The Dark Pictures: House of Ashes Review
A change of pace for the adventure game series
Having something scary to watch or play in time for Halloween is probably a tradition for many. Following their breakthrough success with Until Dawn, Supermassive Games took this approach to heart and decided to put out a planned trilogy of horror adventure games, dubbed The Dark Pictures Anthology. Their first title, Man of Medan, had many familiar gameplay elements but the characters, story, and twist were underwhelming. The follow up, Little Hope, was an all-around better experience that made some slight gameplay tweaks, but remained very much in line with expectations. The latest chapter, House of Ashes, may feel familiar, but it takes the narrative in new directions and makes gameplay alterations that don't always work out.
House of Ashes follows a US coalition military team operating in Iraq. It's 2003, and the armed conflict in the region is only escalating. Lieutenant Colonel Eric King arrives at an unspecified base of operations and instructs the local squad that their mission is to travel to a site where possible chemical weapons are being stored underground. The outpost is led by his wife Rachel King, but the two haven't seen each other in over a year and the relationship is rocky. In fact, Rachel is unsure of her marriage, and is involved with a local marine named Nick Kay. Helping Rachel run the local base is First Lieutenant Jason Kolchek, a stout military man. Eric explains that his plan is to lead a small force into the area, find the underground facility that has been spotted by new military scanners, and make a breakthrough in this war.
Not everyone on the team is particularly enthusiastic with Eric taking over, or convinced that his plan will uncover any missiles. However, orders are orders, and the team get to the site where they find a tiny village and some armed Iraqi farmers. Unable to get any information out of them, nor find any entrances to underground facilities, the team is instead attacked by a small group of Iraqi soldiers who tracked the helicopter insertion. The gunfire, grenades, and two helicopters being shot down cause a seismic event as the ground beneath gives way, and the group falls into the caverns below. Here, they discover that the underground areas shown on scans were actually the ruins of an ancient civilization that was led by a mad ruler who did a lot of sacrificing. But more importantly, the team is separated and quickly attacked by some large unknown creatures lurking in the shadows. They will have to work together, and even join with an enemy, in the form of Salim Othman, an Iraqi soldier who got dragged down with them, in order to have any chance of getting back to the surface.
Although part of the Dark Pictures trilogy, just like the previous games, House of Ashes is a standalone entry. There is just one tenuous connection to the other titles, and it's more of a reference than anything you need to know about. However, the game does make a few dramatic changes to how it handles the narrative. While the first two games offered a tense atmosphere and eventually a big twist, this new chapter feels less like a horror game and more like an action adventure. This is supported by the fact that all involved are in the military, and thus it's not a scared group of survivors, but rather a group of fighters with guns. The first act has a quick pace as the team tries to find their bearings, and each other, while avoiding the deadly creatures that lurk all around them. The second act slows things down a bit and meanders about, and the final act lacks a twist – it instead jumps the shark. Nay, it leaps way over the shark, and takes the story into a direction of some kind of Hollywood blockbuster, rather than the tense personal horror that the previous games offered. If you've had concerns about how the twists and story of the previous games played out, rest assured that this is taken in an entirely different direction. It's not really any better, and is a huge cliché of its own, but it's a very drastic departure in tone at least.
While the story goes wild, and some of the writing is very bland, it is held together by a strong cast. Although Ashley Tisdale, as Rachel King, is probably the most famous name on the list, her performance does not stand out. It may be because her dialogue feels unevenly written, or perhaps because the actresses' voice acting doesn't seem convincing. She also has a rather strange look about her, and the facial animation just feels unpolished in parts. Her mocap and especially the eyes often appear to be "off", behaving strangely and adding an odd feel to the character. The only other female cast member, a minor role for Clare McConnell as Clarice Stokes, looks more lifelike and believable during her brief screentime. As such, Will Poulter's performance in Little Hope probably remains the series' best involvement of a well known actor.
The rest of the cast does better. Alex Gravenstein as Eric King plays a sometimes overbearing but flawed commander, and Moe Jeudy-Lamour as Nick Kay has the role of a military man with a soft heart, with the two men vying for the relationship with Rachel. Nick Tarabay as Salim Othman plays the good-natured soldier who can put the war above ground behind him in order to survive in the depths. But the strongest performance probably comes from Paul Zinno as Jason Kolchek, carrying the narrative on his shoulders and offering real character growth through strong dialogue, voice acting, and motion capture.
As the rest of the games in the anthology, House of Ashes is a third-person narrative adventure, where you take turns controlling the five characters, guide their choices and personalities, and try to get everyone out alive. The crux of the gameplay once again relies on player decisions during intense moments, quick time events where you must press buttons within a short time window, and small exploration areas where you can freely walk around and interact with some items. If you've played the previous games in the anthology, you will know exactly what to expect.
The major, binary choices seem to be relatively few in number, and don't offer many surprises as to their outcomes. The choices usually have near-term outcomes, but some also define how the characters feel towards each other, which may cause them to do certain things in the future where you have no control. Sure, Jason could be a boneheaded and impulsive when it comes to his relationship with Salim, or Rachel could betray others to save herself, but in general these negative choices end up biting you in the behind. Instead of the "compass" choice design of the past games that sometimes locked you out of decisions due to arbitrary character relationships, House of Ashes uses a cause-and-effect approach similar to Until Dawn instead, and is better for it. Although there are a couple of fake-outs and choices that play out somewhat unexpectedly, the general rule remains that a team that treats each other well will have the best chances of escape. All characters can die, which changes how future events play out and may doom the whole expedition – however, like the choices themselves, the number of character deaths caused by your decisions seem few.
The characters seem to face mortal danger more often during action sequences, where you'll have to partake in QTE events to run, dodge, and avoid hazards. You get a short window to press the correct button prompt, and sometimes may have to hold your breath. House of Ashes introduces a few new elements here, starting with a difficulty setting. The hard setting offers a very tight window and no warnings that a QTE is coming; while the easiest setting gives you a heads-up to be ready, and is generous with the timing. It's probably best to choose the lowest difficulty, because this is supposed to be a narrative adventure, not a reaction speed test. It simply feels uncomfortable, and detrimental to the experience, to sit through the long action sequences with your fingers clutching the controller, having no idea when the next prompt is coming.
The other new element to the QTEs is that they sometimes may lead to negative outcomes, so you may have to think while doing them. This new element isn’t used very often however, but one example would be trying to keep an injured teammate quiet as the monsters close in, and you may accidentally suffocate them in this intense situation. There are cues that you should stop, and we wish the game had a few more of these built-in choices for QTEs.
When not making choices or performing QTEs, you'll walk around some small explorable areas. As before, there are a few glowing items to interact with, such as collectibles and journal notes that reveal more story details. It turns out that our team is not the first to descend into these ruins, as a 1940's expedition was here before, and encountered the same creatures. You follow the research findings just as your own discoveries happen. This expedition has also left a lot behind – including weapons and power generators – which explains why the group isn't just running around the caves in total darkness. Still, the game certainly takes a few liberties with how much air and ambient light there is in these caves, over 100 feet underground and taking place into the evening/night hours. One new feature that seems to combat this is the ability to toggle a flashlight – hardly a huge gameplay breakthrough, but more of an added convenience.
You can freely walk around these small areas and pick up certain items, to inspect them. The collectibles and research journals are mostly for the narrative benefit, while carving tablets can once again show you premonitions of events that may happen in the future, and possibly give you hints on avoiding them. The feature added in Little Hope that clearly shows which item will make you leave the current area is still helpful. One new aspect is the fact that the game does away with the fixed camera angle during these exploration sections, and instead you're freely controlling the character like in a traditional third-person game. However, this change is detrimental to the experience, adding nothing of value and instead introducing annoyances. Many of the areas you walk through are extremely tight, which makes the camera unwieldy and awkward – plus the added fact that the game insists on a "cinematic aspect ratio", further limits your view. It also completely eliminates any opportunity for clever camera angles to setup reveals and jump scares.
You can play through House of Ashes on your own as usual, or you can partake in the multiplayer offerings. Like its predecessors, there's a Shared Story option that lets you tackle the adventure together with one friend online, or the Movie Night mode where you and up to five local players can each handle the actions of a particular character. Both modes are more suited to this game than the previous entries, due to its more action/adventure style, instead of being horror focused, which is typically lost when you’ve got a room full of people.
House of Ashes also marks the debut of the series on the new console generation, however the results are largely underwhelming. On PS5, the game doesn't take any advantage of the DualSense features, be that its built-in speakers, haptic feedback or force feedback triggers. And in fact it looks very much like a last-gen game, with inconsistent animation quality, underwhelming visual effects, poor quality textures and a lack of environment detail. Some of the scenes are awkwardly stitched together, trying to line up the outcomes of your choices, and it can look stiff. It's pretty much a straight port, and apart from 4K resolution and HDR support, there's not much here to showcase the power of the new consoles. It is not a full-priced game, of course, so there's some leeway to be given.
The Dark Pictures: House of Ashes is a game that makes a few notable changes, so if anything, you can't say that Supermassive Games are just copy and pasting their formula. Not all of these changes work – the new free roam camera is detrimental, and the cliché story, while certainly ending with a bang, won't sit well with fans hoping for consistency with the previous two games. However, the experience is still at least held together by a strong cast, some engaging choices and the option to reduce QTE difficulty for a better overall experience. As such, it nestles itself in the middle of the pack – not as good as Little Hope, but still a bit above Man of Medan. It's not a strong choice for a Halloween game of 2021 given its reduced reliance on horror, but fans of adventure games such as this should still enjoy the outing.