House of Ashes, the third game in The Dark Pictures Anthology from Supermassive Games, is the best game released by the studio since the PS4 exclusive until Dawn. The game released by Sony just hit all the right marks and was a huge surprise when it was released. House of Ashes suggests that the studio still has what it takes, but for some reason it still hasn’t quite returned to the level that allowed them to create a horror video game classic.
For me, House of Ashes’ biggest problem has to do with what it apparently wants to be: a movie and a video game. It’s a video game, but it’s one of the less interactive I’ve played in a long time. It looks a lot like a 3D point-and-click adventure, with the occasional QTE or cursor you have to move to aim at an enemy. It’s a game anyone can play, which you can rarely say, but because of that I found it to rather exceed its already short runtime.
As a user-friendly game that you are encouraged to play with friends, the horror story told here is too long. Supermassive was no doubt keen on delivering a campaign of a reasonable length, but as a video game the core mechanics just aren’t interesting for this length of play. Cut it down to two vivid hours, removing scenes thoughtful, and it could have been a brilliant interactive horror movie.
There are moments of excellence in House of Ashes. When you control one of the five base playable characters in a more confined area, with the camera choosing to hover over your shoulder, the game provides an atmosphere in spades. It’s claustrophobic and tense, and my brain immediately jumped on Aliens and The Descent, but here those moments are basically glass-bottomed boats that you ride from one encounter to the next. They are scary at first, but once you click that all is well, the fear is gone.
There is no combat in House of Ashes that is not in a button press QTE (press Square to stab a monster) or Operation Wolf on a console style target fire where you simply move the aiming cursor on the target. and shoot fire within a given time. By making the game highly accessible, almost every superbly crafted moment of terror can never reach its potential.
I haven’t talked about the story yet as it’s largely a cliché, especially in the early stages. You are told the story of an ancient terror living underground in a Sumerian temple. Fast forward to the Iraq War and we come across a bunch of war movie stereotypes that you can only shape a certain amount. Salim, an Iraqi soldier, the only playable non-American character, stands out. He has the saddest backstory and the most confrontational role in the events, and most importantly doesn’t come across as a jerk.
There is the expected tension between US Marines and Iraqi soldiers, but attempts to make it all feel less Oorah seems a bit forced (the man is sad because he remembers killing an innocent civilian, the pounding constant of the house of “The enemy of my enemy is my friend”). The game tries to tackle difficult topics, even 9/11, but it’s pretty superficial. Some Marines redeem themselves a bit by the conclusion of the games, but it’s fair to say that acting is better than the story told.
House of Ashes, despite my issues with its length and lack of gameplay, has a lot of good times. Most of them relate to hastily pressed on-screen button prompts, which can be easy to miss and have pretty dire consequences. These QTEs work well, but they just aren’t backed up by enough horror due to the aforementioned safe play sequences.
There’s also a big part of me that wishes the tone was a little lighter and more schlocky. It’s a story that takes itself a little too seriously. One of my favorite moments came late, a character heroically burst into the scene with the line, “Hey, fuck, I’ve got something for you!” It was perfect. This is what I want from games like this. Yet in terms of the “Americans start to clap in the movies” moments, this is the only one I can remember.
There is a lot to like about House of Ashes. It can look great (but also a bit complicated at times), the acting is largely excellent, and your actions (or lack thereof) can really make an impact on the story. Still, the gameplay element is lacking, which in turn causes gameplay sequences where you have proper control to end up lacking in scares. It’s a fun time, especially if you’re playing in a group or online with a friend, but I was more afraid of button prompts than monsters.
Disclaimer: Tested version: PS5. A copy of the game has been provided by the publisher. Also available on PS4, Xbox One, Xbox Series X | S, and PC.