The Dark Pictures Anthology’s yearly offerings of horror adventure games have been middling at best, and House of Ashes, the third entry in the series, retains the status quo. While it boasts a cool antagonist and enjoyable moments, its scares and overall adventure lack the punch to make it a terrifying standout.
If you’re new to the series, House of Ashes is essentially an interactive horror movie with players watching lengthy cinematics and hitting surprise button prompts to make split-second actions at a moment’s notice. An ill-timed button press can send a character to an early grave and out of the story for good. I always liked how this kept me engaged in scenes and ensured the controller never left my hands. However, this design could be frustrating for those lacking a quick trigger finger, which is why I love the new customization and accessibility options. Easy, Normal, and Hard modes allow players of all skill levels to enjoy the story as leisurely or intensely as they see fit. It’s great that you can also adjust how fast prompts appear, their duration on-screen, and assign all interactions to the same button. House of Ashes does a great job of widening its doors to players who don’t possess Spider-Man-caliber reflexes or want to absorb its tale with less pressure involved.
Another great addition is 360-degree camera control, which allows for a more liberating sense of exploration. It makes searching for gameplay-vital information or premonitions of potential deaths feel more natural and made me want to poke around more. However, it’s irksome that characters turn around like tanks and move slowly overall. A flashlight mechanic lets you illuminate areas at will at the expense of movement speed, but I’m disappointed that the game never takes advantage of this feature to use in its scares. Many areas have enough light that I kept mine off.
House of Ashes unfolds in 2003 Iraq and uses the United States’ controversial war on the country as a backdrop to tell its story. While searching for Saddam Hussein’s supposed chemical weapons, a dysfunctional squad of U.S. marines and one Iraqi soldier become stranded together in an underground temple. Trapped, they must cooperate to survive a legion of ancient monsters lurking within. While you can find historical elements along the edges, the game largely avoids wading into a deeper political conversation outside of “war is bad” and “uniforms are just uniforms,” which I believe is for the best. It ultimately serves to push the theme of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” and works in a surface-level sense. I got the point without having to worry about Supermassive bungling its sensitive subject matter.
If you’re hoping for House of Ashes to scare your pants off, odds are you’ll be disappointed. While the creatures look great and have an intimidating design, I rarely found the game unsettling. House of Ashes feels more like a supernatural action thriller that constantly lobs its killers at players after a short build-up while relying on a handful of predictable, ineffective jump scares to startle them. That said, once I gave in to what House of Ashes is going for, a popcorn-munching monster romp, I had fun, and the story has enough intrigue and exciting moments that made me want to watch the crew dive deeper into the belly of the beast. Unfortunately, it culminates in a disappointing revelation that flips the premise of these beasts on its head, and it evaporated any semblance of remaining dread I had left.
The small cast of playable characters suffers internal issues and interpersonal conflicts that stir the pot of drama, some of which feel silly. A love triangle between Rachel (played by Ashley Tisdale), her estranged husband, and her subordinate serves as the primary conflict. It feels like a weird thing to unpack, given the circumstances. In the face of bloodthirsty, nigh-invincible creatures, is this really the time to hash out who you’d rather sleep with? It doesn’t go anywhere meaningful and makes the three lovebirds look like dopes who don’t have much personality beyond their romantic affairs.
Lapsed Iraqi soldier Salim became my favorite character due to his understandable motivation to return home to his son and his ability to see the forest from the trees in terms of cooperation. Surprisingly, the intolerant “America #1” Jason grew on me too; I found his sobering trauma and gradual acceptance of Salim, while cheesy, endearing, nonetheless. These unfortunate souls may not all hit, but strong performances across the board back them, and the game’s impressive graphical presentation remains a highlight.
House of Ashes never came close to terrifying or surprising me, but I still found it a respectable thriller that should make for an entertaining night alone or with up to four friends passing the controller. If you’ve enjoyed the Anthology up to this point, you’ll likely get a kick out of this too. But if you’ve been waiting for The Dark Pictures to reach the heights of Until Dawn, don’t get your hopes up for another year.