The Dark Pictures Anthology’s annual roster of horror-adventure games has been mediocre at best, and House of Ashes, the third installment in the series, maintains the status quo. While it has a cool opponent and enjoyable moments, the fears and overall adventure lacks the power to make it a terrifying climax.
If you’re new to the series, House of Ashes is essentially an interactive horror movie with players watching full-length movies and pressing surprise button prompts to perform split-second actions in the blink of an eye. An ill-timed button press can send a character to an early grave and out of the story for good. I always liked how this engaged me with scenes and made sure the controller never got out of my hands. However, this design can be frustrating for those who don’t have a quick trigger finger, which is why I love the new customization and accessibility options. Easy, Normal, and Hard modes allow players of all skill levels to relax or enjoy the story as much as they want. It’s great that you can also customize how quickly prompts appear, how long they appear on the screen, and you can assign all interactions to the same button. House of Ashes does a great job of broadening its doors to players who don’t have Spider-Man-caliber reflexes or want to absorb its story with less pressure.
Another great addition is the 360-degree camera controls, which makes for a more liberating sense of exploration. It makes searching for essential gameplay information or premonitions of possible deaths more natural and made me want to poke around more. It’s annoying, though, that characters turn around like tanks and move slowly in general. A flashlight mechanic allows you to illuminate areas at will at the expense of movement speed, but I’m disappointed that the game never uses this feature to be scared. Many areas have enough light that I kept mine off.
Set in 2003 in Iraq, House of Ashes uses the controversial United States’ war against the country as a backdrop to tell its story. While searching for Saddam Hussein’s alleged chemical weapons, a dysfunctional team of US Marines and an Iraqi soldier are stranded in an underground temple. They are trapped and must work together to survive a legion of ancient monsters that lurk. While you can find historical elements around the edges, the game largely avoids wading into a deeper political conversation beyond “war is bad” and “uniforms are just uniforms”, which I think is best. It ultimately serves to push the theme of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” and works in a superficial sense. I get the point without worrying about Supermassive messing up its sensitive topic.
If you’re hoping House of Ashes scares your pants, chances are you’ll be disappointed. While the creatures look great and have an intimidating design, I rarely found the game disturbing. House of Ashes feels more like a supernatural action thriller that, after a short build-up, continually fires its killers at players, relying on a handful of predictable, ineffective jump scares to startle them. That said, once I gave in to what House of Ashes is going for, a popcorn-munching monster romp, I had fun, and the story has enough intrigue and thrilling moments that made me want to see the crew dive deeper into the guts of it. the beast. Unfortunately, it culminates in a disappointing revelation that turns the premise of these beasts upside down, and it evaporated any semblance of residual fear I had left.
The small cast of playable characters struggle with internal issues and interpersonal conflicts that shake up the pot of drama, some of which feel silly. A love triangle between Rachel (played by Ashley Tisdale), her estranged husband, and her underling serves as the primary conflict. It feels like a weird thing to unpack, given the circumstances. In the face of bloodthirsty, almost invincible creatures, is this really the time to find out who you’d rather sleep with? It makes no sense and makes the three lovebirds look like dopes who don’t have much personality outside of their romantic affairs.
The late Iraqi soldier Salim became my favorite character because of his understandable motivation to return to his son and his ability to see the wood for the trees in terms of cooperation. Surprisingly, the intolerant “America #1” Jason grew up on me too; I found his sobering trauma and gradual acceptance of Salim, though cheesy, endearing, none the less. These hapless souls may not hit all of them, but strong performances across the board back them up, and the game’s impressive graphics remain a standout.
House of Ashes never came close to being terrifying or surprising, but I still thought it was a respectable thriller that should make for an entertaining evening alone or with up to four friends passing the controller. If you’ve enjoyed the Anthology thus far, you’ll probably get a kick out of this one too. But if you’ve been waiting for The Dark Pictures to reach the heights of Until Dawn, don’t hope for another year.