House of Ashes, the third game in Supermassive Games’ The Dark Pictures Anthology, is the best game the studio has released since the PS4 exclusive Until Dawn. The game released by Sony just hit all the right notes and was a huge surprise upon launch. House of Ashes suggests that the studio still has what it takes, but for whatever reasons, it still hasn’t gotten back to the level that allowed them to create a horror video game classic.
For me, the biggest problem with House of Ashes is related to what it apparently wants to be: a movie and a video game. This is a video game, but it is one of the least interactive I have played in a long time. It looks a lot like a 3D point-and-click adventure, with the occasional QTE or a cursor that you have to move to target an enemy. This is a game that anyone could play, which is something that can rarely be said, but because of this I found that it exceeds its runtime, which is true that it is already short.
As it is an easy game to use, and one that you are encouraged to play with friends, the horror story told here is far too long. Sure, Supermassive was keen to deliver a reasonable-length campaign, but as a video game, the basic mechanics just aren’t interesting for that game length. Cut it all down to a quick two hours, cutting out reflection scenes, and this could have been a brilliant interactive horror movie.
There are definite moments of excellence at House of Ashes. When given control of one of the five main playable characters in a more confined area, the camera chooses to hover over your shoulder, the game offers an atmosphere in abundance. It’s claustrophobic and uptight, and my brain immediately jumped to Aliens and The Descent, but here those moments are essentially glass-bottom boats where you travel from one encounter to another. At first they are scary, but once you have clicked that you are okay, the fear disappears.
There is no combat in House of Ashes other than a button-press QTE (tap Square to stab a monster) or an Operation Wolf in some console-style target shooting where you simply move your aim cursor loosely on the target and shoot within a time limit. By making the game highly accessible, almost every superbly crafted horror moment can never reach its potential.
I haven’t talked about the story yet, as it’s largely cliché, especially in the early stages. They tell you a backstory about an ancient terror that lives underground in a Sumerian temple. Fast-forward to the Iraq war and we come across a lot of war movie stereotypes that can only be shaped to a limited extent. Salim, an Iraqi soldier, stands out, the only non-American character that can be played. He has the saddest backstory and the most conflicting role in events, and more importantly, he doesn’t sound like an idiot.
There is the expected amount of tension between US Marines and Iraqi soldiers, but attempts to make everything feel less than Oorah seem a bit forced (the man is sad because he remembers killing an innocent civilian, the constant hammering of »The enemy of my enemy is my friend »). The game tries to touch on difficult subjects, even on September 11, but it is quite superficial. Some of the Marines redeem themselves a bit for the conclusion of the games, but it’s fair to say that the acting is better than the story being told.
House of Ashes, despite my problems with its duration and lack of playability, has a lot of good moments. Most of these are tied to hastily pressed on-screen button prompts, which can be easy to miss and have pretty dire consequences. These QTEs work fine, but they just aren’t backed up by enough horror due to the aforementioned danger-free gameplay sequences.
There’s also a big part of me that wants the tone to be a little lighter and dumber. This is a story that is taken too seriously. One of my favorite moments was late, a character heroically burst onto the scene with the phrase, “Hey, damn, I’ve got something for you!” It was perfect. It’s what I want from games like this. However, in terms of moments when “Americans start cheering at the movies,” this is the only one I remember happening.
There are many things that I like about House of Ashes. It can look great (but also a bit clunky at some points), the acting is great by far, and your actions (or lack of) can really impact the story. However, the element of the game is missing, which in turn makes the game sequences in which you have proper control end without scares. This is a fun time, especially if playing in a group or online with a friend, but I was more afraid of button prompts than monsters.
Disclaimer: Tested version: PS5. The publisher provided a copy of the game. Also available on PS4, Xbox One, Xbox Series X | S and PC.