Supermassive Games yearly releases are getting to be a highlight in my gaming calendar. After thoroughly enjoying Until Dawn (still holding out hope for an Xbox release somehow), the Dark Pictures Anthology series has had me hooked since day one with Man of Medan. Little Hope was a slight step back in my eyes – though still a great game – so I was keen to see how latest entry, House of Ashes fared. Short answer: very well indeed.
While the Dark Pictures games all fall under that one overall umbrella, the stories told in each so far have all been stand alone tales. The set-up will be familiar to returning fans; five assorted people – in this case friends, enemies, and those in between – form the core cast, who are supported by several others throughout a tale that goes from good to bad to worse for them. Along the way we swap between these five to see the story from several angles, as well as helping to shape the narrative, relationships, and their chances of survival.
And so, in House of Ashes we control the fates of Jason, Nick, Rachel, Eric, and Salim; the former four all part of a US squad based in Iraq shortly after the downfall of Saddam Hussain in 2003 looking for an underground WMD silo, the latter part of an outlier squad of Hussain’s Revolutionary Guard. Despite being on opposite sides of the war – and having personal grievances within the ranks – the five must put differences aside in order to survive the madness within.
Or not, should you so choose. Throughout, we are presented with many dialogue choices as is the series tradition. Some are simple flavourings to the characters, but more often they can change the dynamic of relationships, and the path the story takes. This aspect of The Dark Pictures has worked well in the past, making it truly agonising at times to pick one of the two options each choices gives us, while at other times seemingly giving us awkward options just to mess with us, leading to outcomes that were unexpected or unwanted through vagueness rather than any sort of moral dilemma. House of Ashes does a far better job of presenting our options I feel, and only very rarely have I seen an outcome that I felt didn’t match what I thought I was picking.
In fact, I’d say that in this aspect House of Ashes is the best in the series to date. There are some truly tough choices to make, but more impressive is just how interconnected each and every choice feels this time. As is series tradition, some don’t come back to show their results until much later on. In the two play through’s I’ve done so far, the outcomes and scenarios have been markedly different thanks to the choices I have made, and I can already see where other options could lead our protagonists down next time. Thankfully, Supermassive have learned some leniency too, with what feels like slightly more forgiving action moments as well as a few life or death choices that almost ask us “Are you sure?”, letting us really seal someone’s fate.
Those action moments are used sparingly but come along at the right times. Whether we’re hitting a series of QTE’s, aiming a reticle in a short time window, or timing button presses to hold our breath, they are excellent at upping the heart rate and giving us that extra bit of input to the story. They can be quite the spectacle too, with the button prompts not blocking our view of the action. Special mention must go to a late game sequence that pulls all the stops out in providing a tense, atmospheric, and superbly choreographed set piece.
Naturally, this is a story heavy game so I won’t go into plot specifics. It must be said though that the dialogue and acting here is excellent, with the cast bringing each of their parts to life in a convincing manner. One of the weaker parts of the series so far has been how Supermassive have had to blend obviously separately shot scenes into a cohesive narrative based on player choices. This is an inherent issue with the nature of a game of this sorts, but while they have done a great job so far, HoA is easily the best work to date in this aspect too. I saw precisely one small section of a scene that felt out of place, with the rest of the scenes flowing incredibly well. Even when I chose opposite paths in my sessions, the resulting scenes felt natural and well edited together.
The story itself is pretty darn good too, though for my money I still prefer Man of Medan‘s tale out of the series so far overall. As above, the US are in Iraq looking for weapons of mass destruction. When Eric believes he has found an underground weapon silo, the squad dispatch to uncover it. What follows is a tale best experienced yourself, and one that has plenty of twists and turns to keep us on our toes. It goes to some dark places – as you’d expect – and while I enjoyed it, there was one aspect I was not quite so keen on.
Well, that’s to say I wasn’t so keen on. No spoilers here, but after my first play session I felt the ‘twist’ or big reveal was a bit disappointing compared to previous entries thanks to relying on a more tangible threat this time round. Having beaten my second play though, this actually changed my mind completely and I’m genuinely excited to play again in order to flesh out even more of the story.
The fantastic Shared Story mode returns too, and is absolutely the best way to play. Myself and Special Guest Pete played it in one sitting over about five hours, and had a great time. Unlike the solo player experience, here both players get to control not just a character each in one scene but actually play out separate scenes at the same time. This can – and should – lead to confusion as one player will mention something that the other can’t see the context to, only for the consequences to come back later on to bite one or the other in the ass. We also get to see alternate angles on scenes, or even entirely new ones in this mode, further fleshing out the story and characters.
The excellent Curator returns once more, further hinting at the series interlocking parts, as well as offering hints or suggestions to players while keeping track of those alive and dead. His wonderfully creepy tone sets the stage for the next act perfectly, and eagle eyed and eared players will notice one or two extra details regarding him and his role throughout. I can’t wait to see how it all ties together as we get further through the series.
Final mention must go to the audio visual work. Played on a Series S and X, this is quite simply jaw dropping. All the characters, even the side part ones, are ultra realistic in detail and animation, while the environments and spooky bits are all gloriously detailed. Ambient audio is excellent, and the squelchy, visceral effects that accompany some of the more…intense moments are top notch. Play with a good pair of headphones and you’ll not regret it.
The Dark Pictures games so far have set high bars in terms of story and production quality, and House of Ashes easily hits and even occasionally surpasses them. While I wasn’t so keen initially on one aspect of the tale, it turned around completely on a second play, but even to begin with it was nowhere near enough to ruin what is a fantastically acted and put together story, wrapped up in some of the most stunning audio visual work to date. Horror games are hardly in short supply, but very few reach this level of brilliance.Become a Patron!
This game was reviewed based on Xbox S|X review code, using an Xbox S|X console. All of the opinions and insights here are subject to that version. Game provided by publisher.