Review: The Dark Pictures Anthology: House of Ashes is an experiment with a new horror formula gone wrong

Available Platforms
Genre

Horror , Narrative

Release Date

October 22, 2021

Developer

Supermassive Games

Publisher

Bandai Namco Entertainment

Author

Angelo M. D'Argenio

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An interactive drama where the player controls 5 characters who are trapped under an underground Mesopotamian temple during the 2003 Iraq War where they are stalked then hunted by monsters awoken by the chaos.

For this review of The Dark Pictures Anthology: House of Ashes, I sat down with four friends to play through the game in movie night mode. Before I even get into the review properly, here are some of the most memorable quotes from the night.

  • “I just want to do anything and it won’t let me do… ANYTHING!”
  • “I hate literally every single one of these characters. I’m rooting for the monsters.”
  • “This is like Aliens but bad.”
  • “How do you mess up a third-person camera in 2021?”
  • “We could be playing Back 4 Blood right now.”

A Halloween Tradition

It’s become a sort of tradition with my friends to get together around Halloween and play the latest Dark Pictures game. We’ve been doing it ever since Supermassive’s “prototype,” Until Dawn.

Going into House of Ashes, we all said that we would be very upset if the story was simply “spooky things happen but it turns out everyone is hallucinating” again, as was the case in Little Hope and Man of Medan the previous two entries in the series.

Well, House of Ashes was certainly different, but I can’t quite say it was for the better.

House of Ashes takes place during the Iraq war. A bunch of American soldiers are looking for chemical weapons, and a conflict causes them and an enemy Iraqi combatant to fall into an underground tomb to an ancient Sumerian king, filled with gargoyle-like vampires.

And that’s it.

The Formula Doesn’t Fit

As I said, this is very different from previous Dark Pictures games. Whereas Until Dawn, Man of Medan, and Little Hope all set themselves up as a sort of mystery, House of Ashes is more of a thriller. You see the monster face-to-face very early on. The danger is clear from the very beginning and the only question is, will you survive?

This is a bad use of the Dark Pictures formula.

The major gameplay loops of the Dark Pictures games involve exploration, quick-time events, and decision-making. In a mystery, these all work together. You explore to find clues, you make decisions to put you down different paths that reveal different information, and you participate in quick-time events to get through danger that stands in the way of figuring out the truth.

In a thriller, however, this same gameplay loop becomes frustrating. You don’t want to explore because you are trying to survive, you don’t want to make dialogue decisions because every conversation you have seems less important than surviving the vampire threat. The only bit of gameplay that seems to fit the tone is the quick-time events, and it’s a bad look when quick-time events are the high point of your game.

A Hate Worthy Cast

There is a laundry list of things that just don’t land in House of Ashes. The war setting feels really tone-deaf. It’s meant to bring about this message of needing to work together in order to survive, but it doesn’t at all understand the context of the Iraq war, and how it might work against that moral.

This is partly because the characters suffer from a bad case of “too dumb to live.” The four American characters are practically parodies of themselves, all of them extreme, jumpy, barely aware of their surroundings. Two of the characters are supposed to be married yet seem constantly surprised that the other has skills and interests. How the heck do you marry someone and not know they speak Arabic when your career literally revolves around military activity in Iraq!?

All of the Americans are just a parade of dumb decisions. Usually, Dark Pictures games allow the characters to only be as dumb as the person playing them, letting you walk into your own death traps and sign your own death warrants. While, yes, your actions still determine life or death in this game, you are often put in situations where every decision you can possibly make feels dumb. For a highly skilled military unit, all of these characters are prone to constant bickering, complete disorder, and generally acting like scared teenagers rather than elite soldiers.

Salim, the one Iraqi character, is easier to identify with. We actually see a bit of his backstory and can empathize with how he is stuck in a conflict he doesn’t want to be in, merely because it was how he provided for his son. Unfortunately, Salim is frequently bossed around by the other characters, including NPCs, robbing him of agency. He is also one of the smartest characters, being one of the first to understand how to kill the monsters, which only makes it more frustrating when he is disempowered.

A Broken Camera

The controls don’t help either. As always, characters move slowly and turn even slower. This worked decently well when the camera angles were fixed in prior entries like Little Hope and Man of Medan. It gave these games an old-school Resident Evil feel, where the slow movement was supposed to make you feel stuck and claustrophobic in predefined spaces.

Not here, House of Ashes boasts that it’s the first in the series to have a fully controllable camera… and its camera is one of the worst I have seen in a while. It controls very loosely. It frequently pulls in too tight to the character, making it impossible to see where you are going. A majority of the game takes place in the dark with only small flashlights to light your way, which means if you turn toward the camera suddenly you can’t see anything since your only light source is shining right in your face. It genuinely felt like we were fighting the camera more than we were fighting the monsters.

A Limp Twist

And then there are the monsters themselves. Look, cave-dwelling night monsters have worked before. Anyone who has seen The Descent can tell you that. The thing is, House of Ashes is horrible at building tension. These monsters never attack out of surprise. Monster encounters are always hugely telegraphed, which defuses the situation before it even happens.

While the game tries to build up a mystery surrounding these creatures, it fails spectacularly. There is.. sort of… a reveal at the end of the game. However, the reveal doesn’t mean anything. It comes out of left field and is hugely disappointing. You don’t get that satisfying “aha” moment that you got in all of the prior Dark Pictures games. In fact, my actual reaction was “Oh… that’s cool… I guess…”

Extras For No One

Finally, House of Ashes sports the most amount of extras of any Dark Pictures game yet. In fact, if you play through the game in single-player you can play through it again from different perspectives.

It’s not worth it.

Here’s the thing, being able to see the same story from another character’s perspective would be great… if the story was a mystery. But once again, this really isn’t a mystery. This is a thriller and in a thriller, playing from a different viewpoint doesn’t change much. Do you want to be “guy running from monster #1” or “guy running from monster #2?” It’s not that compelling of a choice.

There are a lot more accessibility options this time around, and that’s a relief. However, even when all of them were turned on, there were issues. The text is really hard to read on-screen at times, washed out by light backgrounds even when you turn on the color text and subtitle shading. Choice text is way too small, even when you turn the text all the way up.

One for the Bargain Bin

The big question here is, “Is House of Ashes fun?” I had my issues with Man of Medan and Little Hope, but in the end, despite their flaws, they were good for a decent B-movie spook and a night of laughs and scares with a few friends.

House of Ashes, on the other hand? It just didn’t produce the same laughs and scares. Two of my friends ended up literally falling asleep between their turns. Another began playing mobile games just to have something to do. We ended the night 2/3rds through the game, and when I asked if they wanted to come back and complete it, no one did. I had to finish the playthrough myself.

That’s really all you have to know about House of Ashes. It was an attempt as a new and experimental sort of storytelling for The Dark Pictures Anthology, but to be honest, it just didn’t work. It’s not enough to shake my faith in the whole anthology. I do like that it’s trying to experiment with new horror formulas. However, cave monster thriller just isn’t a winner.

No one would blame you for passing this one up.

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5

Mediocre

Pros

  • Lots of accessibility options
  • Lots of extras
  • Decent graphics on next-generation consoles

Cons

  • Bad tone management that is neither tense nor scary
  • Unlikeable characters
  • Poor use of Iraq War setting
  • Clunky controls for both character and camera