Since it kicked off back in 2019, it’s fair to say that Supermassive’s The Dark Pictures Anthology has painted a pretty mixed picture so far. While both Man of Medan and Little Hope did plenty right, a combination of polarising endings, iffy performances (in more ways than one), and inconsistent pacing has left some horror fans a little cold. The Dark Pictures Anthology is more Ghost Stories than Creepshow so far, but can House of Ashes finally set the anthology down the right path?
I was invited to play a work-in-progress build of House of Ashes that offered roughly an hour of content as I spelunked my way around Sumerian myth that quickly became a reality. An hour ultimately isn’t quite enough time to make a call on a game where most of its quality becomes apparent over time with your choices shaping everything, but what I did experience felt quite familiar, for better or worse. If you’ve played the previous two games, you should be right at home from the off with House of Ashes.
You play as a rotating cast of characters, swapping to and fro with each passing scene, as you look to escape a Sumerian temple in Iraq in 2003. You mostly play as members of the American military, like the stereotypical Nick and Jason, but the perspective also shifts to Iraqi characters like Salim after both forces find themselves trapped following a firefight. They didn’t cross paths at all during my demo, though I can already see the potential hard choices in the game’s full release.
House of Ashes’ main characters, though, seem to be Eric and Rachel (played by Ashley Tisdale, no less), an ex-couple who split after the former suffered an accident. An interesting setup for sure (what’s scarier than being hunted by demons while trying to work through some issues with your ex?), but the writing, at least in the demo, didn’t convey much of a connection between the two. Perhaps it’s a result of social distancing, but it never felt like the two actors were with each other, their tone and delivery never being consistent with little chemistry or even tension between them. That may change in the full release, but I really struggled to get invested in their drama, especially when Eric asks about their relationship in the middle of a pitch black temple. Read the room/ancient grounds, bud.
In terms of how House of Ashes plays, the demo offered little variation from the Supermassive formula, save for the ability to aim and fire a gun in the middle of a QTE. It’s a pity that you’re so constrained and still feel a little helpless without much agency, though I recognise it’d be difficult to rip up the rulebook halfway through a series of annual releases. Still, if there’s one Dark Pictures game that could benefit from some light survival horror elements and slightly more involved gameplay, it’s probably the one where you’re getting attacked by monsters while playing as the military.
Aside from the customary QTEs, you’ll mostly be pottering about, looking at Sumerian bits and bobs, and making choices within conversations and action sequences. I actually played through the demo twice just to see how much you can change by selecting the complete opposite choices, and one stood out to me in particular. While playing as Nick on my first playthrough, I accidentally suffocated a fellow soldier by holding my hand over his mouth, just as I have been so conditioned to hit whatever prompt pops up on-screen. The next time, I didn’t press anything and the soldier survived — at least for a bit longer. I’m interested to see how many curveballs like this House of Ashes throws at you, how it subverts QTEs and reconditions you to not just hammer buttons because a prompt says you can.
While I can’t say I was blown away by House of Ashes based on what I played, I’m still looking forward to how the full experience fleshes things out as somehow who’s had decent, if at times a little patchy, fun with the previous two games. House of Ashes is definitely unnerving in spots with almost choking atmosphere to boot, as well as perhaps the anthology’s best visuals so far, but I’m still left wondering if it will be more than the sum(erian) of its parts this time out. Let’s hope so.
A Steam key was provided by PR for the purposes of this preview. House of Ashes launches October 22nd, 2021 for PC, PS4, PS5, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X | S.
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