When you look around the internet, and perhaps within your circle of friends, you’re likely to find opinions divided about the Dark Pictures Anthology. There have been two games thus far, and while I’ve personally enjoyed both, so many have an issue with the way the story wraps up. As shallow as it may be, a resounding and common criticism is that “nothing will ever beat Until Dawn.” Arguably developer Supermassive Game’s magnum opus, I’ve often questioned if a Dark Pictures game will ever top it myself too. But with the third entry in the anthology, called House of Ashes, things could be headed in the right direction, but it’s early days as of yet.
But if you’re not even sure what these games are, it’s pretty simple. The Dark Pictures games are similar to games like Until Dawn and Detroit: Become Human. You play as a group of characters and must make decisions to navigate them through a story. Each decision has the potential to have carry-on effects on how the story plays out, with the ultimate goal being to get to the end of the story with your whole cast alive. Each story is self-contained, so you don’t need to play the prior ones to appreciate the experience fully.
Throughout each of the Dark Pictures games, what’s remained constant is the commitment to listening to player feedback and adjusting the experience to play a bit better than the last game. Given these games seem to release only a year apart, it’s encouraging to see the team willing to change things up under what I assume is such a tight schedule. For example, where Little Hope threw tank controls out of the window, House of Ashes fully commits to the idea and offers full control of the camera and no more fixed camera angles.
Other gameplay settings have been adjusted or altered to provide a better experience too. Every character now has a dedicated flashlight button, which allows you to examine objects in better detail, but your character moves slower. There are also difficulty options now – purportedly implemented from divisive fan feedback – which affect how generous or punishing the quick-time events will be. They’re more minor adjustments to the gameplay that I’m most players will appreciate.
House of Ashes represents an exciting new step for the Dark Pictures. Director Will Doyle explains that it’s the oldest mystery they’ve ever put in a Dark Pictures game before and I think that’s what really speaks to me. The game takes place during the closing of the Iraqi conflict in 2003. You play as five characters, as in other games, though the lead character is Rachel King. She’s a CIA officer played by Ashley Tisdale, of High School Musical fame. She’s joined by four other characters – Salim Othman, Jason Kolchek, Nick Kay, and her husband, Eric King.
House of Ashes opens when the squad is sent to unearth an underground chemical weapons depot. Once they arrive at their mark, they are attacked by Iraqi forces, but eventually driven underground by a catastrophic earthquake that drops them into an underground temple. The temple is Akkadian in origin, one of the first ancient empires of Mesopotamia. If you’re not a history buff but a horror buff, I’ll make it a bit clearer. This is the same empire, the same religion that, 6000 years ago, believed in Pazuzu, the demon that possessed Regan MacNeil in The Exorcist films.
So there’s a bit of history here already, but Will Doyle explains that this temple has a bit of history itself. It was built by Naram-Sin, a real-life ruler of the Akkadian empire. Naram-Sin upset the gods when he ransacked a sacred site and built the temple that Rachel and her team find themselves in as a way to appease the gods. But, unfortunately, it wasn’t enough, and the king was slaughtered, the temple remaining untouched ever since.
Despite the obvious influences, House of Ashes is allegedly inspired by Aliens, Predator, and The Descent. I can’t quite immediately see the first two influences, but the last one gets me excited. The Descent is one of my favourite horror movies. What it does with light and the cold, isolating underground is masterful. I can see how House of Ashes might feel like The Descent, the monsters that chase Rachel and her squad, even if we don’t get a good look at them, have a similar sound and feel. The creature in House of Ashes is the most complicated creature Supermassive Games have ever made – and we saw some brief footage of them being mocapped by people behind the scenes.
I’m treated to a short scene in which Nick and Jason are separated but eventually come together to attempt to save some other survivors. It’s here that Nick begins to start seeing things in the tunnels as they scurry away from him. He lights a flare – showing some of the fantastic lighting effects on offer in these games – before eventually meeting up with Jason. Jason doesn’t believe Nick saw anything, of course, but they both explore and ultimately meet up with other members of their team – Clarice and Merwin.
Merwin sunk through the ground during the earthquake but was stuck on some wire hanging off it and slowly bleeding out. It’s a grim and gruesome idea, and our playable characters cut him down. He’s still bleeding out, and they try to give him morphine to relieve the pain. Suddenly, an unseen force pulls Clarice into the dark. There’s loud screeching. Nick and Jason drag Merwin’s body out of the open area, but they notice he’s leaving a blood trail straight to them.
While not scary in the same way games like Resident Evil: biohazard or even Until Dawn were, House of Ashes is incredibly tense. Watching this scene, I was nervous for Merwin but also nervous for Nick and Jason. It’s a testament to how these games are designed that I was fearful that Nick or Jason might die at this moment. Especially since Merwin, in his pain, wouldn’t stop screaming as the screeches of the creatures grew closer. My experience with The Descent makes me wonder if these creatures are blind as well; it’s left to the imagination in this short demo as to the true nature of the beast, however.
In his haste to quieten down Merwin, Nick accidentally chokes him. It’s a bit of a shocking moment, but also a relief, as bad as that sounds, and the two decide to leave Merwin as they escape. Strategically framed, the camera pans down Merwin’s lifeless corpse as it’s dragged away by something in the shadows. The demo ends here.
I’m of two minds about House of Ashes. On the one hand, I’m worried the same plot device will be used again – that all of this is just the hallucinations of somebody’s broken psyche. On the other, I think there’s real potential here. It’s an incredibly ancient setting with some really gnarly history and some inspirations that haven’t yet been seen in the series. It could even be the goriest instalment yet, which is something I can personally appreciate. But these games live or die on their plot, and time will tell whether or not House of Ashes will eclipse its predecessors.
But for now, colour me hopeful.
The Dark Pictures – House of Ashes launches for PC, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X|S later this year.