling endings with Man of Medan and Little Hope, this one nailed it for me. That isn’t to say it’s groundbreaking or guaranteed to blow your socks off, but it’s more in line with what many expected to see coming out of Until Dawn. Plus, again, the implications it has for the future of the franchise are beyond intriguing. Without spoiling much, it’s safe to say that I am as hyped as I’ve been for the series since Supermassive first announced it was making more horror games. If it can deliver on what it’s set up, we might be on the verge of The Dark Pictures Anthology becoming a force in horror games.