Supermassive Games’ Until Dawn was a game-changer for the horror genre which had lost its way a little during the mid-2010s. Before Resident Evil 7 scared the genre back to life, Until Dawn did most of the heavy lifting. It was exciting, then, that Supermassive Games would announce an annual horror anthology series in The Dark Pictures, releasing new games in a franchise that has spanned three years so far. While previous entries Man of Medan and Little Hope failed to recapture that same lightning in a bottle of Until Dawn, the latest entry House of Ashes does this effortlessly and brilliantly.
Taking place in the early 2000s during the height of the Iraqi War, House of Ashes follows a group of US marines who become trapped in a strange underground temple when a sudden earthquake forces them into the dark. However, something malevolent lurks in the ruins that quickly hunts them one by one. Like previous games in the series, players assume the roles of five playable characters, each well-defined and fleshed out in nuanced ways. The star of the show may be Ashley Tisdale’s excellent performance as Rachel, but the true heart and soul of House of Ashes rests in its varied, damaged cast collectively.
House of Ashes could’ve easily spun an on-the-nose allegory about the horrors of war and its politically charged subject matter, but it wisely sidesteps these trappings in favour of creating a delectably old-fashioned monster story. The Dark Pictures has always excelled in its cinematic storytelling, and House of Ashes is no exception. In fact, it’s the most “cinematic” that the series has ever been, often feeling like I was actually playing a well-crafted movie or TV series.
This is a testament to Supermassive Games’ keen eye for cinema, drawing inspiration from every corner of the horror genre. Due to its setting, the most immediate comparison I can make is the classic horror movie The Descent crossed with The Exorcist, though I won’t go into any further detail for fear of spoilers. Let’s just say that like the fiendish twist of Until Dawn, the one in House of Ashes will catch you completely off-guard.
One significant improvement to House of Ashes is the ability to now freely control the camera with the right analogue stick. This made traversing environments and looking for collectables easier, as you’re often pinned in pitch-black darkness with the only available light source being your dwindling flashlight. Needless to say, Supermassive Games once again flexes their muscles at creating a truly palpable and terrifying atmosphere. The tight confines of the underground zones become a nightmare to explore in the best possible way. The free-moving camera was definitely needed in these instances because fixed camera angles would not have had the same impact.
Supermassive Games seemed to have addressed the biggest criticisms levelled at Man of Medan and Little Hope. The facial animations have seen a big improvement, though they can be prone to wonkiness now and then. For the most part, the characters are all well-animated and very believable, also thanks to the stellar voice acting across the board that helped humanize these soldiers. I found myself getting drawn into the story so much because of how well-acted and immersive it was, that I completely missed some sudden quick-time events. That said, QTEs are back but less intrusive and better utilized in House of Ashes to elevate many moments of sheer terror.
The real star of the show is House of Ashes‘ story. I’ve given the basic synopsis, but there’s a lot more happening beneath the surface that keeps you engaged and locked in throughout the experience. It’s easily the best story that the developers have conjured up since Until Dawn, with plenty of surprises and devilish twists that take the characters in interesting directions. While it doesn’t scale the heights of the horror genres best storytellers (like Silent Hill), there’s something disturbingly enthralling about how the events and revelations play out in House of Ashes that surpasses the narrative highs of its predecessors.
If you’re familiar with the gameplay in the previous Dark Pictures games, you’ll feel right at home with House of Ashes. You’re given five playable characters (though up to five players can take control of each character, making for an excellent party game), and switch between them at certain points in the story. There are plenty of collectables to find scattered around the dimly lit environments, but your main objective is, traditionally, keeping your whole squad alive through carefully orchestrated choices and actions. In a strange twist to the formula, failing QTEs in some scenarios might result in the correct choice, as completing them may result in a fatal error. This added a whole new level of tension to the game and kept me constantly guessing (and stressing) until the very end.
Dialogue choices now have more weight to them, and each decision can mean life or death for many characters. Man of Medan stumbled because it didn’t offer players varied choices and outcomes, but that has been improved tenfold in House of Ashes. Even as I completed my first playthrough with two characters alive, I still wanted to go back and find every missing note and retry every failed objective in the hopes of achieving different end results. The amount of branching outcomes is quite staggering for a Dark Pictures games, especially since previous entries often felt like they were holding your hand. You get no such assistance in House of Ashes, which is brilliant and probably not for the faint of heart.
Supermassive excel at creating superb atmospheres in their games, and dare I say, House of Ashes might be their best to date (yes, even better than Until Dawn). The backdrop of Iraq and its desert locations paints an ominous picture in stark contrast to the claustrophobic underground cave networks you’ll be exploring. There’s an otherworldly and demonic presence constantly oozing out of the screen, achieved through terrific use of lighting, eerie sound effects and some truly terrifying cutscenes. I’ve played my fair share of horror games enough that not much phases me anymore, but in House of Ashes, I found myself genuinely on edge at points. I cannot praise this aspect of the game enough.
My only real complaint (though minor) has to do with certain technical aspects of the game. On PS5, it runs flawlessly without any framerate dips or visual hiccups, but I did encounter the odd texture pop-in here and there. In a game that’s so polished in its visual presentation, these pop-ins stand out, though they weren’t frequent enough to break the immersion. Overall, House of Ashes is graphically stunning and easily the best-looking game in the series yet.
The Dark Pictures Anthology: House of Ashes Review
The Dark Pictures Anthology: House of Ashes is easily the best game in the series to date. Thanks to a likeable cast of fleshed-out characters, an immersive atmosphere drenched in evil and a gripping story with a sinister setting, it exceeds expectations and trumps the highs of Man of Medan, Little Hope and in some cases, even Until Dawn. It’s not a perfect horror experience and it should go without saying: if you didn’t like the last two Dark Pictures games, you probably won’t like House of Ashes either. However, fans are in for one hell of a treat.
This The Dark Pictures Anthology: House of Ashes review come from a retail copy we purchased.
Available On: PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S, PC | Reviewed On: PS5 | Release Date: 23 October | Price: R540