Release Date: Oct. 22, 2021
Developer: Supermassive Games
Platform: PlayStation 5 [Played], PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S, PC
When developer Supermassive Games released their horror classic “Until Dawn” in 2015, I don’t think anyone could have expected the success it found. A playable slasher film, where players’ choices would determine which characters made it “Until Dawn,” featuring rising stars like Rami Malek, it made a huge impression. Supermassive has been chasing that high ever since, with their horror anthology series “The Dark Pictures.” The first two entries, 2019’s “Man of Medan” and 2020’s “Little Hope,” were disappointments. This year’s “House of Ashes,” the third “Dark Pictures” game, doesn’t quite hit the highs of “Until Dawn,” but it definitely comes the closest, and is the best the “Dark Pictures” have to offer.
Set in 2003, during the Iraq War, “House of Ashes” follows a small team of soldiers, primarily from the United States, but also a couple of Iraqi soldiers who fall into an underground temple. The soldiers have to work to find a way back to the surface while contending with monsters lurking in the darkness and worse, their own personal conflicts.
The characters are the greatest improvement “House of Ashes” has over its predecessors. The leads in “Man of Medan” and “Little Hope” were unremarkable at best, grating at worst. The five playable characters in this game have interesting links to one another that get exploited for interesting drama, like a love triangle between the poster character, CIA agent Rachel King, who is played by Ashley Tisdale of “High School Musical” fame, and two of the other soldiers.
I think this interpersonal drama is the element that the games post-“Until Dawn” have been missing. When I think back on that game, I remember the characters and their fun interactions far more than I remember the serial killers and supernatural beasties. There’s a lot of heart in these characters, and it absolutely shines through.
When I heard that this game would be set during the Iraq War and that a central component of the plot would be the interactions of American and Iraqi soldiers, I was very nervous. I can still think of lots of ways that story could have turned out gross. I needn’t have worried, because this element was handled fairly well, and is actually one of my favorite parts of the game. Seeing the interactions and friendship slowly build between American soldier Jason and Iraqi soldier Salim over the course of the game, from reluctant allies to straight-up besties was great, and they became my favorite characters as a result. Of course, because of the decision-based nature of the game, some players may find their story ends very differently.
Like all of the playable horror films Supermassive has released in the last six years, decisions are the central element of the game. These games strive to be like movies, with cinematic camera angles, and impressive character animations and action sequences. Decisions come on screen very frequently, often with a timer, forcing the player to make tough choices with heavy consequences. All five playable characters will either survive or perish based on the player’s decisions.
The consequences of the decisions in this game feel more impactful than in a lot of others. Looking at the choices I made as well as digging a little into the alternate possibilities, I’m impressed how differently things could have played out. I already mentioned the emotional connection between Salim and Jason, but I saw more than one opportunity to ensure that had never happened.
Perhaps because of the ambition of the decisions in “House of Ashes,” or perhaps because of the difficulty of developing this game entirely during the pandemic, I noticed several rough edges in the implementation of the branching paths. Almost constantly I perceived awkward jump cuts where the game was stitching together dialogue to reflect my unique path through the game. This was noticeable, but ultimately minor, especially in relation to the quality of the rest of the storytelling.
Far more egregious was when I did lose one of my core five, and they received a fairly elaborate and impactful death scene, but then the game immediately cut away from it and none of the characters ever discussed the death of someone who had been extremely close to more than one of them. That character was never even mentioned again until the epilogue that addresses the fate of each character. It felt entirely dissonant to see that character and their relationships completely excised from the game without a trace.
Other elements of playing the game are also at their best here, new difficulty selectors for the quick-time events, where players have to push buttons as they flash on screen during moments of action or watch their character get hurt, are greatly appreciated. Some of the QTEs in previous games have been brutal, and I was quick to turn down the difficulty for people in my group who were less experienced. QTEs also come with an in-game warning, letting the player know to be ready, unlike previous entries where I would set the controller down to grab a bite of food only to see a button input flash on the screen. Players are also granted full control of the camera in all scenes for the first time. This was an appreciated change, but I hope to see some improvement in the next entry. I found it too easy to get turned around and lose track of where I was supposed to be going.
“Until Dawn” wasn’t necessarily designed for it, but it has always been for myself and others a party game. I’ve played through it with groups of people several times, voting on choices and passing the controller around. My first play through of the game was in the UAA dorms with a group of well over a dozen people, and we played the entire nine-hour game one Friday night.
Since then, Supermassive has built party modes into the games, like “Movie Night,” where up to five players can choose to control specific characters. This is a fun way to play the game and is how I played “House of Ashes” at a Halloween party last weekend. It’s fun when everyone is able to get invested in their own characters. This leads to fun moments such as one of my friends yelling at another for injuring her character. Unfortunately, the movie night experience Supermassive strives for has always stood in stark contrast with the length of the games. My party just couldn’t make it through a six-hour experience in one sitting, so I was the only member of the party who got to see the game’s conclusion.
Despite relatively minor issues, “House of Ashes” is a great horror experience. The monsters aren’t terribly intimidating, but the characters are plenty capable of carrying the story along. The action scenes were especially impressive, taking advantage of the casts’ military background, in stark contrast to the helpless college kids of Supermassive’s previous games.
I’d recommend “House of Ashes” to anyone looking for some light spooky vibes, especially if they can rope their friends into a different kind of scary movie night. I would still recommend “Until Dawn” to people first and foremost, but six years later, there’s finally a worthy follow-up for those looking for more.