Developer: Supermassive Games
Publisher: Bandai Namco
Platforms: Xbox One, Xbox Series X (Reviewed), PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, PC
Release Date: Available Now
Price: $29.99 USD – Available Here $54.95 AUD – Available Here
When Supermassive Games made their mark on the horror genre years ago with Until Dawn many wondered just what the company would have up their sleeves the next time around. Since then the company began an anthology series that has seen players survive terrors on the high seas in Man of Medan and navigate through the eerie town of Little Hope. This time around things are moving in a far different direction, in many different ways, as The Dark Pictures Anthology: House of Ashes proves that the developer is continuing to improve upon their craft with every release as this third release is easily the best of the anthology.
Following a mysterious prologue, the story begins in 2003 near the beginning of the Iraq War with the CIA searching for Saddam Hussein’s chemical weapons and various WMDs that the country was meant to be in possession of. New intel from a state-of-the-art satellite has pointed to what appears to be a series of tunnels and possible weapon silos located in the Zagros mountains deep in Iraqi tribal territory. With the inventor of the technology Lieutenant Colonel Eric King spearheading the mission alongside his estranged wife CIA agent Rachel King, as well as many US Marines including First Lieutenant Jason Kolcheck and Sergeant Nick Kay, the force sets out via helicopter to the remote region in an effort to find what may be hiding out there.
Shortly after arriving the group is ambushed by Iraqi soldiers including Lieutenant Salim Othman, managing to take out not only some of their support but triggering a massive earthquake that opens the ground beneath the forces, swallowing everyone deep below the sands into an ancient Mesopotamian temple once owned by self-proclaimed God-King of the Akkadians. While initially concerned about their own injured and potentially running into an enemy soldier in the winding tunnels beneath the earth, it quickly becomes clear that there is something far more dangerous lurking in these temple halls. With death possible around every bend, it will be up to the player’s choices to try and help bring these five souls back to the light.
Rather than focus more on a slow build-up of tension, House of Ashes harkens back to a more ambitious style that combines horror with plenty of action as well similar to film series such as Alien and Predator. Instead of placing mostly helpless characters in a horrific situation we find ourselves with heavily armed fully trained soldiers that are in way over their heads when they encounter something far more dangerous than just another human with a gun. Even at this point the type of horror tale that is spun from these encounters undergoes yet another twist that is far more shocking further down the line, making the game’s story incredibly interesting to experience especially if players can make it through alive.
As mentioned before, House of Ashes takes a very different approach to its scares as well as its story focus and ends up being the best in the anthology because of this. Without spoiling the events of the previous two entries, House of Ashes moves beyond the common element of those games and instead doesn’t beat around the bush when it comes to ratcheting up the stakes by offering the largest variety of deaths the series has seen so far while also introducing some quite early in the story. It is worth noting that there are over sixty different ways characters can meet their ends in the game though it is incredibly likely that players would have to actually be aiming to kill off a character in a certain way to meet some of the more interesting death conditions.
It also helps that while the threats around every corner feel like they truly have weight to them at almost every opportunity, the characters that players will be trying to keep alive are rather dynamic in their own rights. Players will find that the marines such as Nick struggle with their past actions during the war while even the hardcore soldier Jason can show a deeper part of himself if given the chance, especially with Salim. Salim, being an Iraqi soldier, is given a unique perspective on the soldiers’ fight for survival and it is here where one of the game’s main themes comes into play often, that the enemy of my enemy is my friend and that teaming up to survive is probably the best option for everyone. Even the relationship drama that plays out between Eric and Rachel is handled decently enough with players able to take their story down a variety of paths though some scenes do feel like they drag on a bit too long when their “heart to heart” conversations are happening while others are potentially dying.
Of course, whether or not things play out this way can be entirely up to the choices that players make throughout the game and whether or not certain characters can even make it through the game alive. This once again gives House of Ashes some incredible replay value, perhaps even more than Man of Medan, as playing through the title multiple times knowing the many secrets and twists that end up being revealed throughout the game really helps add some extra context to a number of earlier scenes and of course seeing how things play out differently should the player make different decisions.
For the most part The Dark Pictures Anthology: House of Ashes still handles the same way with players exploring environments, making timed dialogue decisions, executing quick time events to try and stay alive, and of course uncovering various secrets through the many items scattered throughout the game. The standard inclusion of pictures that give players a premonition, both good and bad, of a future event remains the same and the “keep calm” rhythm style events also return and can appear extremely frequently depending on if the player messes up certain scenes. It is nice to note that there are certain sequences implemented in House of Ashes where actually doing nothing or failing a possible quick time event can actually play an important role which is something that is often missing from games that give players such an opportunity in the past.
As similar as House of Ashes plays like past games in the anthology, it is also different. Players will now find that the game has done away entirely with fixed camera angles and instead places it almost directly behind the character they are controlling. This is a mostly welcome change, especially since a few puzzle segments require precise movement and many environments in House of Ashes tend to be rather tight. It is also worth noting that players will also have free control over when their character will have a flashlight or lighter drawn and aimed at various objects to see better, though players will generally almost always want to actually see what is going on.
While some more annoying elements remain unchanged, such as the inability to potentially fast-forward dialogue on previously seen scenes, House of Ashes has implemented a number of quality of life features including an element fans have long asked for, difficulty options. Players now have the choice of selecting from three different difficulty levels that will change how quick time events are handled. Normal will keep things like they always have while Easy can give those who want to enjoy the story or aren’t good at quick time events a better chance of seeing the story through with most of the characters alive. Of course, the harder difficulty option is always available as well for those who really want to test themselves though it does swing things sharply in favor of failure as a result. Along these difficulty options, accessibility options such as single button prompts, push instead of mash, and time limit removal are available as well giving players plenty of options and opening the game up for everyone to have a shot at enjoying it.
Visuals & Audio
With House of Ashes being the first game in the anthology to appear on the Xbox Series X the company has managed to take their already impressive work with character models to the next level. Facial animations are handled amazingly well with characters being incredibly detailed looking while the environments that players travel through aren’t too varied initially, things quickly become more interesting as the story progresses. It is worth noting that there are a few graphical hiccups here and there with some odd looking hair texturing being the most frequent but most of these are minimal
The voice work for the many characters that players will encounter throughout the game is handled incredibly well, especially in regards to the more unnatural noises belonging to the biggest threat in the title. It is also worth noting that while players may not be exploring a creepy haunted location like previous entries, House of Ashes still oozes atmosphere with some solid background noise to fit the areas players travel through.
It is becoming clear as Supermassive Games makes their way through The Dark Pictures Anthology that the company is listening to their audience as almost every entry has been an improvement over the last with House of Ashes surpassing both of the previous entries quite easily. While it may not be a classic take on horror and instead moves in a new direction from past games, this fresh storyline is filled with plenty of interesting twists and a solid cast of characters that players can’t help but try and pull for as they face down the mysteries beneath the sands. Between an improved storyline and fresh take on horror for the anthology and the many quality of life improvements made to the release, House of Ashes is an excellent take on the action horror genre and one that has dropped just in time for Halloween.
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