The Dark Pictures Anthology: House of Ashes (2021) Review
A prologue set in 2231 BC Akkad, an ancient Mesopotamian city, shows a civilization whose lands are plagued by famine and drought under the rule of a mad king obsessed with human sacrifice. After war comes an ancient curse is released and chaos descends upon Akkad as a horde of demonic entities are released and wreak havoc.
Cut to 2003 during the Iraq War. A team of US marines conduct a search for chemical weapons in a small Iranian village when they are ambushed by a squad of the Iraqi Republican Guard. After the ensuing firefight triggers an earthquake the team find themselves stranded among an underground maze of tunnels and ancient ruins of the same city in the prologue.
Almost immediately the team is stalked and hunted by the same entities that plagued ancient Akkad. American or Iraqi, the stranded must work together to survive these monstrous beasts and escape.
In typical Dark Pictures fashion, there are a total of five main playable characters (an additional two are playable in the short prologue). The dynamic between them works well and they are the most likable bunch of the series so far.
High-ranking soldiers Eric & Rachel King are estranged husband and wife that have teamed up for this mission after a year apart. Nick Kay is a shell-shocked marine whom Rachel has been having an affair with. Jason Kolcheck is a pragmatic army ranger trying to get everyone out safely. Salim Othman is a reluctant soldier of the Iraqi Republican Guard and part of the group that ambushes the marines in the beginning.
The specific actions characters take are decided by the player and their fate depends on the far-reaching decisions you make throughout the game. These feel natural and outcomes aren’t always easily discerned; it brings a great sense of tension and more so than in the previous entries of the anthology.
The monster design this time around combines biological elements of vampires, beasts, and demons. The creatures are hulking beings of flesh that dwell deep underground, using echolocation to navigate. Usually traveling in packs, they are agile hunters with a thirst for blood – somewhat similar to the Wendigo of Until Dawn. As usual, the artists at Supermassive have done a fantastic job with the design.
House of Ashes is one of the longer games in the Dark Pictures Anthology, being 7-8 hours in length. The pacing of the story is quite engaging and an aesthetic reminiscent of The Descent, Temple of Doom, and later on in the game, H.R. Giger (in a section where you learn the origins of the monsters) makes for interesting scenery.
There were a couple of nagging tech issues I experienced in House of Ashes leading to a couple of restarts. Twice my character’s movement refused to work; in one scene my character’s light disappeared so that I couldn’t see anything; in one of the most atmospheric sections of the game a graphical glitch put a dampener on it. The most frustrating issue I had, however, was with the camera. In any degree of narrow space (you’ll encounter a lot of these throughout the game) it is far too close to the character and quickly becomes an annoyance as you have to battle with it to progress.
The “gameplay” of House of Ashes follows the same as previous entries. You walk, you talk, you do the occasional quicktime event. For some reason I felt that the interactables here, such as documents and premonitions – quick, ambiguous clips of future scenes of the game that give the player an idea of how things can play out, were noticeably repetitive and time wasting; the whole process of having your character in front of a note or journal, having to hold down a button to slowly pick it up and another to flip it over gets annoying pretty quickly, especially when you watch the exact same ‘move the cup to the right’ or ‘pickup the book, flip it around, flip it back, and then open it’ animations.
I particularly like that a ‘>>>>>’ indicator over certain interactable signals a move to the next scene/area, allowing you to fully explore an area before moving on to the next story segment.
While I wouldn’t go so far as to say that House of Ashes is a horror game; it is much more of a supernatural thriller and works well in this regard, doing away with the over-used jumpscares in Man of Medan and the confusion and monotony of Little Hope.
With an interesting premise, a strong main cast of likable characters, and a visual style that is commendable, House of Ashes is the first and so far the only game in the Dark Pictures Anthology that I would highly recommend.