The annual releases of the Dark Pictures Anthology is a bit of a double-edged sword. The prospect of regular titles is a tantalising one for horror fans, but there is also a worry that such an approach could lead to simple reskins like the worst of yearly sports franchises. Fortunately, on the evidence of my hands on time with House of Ashes, Supermassive Games are not resting on their laurels. This not only feels like a more polished experience, but takes us to a fascinating new setting as well.
I loved Until Dawn, but have had mixed feelings over the earlier Dark Pictures games. This is in large part due to the setting. The nautical spookiness of Man of Medan never really appealed but the Salem Witch aspects of Little Hope were right up my alley. House of Ashes represents quite a departure as it no longer follows such a well-worn path as the earlier titles. The move to a modern Middle Eastern setting is an original one and opens up a whole new area of mythology and terror.
The preview build opened up just after the prologue and the various character introductions that might include. This meant that I had to get to know them through their responses to the horrors that quickly unfold. The cast is a motley blend of highly trained American military and civilian archaeologists with one local Allied soldier, Salim. Immediately, these characters have been broken up into clearly defined groups, but offered up the promise of some fascinating interactions between them. As these relationships represent the bulk of the game’s appeal outside of the horror aspects this worked perfectly to pique my interest in seeing how the group might work together – or not – to overcome the terror of their situation.
That situation is where the game’s setting really comes into its own. Taking place in 2003 just after the Iraq War, the various protagonists find themselves falling into a cavern that contains an ominously well-preserved Sumerian temple. At first, their main fears are the prospect of navigating their way back out or potential ambushes by enemy combatants. It isn’t long, however, before they discover that the cave system contains a far older and more dangerous threat. I was a little surprised at how quickly the monsters were revealed and assumed that there are additional secrets and surprises in store later in the full game.
These monsters are heavily reminiscent of the fantastic subterranean horror film, The Descent, albeit with added batlike wings. Much like the Neil Marshall-directed classic, the combination of underground perils and bloodthirsty creatures makes for a chilling combination. There are even wonderful nods back to earlier horror games such as the original Resident Evil through some cuts to the monster’s perspective. The big difference of course is that everything is presented in the extraordinary level of graphical fidelity for which the series is famous.
Aesthetically, The House of Ashes is superb. Character models and backgrounds are supremely detailed and the facial modelling is second to none. There is occasionally a touch of the uncanny valley to some moments but this is more a restriction of the technology than any problem with the design itself. Even in my short time with the preview build there are some moments where the characters show real emotion in both their reactions to one another and their facial responses. The quality of acting seems great too, although again this was a relatively brief preview. I didn’t recognise any of the cast, unlike some of the previous titles, but they all do an excellent job.
Gameplay is standard Dark Pictures stuff. You explore the world in direct control of your character and react to events using QTEs. For the first time in this series, you have some control over the camera as well, instead of finding your way through the world using purely fixed views. That could certainly come into play for sequences later in the game.
Optional collectables are hidden around the environment and conversations involve dialogue choices that help you to develop your own take on each of the heroes. This all worked perfectly well in the preview, but there wasn’t quite enough time to see if Supermassive have done much more than repeat a tried and trusted approach to horror. Exploration did feel more polished and more freeform here than earlier titles but, again, this was only a short extract from the full game.
All in all, House of Ashes looks set to be a fantastic thrill ride into an underused setting that promises to make good use of an original source of horror. The Middle Eastern mythology of the demon Pazuzu, combined with the political and geographical conditions of the game’s setting, should make for some amazing moments of horror and character interaction. As has become traditional, the game will release in perfect time for Halloween with a release date set for October 22nd. I am certainly looking forward to playing from behind my sofa during the scary bits. This is one house that I will definitely be hoping is more treat than trick.