Older Than Time, Madder Than Hell
HIGH A friendship for the ages.
LOW Trying to wrangle the camera when exploring a house.
WTF The whole last hour of the game.
Supermassive Games is at the absolute top of the interactive movie genre. Until Dawn was my game of the year in 2015, and other than a poor narrative choice in Little Hope, they haven’t disappointed me since. They’re on a roll and there’s no point in being coy here — House of Ashes is their best yet, delivering a tense action/horror story featuring the strongest plot, characters, and production values they’ve ever attempted.
Set in the late spring of 2003, House of Ashes follows a group of marines who travel into the rural mountains of Iraq looking for Saddam Hussein’s hidden chemical weapons. Instead of discovering a storage facility, they come across an ancient buried temple packed with hideous bat-monsters hungry for blood. Over the course of a single night, the marines are forced to get over their interpersonal animosity and team up with an Iraqi officer if they’re going to have a chance of surviving until the sun comes up.
House of Ashes‘ presentation is a big departure from previous entries in the series. Where they formerly used fixed camera angles to great cinematic effect, this time the developers have gone with a standard third-person viewpoint, allowing players to freely look around the map at their own pace. Despite being set mostly underground, HoA has some of the largest maps the developers have ever worked with, and this new camera system really lets players get a sense of the majesty and scale of the locations they’re exploring.
In the game’s first hour when players are moving through realistically-cramped houses, the camera has some real issues, but once the action moves underground, everything works perfectly. The developers have even taken into account how difficult it could be to find collectibles and interaction points without camera angles designed to call attention to them. By massively increasing the range at which points of interest gleam with light, they ensure any player willing to scour the maps will have no trouble finding all of the pickups detailing the story — and what a story they’ll find!
Drawing heavily from the works of H.P. Lovecraft, as well as a few other influences that would likely constitute spoilers, House of Ashes does an incredible job of gradually ramping up the tension over the five hours it takes to play the game.
Things start simply enough, with marines searching a small farming village for signs of military activity while holdout Iraqi forces prepare to ambush from above. An earthquake then carries them into the temple, where man vs. man turns into man vs. beast, and the player has to figure out who they can trust while trying to learn anything they can about the monsters in an effort to fight them off.
The plotting is fantastic, but House of Ashes’ biggest accomplishment is its character work. Not only do each of the five leads give great performances, the writers have managed to create interpersonal drama that doesn’t feel cliché or out of place. There’s marital stress between two characters, the marines are all trying to process a war crime they committed, and the Iraqi character, Salim, is simply trying to survive the last days of a war he wanted no part of.
They’re all fantastically-drawn characters, especially considering how much latitude the player has in molding their relationships with one another. By making the right dialogue choices, the player can bring characters closer together or push them further apart, and the state of those relationships will have huge impacts when situations start getting stressful. While the story may be fairly linear compared to the earlier entries in this series, there’s so much variation in how it plays out that someone would have to go through it a half-dozen times before they’d seen it all.
Mechanically, the action is built around a variety of quick-time events. Rather than offering dynamic difficulty that ramped up or down depending on how well someone played, House of Ashes offers three difficulty levels ranging from forgiving to lethal, and lets players decide whether they’re coming for the challenge or the story.
House of Ashes also offers the same robust multiplayer options as its predecessors, with Movie Night mode letting a group of players swap controllers on a couch as their characters’ turn comes up, while Shared Story mode lets people co-op the entire story online. This is perhaps the best use of Shared Story mode yet — since the characters are actively at each others’ throats (or even pointing guns at one another!) House of Ashes gives players the opportunity to actually play against one another. Backstabbing probably isn’t the best way to get out of these deadly subterranean tunnels alive, but it can make for a surprisingly entertaining experience.
Supermassive Games is responsible for the most compelling interactive movies around, and House of Ashes proves that the Dark Pictures Anthology is on solid footing after a divisive second entry. While it shares the same basic structure of the previous two games — a mismatched group explores an abandoned location, discovering the secrets of what happened there — it’s so wildly different in tone and theme that it feels nothing like the others. This was a big swing in a few different ways, and I’m glad to say that they knocked it out of the park.
Disclosures: This game is developed by Supermassive Games and published by Bandai/Namco. It is currently available on PC, PS4/5, XBO/S/X. This copy of the game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the PC. Approximately 10 hours of play were devoted to the singleplayer mode. The game was completed multiple times. Three Hours were spent in mutiplayer modes.
Parents: This was rated M by the ESRB, and it contains Blood and Gore, Drug Reference, Strong Language, Mild Sexual Themes, and Intense Violence. The second shot in the game is of a severed head, and it doesn’t get any less brutal from there. Keep kids far away from it. The drug reference just involves drugs being depicted in the most passive way possible, and the sexual themes are tame at best.
Colorblind Modes: There are no colorblind modes.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: I played almost the entire game without sound and encountered zero difficulties. All dialogue is subtitled, and players can resize subtitles to their comfort level. This game is fully accessible.
Remappable Controls: Yes, the game’s controls are remappable.