Dark Pictures Anthology’s annual horror adventure game offerings have been medium at best, and House of Ashes, the third entry in the series, retains the status quo. While he has a cool antagonist and enjoyable moments, his scares and overall adventure lack the punch to make him a terrifying character.
If you’re new to the series, House of Ashes is essentially an interactive horror movie in which players watch lengthy cutscenes and press surprise buttons to perform split-second actions at any time. An inopportune press of a button can send a character to an early grave and go out of history forever. I always liked how this kept me engaged in scenes and made sure the controller never left my hands. However, this design can be frustrating for those who lack a quick trigger, which is why I love the new customization and accessibility options. Easy, Normal and Hard modes allow players of all skill levels to enjoy the story as slowly or intensely as they see fit. It’s great that you can also adjust how quickly prompts appear, their duration on the screen, and assign all interactions to the same button. House of Ashes does a great job of widening its doors to players who don’t possess Spider-Man-caliber reflexes or who want to soak up his story with less pressure involved.
Another great addition is the 360-degree camera control, which allows for a more liberating feeling of exploration. It makes searching for vital in-game information or premonitions of potential deaths feel more natural and made me want to dig deeper. However, it is annoying that the characters turn around like tanks and move slowly in general. A flashlight mechanic lets you illuminate areas at will at the expense of movement speed, but I’m disappointed that the game never takes advantage of this feature to use in its scares. Many areas have enough light that I kept mine off.
House of Ashes takes place in 2003 in Iraq and uses the controversial US war against the country as a backdrop to tell its story. While searching for Saddam Hussein’s alleged chemical weapons, a dysfunctional squad of US Marines and an Iraqi soldier are stranded together in an underground temple. Trapped, they must cooperate to survive a legion of ancient monsters lurking within. While you can find historical elements along the edges, the game largely avoids getting into a deeper political conversation outside of “war is bad” and “uniforms are just uniforms,” which I think is for the best. Ultimately, it serves to further the theme of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” and works in a superficial sense. I got the point without having to worry about Supermassive messing up its delicate subject matter.
If you expect House of Ashes to scare you, chances are you will be disappointed. While the creatures look great and are intimidating in design, I rarely found the game unsettling. House of Ashes feels more like a supernatural action thriller that constantly throws its assassins at players after a brief build-up while relying on a handful of predictable and ineffective scare jumps to scare them off. That said, once I gave in to what House of Ashes is chasing, a popcorn-chewing monster, I was amused and the story has enough intrigue and thrilling moments that it made me want to see the crew dive deeper into the belly of the beast. Unfortunately, it culminates in a disappointing reveal that flips the premise of these beasts and evaporates any remaining semblance of dread I had left.
The small cast of playable characters suffer from internal issues and interpersonal conflicts that stir the pot of drama, some of which feel silly. A love triangle between Rachel (played by Ashley Tisdale), her estranged husband, and her subordinate serves as the main conflict. It feels like a strange thing to unpack, given the circumstances. Faced with bloodthirsty and nearly invincible creatures, is this really the time to decide who you’d rather sleep with? It doesn’t go anywhere meaningful and makes the three lovebirds look like goofy people who don’t have much of a personality beyond their romantic adventures.
The missing Iraqi soldier Salim became my favorite character because of his understandable motivation to return home to his son and his ability to see the forest from the trees in terms of cooperation. Surprisingly, the bigoted “America # 1” Jason liked him too; I found his trauma sobering and Salim’s gradual acceptance, if cheesy, endearing nonetheless. Not all of these unfortunate souls may succeed, but strong performances across the board support them, and the game’s impressive graphical presentation remains the highlight.
House of Ashes never came close to terrifying or surprising me, but I still found it to be a respectable thriller that should be an entertaining night alone or with up to four friends passing the checkpoint. If you’ve enjoyed the Anthology up to this point, chances are you enjoy this too. But if you’ve been waiting for The Dark Pictures to reach the heights of Until Dawn, don’t get your hopes up for another year.