The Dark Pictures Anthology’s annual horror adventure game range has been mediocre at best, and House of Ashes, the third entry in the series, is maintaining the status quo. While it offers a cool antagonist and enjoyable moments, its horrors and overall adventure lacks the punch to make it a terrifying standout.
If you’re new to the series, House of Ashes is essentially an interactive horror film, where players watch long cinematic footage and press surprise button prompts to take split-second action. Pressing a button at an inopportune time can send a character to an early grave and out of history forever. I’ve always liked how this kept me busy in scenes and made sure the controller never leaves my hands. However, this design could be frustrating for those who don’t have a quick trigger finger, which is why I love the new customization and accessibility options. The Easy, Normal and Hard modes allow players of all skill levels to enjoy the story as leisurely or intensely as they see fit. It’s great that you can also customize how quickly prompts appear, how long they last on the screen, and assign all interactions to the same button. House of Ashes does a great job expanding its doors for players who lack Spider-Man reflexes or who want to take the story off with less pressure.
Another great addition is the 360 degree camera control that allows for a liberating sense of exploration. This made finding gameplay critical information or premonitions of possible death feel more natural and made me want to poke around more. However, it’s annoying that characters like tanks turn around and move slowly overall. A flashlight mechanic lets you light up areas however you want at the expense of movement speed, but I’m disappointed that the game never uses this feature for its horrors. Many areas have enough light that I turned mine off.
House of Ashes unfolds in Iraq in 2003, using the controversial United States war against the country as a backdrop to tell its story. A dysfunctional squad of US Marines and an Iraqi soldier stranded together in an underground temple in search of Saddam Hussein’s alleged chemical weapons. Trapped, they must work together to survive a legion of ancient monsters that lurk inside. While you can find historical elements on the margins, the game largely avoids getting into any deeper political conversation outside of “war is bad” and “uniforms are just uniforms,” which is for the best in my opinion. Ultimately, it serves to promote the topic of “The enemy of my enemy is my friend” and has a superficial effect. I got the point without worrying about Supermassive botching its sensitive subject.
If you hope House of Ashes will put your pants off, you will likely be disappointed. While the creatures look amazing and have an intimidating design, I rarely found the game unsettling. House of Ashes feels more like a supernatural action thriller that, after a short build, continually tosses its killers at players while relying on a handful of predictable, ineffective jump scares to scare them. That said, once I gave in to what House of Ashes is aiming for, a popcorn-eating monster frolic, I was having fun, and the story has enough intrigue and exciting moments to make me want to see the crew dig deeper of the beast. Unfortunately, it culminates in a disappointing reveal that turns the premise of these beasts on its head and has dissipated any semblance of remaining fear.
The small cast of playable characters suffer from internal problems and interpersonal conflicts that stir up 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. Unpacking feels strange under the circumstances. In the face of bloodthirsty, nearly invincible creatures, is this really the time to find out who you would rather sleep with? It doesn’t make any sense anywhere and makes the three lovebirds look like fools who don’t have much personality beyond their romantic affairs.
The late Iraqi soldier Salim became my favorite character because of his understandable motivation to return to his son’s home and his ability to see the forest from the trees in terms of collaboration. Surprisingly, the intolerant “America # 1” Jason grew up on me; I found his sobering trauma and gradual acceptance of Salim, despite the fact that he was cheesy and adorable. These unfortunate souls may not strike everyone, but strong performances across the board support them, and the game’s impressive graphical presentation remains a highlight.
House of Ashes was never terrifying or surprising to me, but I still found it to be a respectable thriller that should make for a fun night alone or with up to four friends at the controller. If you enjoyed the anthology by this point, you will likely be amazed 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.