Until Dawn was a delightfully devilish video game take on slasher/horror films and demonstrated the power of telling an interactive story. Anchored by Rami Malek and Hayden Panettiere, it was a dazzling experience when it was released and proved that Supermassive Games were onto a winning formula.
Since the release of Until Dawn, two titles in The Dark Pictures Anthology have been released; Man of Medan and Little Hope. I’ve not had the opportunity to play through either game, though from reading a range of reviews, average seems the best to describe them.
So, when I received House of Ashes, I wasn’t exactly thrilled. Sure, I had loved Until Dawn, but I was worried about the law of diminishing returns. Thankfully, House of Ashes is excellent. I’m not sure it quite reaches the same heights as Until Dawn, but it’s certainly a worthy experience in its own right.
House of Ashes Review
House of Ashes is a story told across two time periods; 2250 BC and 2003. The opening scenes of House of Ashes are set during the final days of the Akkadian Empire. Cursed by the gods, God-King Naram-Sim has ordered human sacrifices to take place until the curse is lifted. Sadly, his madness and hubris are his undoing and the empire falls. These opening scenes introduce the lore and history of House of Ashes, give players a sense of the monstrosities they’re going to come up against and introduce the central themes of the story; namely recognising one’s true enemies and working with your enemies for the greater good.
Cut to 2003 and the dying days of the Iraq War. President Bush has declared “Mission Accomplished”, Sadam Hussein has been deposed and the Republican Guard is in disarray. In this chaos, a group of Americans are searching for WMDs. Colonel Eric King arrives and abruptly takes control of his estranged wife’s operation. CIA Agent Rachel (Ashley Tisdale) is none too pleased but goes along as she’s a good soldier and because Eric is promising to deliver the goods.
His thermal satellite system has detected an underground facility which can only mean a chemical weapons plant. Gearing up for a raid, the small group descends on the area only to be ambushed by a stray platoon of Republican Guard. During the battle, an earthquake opens the ground beneath the combatants and drops them into underground caverns. These caverns, it turns out, are connected to Naram-Sim’s temple seen during the intro.
Once dropped into the world below, the real fight for survival begins as Eric, Rachel, Marines Jason Kolcheck and Nick Kay and Republican Guard soldier Salim uncover a place of nightmares. Honestly, the less said about the plot, either during 2250 BC or 2003, the better. House of Ashes’ story is best experienced fresh, with as little foreknowledge as possible.
House of Ashes greatest asset and strength is its story. It cleverly plays with established horror and adventure tropes and will keep players guessing until the very end. I was sure I had a handle on what was actually happening multiple times as I played, only to have the rug pulled from under me. Supermassive Games has really stepped up their use of misdirection and human moments to push the narrative forwards while fleshing out the cast and making them seem like real people reacting realistically to what’s going on. Unfortunately, much of the cast isn’t up to the task.
I don’t buy Ashley Tisdale as a strong, hard arse CIA agent for one second and her wooden, stilted performance doesn’t do her character any favours. Alex Gravenstein as Eric sounds bored for the duration and while he’s a step above Tisdale and Gravenstein, Moe Jeudy-Lamour as Nick Kay is fairly unimpressive. Thankfully, both Paul Zinno as Kolcheck and Nick Tarabay as Salim Othman deliver great performances. Kolcheck and Othman are the beating heart of House of Ashes and give players somebody to root for.
The love triangle between Rachel, Eric and Nick is really just white noise and I could have done without the subplot altogether. What does work is the examination of the idea that the enemy of my enemy is my friend, the roles and duties of soldiers and loyalty to country versus helping your fellow man.
As with previous interactive movie games from Supermassive, players will spend most of their time watching events unfold. Interspersed throughout are QTEs, dialogue options and some minor exploration. QTEs are a love or hate affair for most players but they have their place in this genre. Supermassive has refined their use and, for the most part, they’re an engaging way to interact with what’s occurring on-screen. Accessibility options allow players to customise how QTEs occur, disable timers, restrict them all to one button and so on.
Dialogue options are split into head and heart. Head options are logical, thoughtful and unemotional, whereas heart options are the direct opposite. Whatever you choose will impact the cast’s attributes — assertive, aggressive, cautious etc — and will open up new options and branches as you proceed. The great thing about House of Ashes is that Supermassive has managed to well and truly hide where these branches are; aside from the most obvious and impactful repercussions. There are a huge number of branching paths and outcomes to explore, giving House of Ashes an enormous amount of replayability. Especially when you factor in the multiplayer modes, curated mode and more.
On occasions, House of Ashes will grant control to the player and you’ll be able to explore various locations, interact with objects, find secrets and the like. House of Ashes is the first game in the series to implement a controllable 3D camera and it works, most of the time. In tight, enclosed areas the camera creeps far too close up to the back of your character and you suddenly have no vision of your surroundings or where you’re going. It’s really frustrating and a real atmosphere killer to be fighting with the controls to be able to see where you’re going. Player agency is important but I almost wished for a fixed camera since it allows the developer greater control over a scene.
Thankfully, the camera is great for 90% of the game but the times it’s bad stick out like dogs bollocks.
House of Ashes tells a dark, terrifying and absolutely off-the-wall story that also absolutely nails some minor human moments. The poor performances from the majority of the cast threatens to derail everything but thanks to Kolcheck and Othman, things are saved from going south altogether.
The Dark Pictures Anthology continues to improve with each iteration and House of Ashes is a terrific experience in spite of its negative aspects. Fans of the series will dig it. Horror fans will dig it and even cinephiles should get a kick out of this developing and evolving take on the artform.
It’s certainly worth playing alone but the unbridled enjoyment that comes from playing with a group of friends is where it truly shines. Grab some popcorn, get some mates round and see how many of you survive House of Ashes…then, do it again.
House of Ashes was reviewed on PS5 using a digital code provided by Bandai Namco Australia.