House of Ashes is Supermassive Games’ newest title in the Dark Pictures Anthology, a series of interactive horror movies.
Where the previous titles featured ghost ships and haunted towns, House of Ashes heads in a more visceral and action-packed direction — the player takes control of a special forces team at the tail end of the 2003 invasion of Iraq who’s looking for chemical weapons in the Zagros mountains, but they find something more terrifying than they could have imagined.
Thanks to the courtesy of Bandai Namco and Supermassive Games, I had the chance to play the House of Ashes preview and, long story short, any hesitation I may have felt towards the game has been completely dispelled.
To give a bit of meta backstory about this specific title, there’s been a cloud hanging over House of Ashes in the Dark Pictures fan community because after two games in a row featuring monsters which were, in one way or another, figments of the main characters’ imaginations, people weren’t willing to take the developers’ word that HoA was going to feature actual beasts. However, every bit of promotion has shown more and more of the monsters, and this preview is no exception.
Of the demo’s six scenes, three give the player a chance to run away from, fight, and even kill monsters. At this point the conversation is definitively over — there are actual bat monsters filling the rough-hewn caves and sprawling temples, and they’re gorgeously designed.
Amazingly, though, the monsters aren’t the most impressive aspect of the demo. No, the thing that drew my attention was how great the storytelling was.
After an opening movie set up the first couple of chapters, I was dropped into the action as a marine trapped in an ancient tunnel system. After just a couple of minutes of looking around, I’d caught a few glimpses of strange creatures, reunited with a squadmate, and nearly suffocated a man to keep him from attracting unwanted attention. While I’m sure the developers have packed the most attention-grabbing sections into the demo, the action and character moments are undeniably great.
The demo also does a fantastic job of getting the player on board with the entire cast in a short amount of time — there are six chapters, giving the player the chance to walk in each character’s shoes at least once. There weren’t a ton of conversation scenes in the demo, but the writing I saw was top-notch. Each character gets a clearly-delineated starting worldview, which the player can then decide to change or stick with, via the series’ standard branching conversations. Whether it’s a married couple talking around the reasons for their separation or a 60-year-old audio tape of an archaeologist going Lovecraft-level insane, the scripting is some of the best we’ve seen from the series.
While the action hews closely to the series’ standard timed choices and QTEs, the exploration sequences are completely changed by the decision to give the player control over a third-person camera locked on their character. Now the player is free to search each area without the game’s engine directing them down a particular path.
This has enabled the developers to craft huge, open levels, which they’d always avoided doing in the past — likely because camera placement becomes a problem in rooms the size of football fields. With the camera locked to the player, on the other hand, there’s no limit to the kind of expansive locations they can allow the player to explore.
The only real drawback is while that fixed cameras can transition naturally into cutscenes, it’s a little jarring when control is stripped away from the player so that an action scene can start. It’s not a huge problem, but it feels awkward compared to the fully-cinematic feel that previous entries offered. On the plus side, the developers have massively increased the range at which important objects light up — it would otherwise be too easy for players to miss the clues that let them figure out what’s really going on in the lost caverns.
House of Ashes is poised to be the high point of the Dark Pictures series thanks to terrifying monsters, fantastic location, great characters, and action scenes as impressive as anything they’ve offered so far. I’ve said for years that Supermassive Games have been consistently raising the bar for interactive movies, and this proves they’ve done it again. Anyone who ever wanted to play Aliens meets The Descent (with a little bit of Enemy Mine thrown in) can count themselves lucky — this Halloween they’ll be able to do just that.
House of Ashes will be released on Xbox, PlayStation and PC platforms on October 22nd.