The Dark Pictures Anthology’s latest entry, House of Ashes, has plenty going for it. It has cinematic flair, Hollywood talent (led by Ashley Tisdale), and an intriguing premise, given that it’s leveraging off the Akkadian Empire, which is one of the oldest empires we know of (it dissolved around 2,000 years before Jesus Christ). Antiquity that… old… is a happy hunting ground for horror. Unfortunately, it’s just not scary, and when you’re aiming at horror, that’s a bit of a problem.
At other times the game seems to be inspired by The Mummy (the good one, with Brendan Fraser going Tomb Raider, not whatever the heck that “reboot” was from a few years ago). Only it lacks the charm of a Fraser adventure. You do have a lot of control over the personalities of each of the characters in House of Ashes, and as with the previous titles in the series, dialogue choices do allow you to have them be flawed-but-close, right through to outright antagonistic to one another. However, “charming larrikin” is never one option, and in general, the cast are all trying a little too hard to take the script and make it meaningfully tense. I understand why they did that. In fact, the game’s opening chapter acts as a prologue from around 2,200 BC in which two characters that hated one another needed to try and band together to survive (get it? History repeats 4,000 years later!). But I never cared enough about the characters in this one to really connect with what it was driving at, and that’s perhaps another reason that I didn’t find the experience emotive enough to be horrified by it.
I think the biggest problem that House of Ashes faces, though, is that the gameplay doesn’t match with the theme this time around. The developers of the Dark Pictures Anthology have been committed to using the same gameplay structure across each title. That blend of third-person point-and-click exploration, QTE-heavy action sequences, and Telltale Games-style moral decision making worked like a charm for Man of Medan and Little Hope, but House of Ashes is a much more action-based game, and when you’re being asked to QTE your way around gun-fights, there’s a disconnect between activity and theme.
The problem is that the developers are asking us to see this as a visceral horror game. For all the time that you spend trying to save the marriage between Ashley Tisdale’s character and the other guy (I can’t remember either the actor or the character’s name), the focus of House of Ashes is the monsters springing out of the dark and tearing flesh as easily as paper. Like how Resident Evil works these days. Only here you’ve got slow-motion sequences where the monsters are suspended mid-air that you can use to carefully aim your gun. On the higher difficulty settings, the window for successfully gunning the monster down are smaller, but it’s still a jarring way to do big action. I hope we see more Dark Pictures titles into the future, but at this point, the developers need to understand that you can’t copy/paste one set of gameplay mechanics onto every narrative sub-genre of horror out there. The gameplay needs to better reflect the kind of horror that they’re trying to convey.
Otherwise House of Ashes offers a compelling narrative experience in much the same way that the other titles in the Dark Pictures Anthology has done. I love that it’s possible for everyone to survive (or die), and seemingly inconsequential decisions made during apparently innocent conversations can butterfly effect their way to life-or-death rammifications. The developers haven’t cheapened out on this either, as there are so many character traits and relationship scores to track that it can almost be overwhelming. Each game in the series is great to replay just to see the different directions the narrative can take.
I also love the setting. I am a history buff, and everyone knows that at this point. I can’t think of another game that is explicitly set in the ruins of the Akkadian Empire. I don’t think they did anywhere near enough with it, and while I acknowledge that it’s a horror game rather than a Samurai Warriors or Assassin’s Creed title I still would have liked to see something more done with it. It does feel like a bit of a missed opportunity to educate while entertaining. I didn’t come out of the game with any greater insights about Pazuzu (surely the region and era’s most famous creation) than I did going in. However, what is there is entertaining and certainly the developers have at least come up with some gorgeous locations for set pieces and characters.
One big feature that was trumpeted about House of Ashes was the greater freedom that you had to move around. Where previous Dark Pictures titles were restrictive in terms of camera, with House of Ashes you have a free camera and the ability to wander around. Because the bulk of the spaces aren’t that big not a lot is done with this, and when there is, the exploration element is wasted (no, looking for duct-tape to fix a power generator in a massive darkened hall is not fun). However, when it is at its best (for example you’re frantically scanning areas with a light for a pathway to safety while you can hear the monsters clicking around you), then having that freedom of movement and control bodes well for future titles in the series.
As one final note, I did experience a fair few bugs in the PlayStation 5 version of the game. It was nothing that crashed, corrupted, or otherwise ruined save data or forced a restart, but rather it was weird little quirks like characters jutting about, or a frequent one when, at the end of a cut scene or conversation, the character that you were controlling would randomly be facing in the opposite direction. Normally I don’t mention bugs, let alone when they’re this minor, but House of Ashes is trying hard to be cinematic and those minor disruptions to the mise-en-scene do significantly disrupt the experience. Even for me.
In flicking back through my notes on House of Ashes, I find that I have been more negative on it in this review than I remember feeling from my time playing it. It is a highly enjoyable experience and hard to put down. It might not be as spooky as I’d like from a horror game, and it might not play the way I think it should given the type of horror the developers were aiming for, but ultimately, holding the lives of a bunch of delinquent characters in my hands and deliberately letting them fall to their proverbial (or perhaps literal) deaths will never fail to be a (ghoulishly) good time.
– Matt S.
Find me on Twitter: @mattsainsb