It’s that spooky time of year where we actively seek out the thrill of sharing a few screams with some friends from the comfort of our homes. The dedicated people over at Supermassive have added the third entry into the Dark Pictures Anthology, namely House of Ashes, just in time for Halloween. This latest entry is by far the most ambitious entry into this cinematic psychological horror series and continues to raise the bar for the interactive movie genre of video games.
Fans of the series will be happy to be welcomed back by the fourth-wall-breaking host, The Curator. This mysterious and unnerving gentleman frequents his equally ominous and gloom library, thrusting the players into his latest nightmare by picking a storybook right from the shelves.
Little more than his title is known about him at this stage, and Phillip “Pip” Torrens continues to deliver spectacular monologues to make you second guess everything between acts. So far we have visited a Ghost Ship from World War 2 and a Town with a haunted past, so it’s was only logical to jump straight into Iraq during the hunt of Saddam Hussein in 2003.
Alright, maybe it’s not exactly what I excepted either, but one of the most important elements to the Dark Pictures is how the current story will tie into the past. To understand why we are going to Iraq, the game throws us all the way back to 2231 BC, to the land of Akkad which populated the land known as Iraq today. Balathu, an Akkadian general, will be our first playable character. It’s also the absolute worst day to be in his shoes. A horrid plague has been ravaging the land and it’s not long before you are running for your life from the blood curtailing screeches of the cursed that wipe out anyone they could get their hands on.
Flash forward to the current day and we meet our 5 protagonists, and we must attempt to keep alive through fast thinking dialogue choices and quick-time events. Four of the main characters are tied to the American Army, and the remaining protagonist is part of the Iraqi army. Eric is the hard-assed Lt. Col who is also the estranged husband of CIA field operator Rachel, her under-the-table romance with Sergeant Nick definitely complicates things and creates a broken love triangle.
Then there is the chip-on-his-shoulder rough-house Jason, who would prefer to shoot first and ask questions later. Lt. Salim is a reluctant soldier of circumstances who ends up trapped in the ruins of the Akkad temple alongside the other four after a natural disaster. Each character was brought to life through immersive voice acting and was rarely undone by some questionable lines that snuck their way in.
I held a game night and was able to assign each of the five characters to real-life players and we got to pass the controller back and forth in the Movie Night game mode. It is possible to play completely solo, however, Supermassive has acknowledged the popularity of playing with friends and actively encourage it. Having to make a crucial decision that could quite literally kill off a character for good, all while you have multiple people panicking in the background adds a huge layer of stress not possible while playing solo. There is one last option to play online which, I only briefly tested out to see if they had improved the servers from the last two entries and it ran just as smoothly as couch co-op.
It has grown quite apparent that each entry has been refining the game engine to help sell the cinematic experience. Character models were already impressive, yet this time around there were certain moments where the glint in their eyes or the glistening sweat and blood-stained faces were damn near photorealistic.
There are still a few awkward movements that break the immersion and sometimes they seem to be staring at a random butterfly rather than making eye contact with the person pouring their heart out. This is also the first entry with entire sections in broad daylight that gave the developers a chance to flex their impressive lighting capabilities. The camera work has also been given an overhaul and allows for better exploration and tighter, more claustrophobic moments without compromising the cinematic feeling.
I can comfortably say this is the strongest of the three in terms of writing for both narrative and dialogue. Trying to piece together the mystery of what happened in this abandoned and crumbling temple, all while trying to survive the devilish winged creatures picking off survivors, the choices involved with progressing the story had more weight to them with a lot more emphasis on moral ambiguity at play. I would gravitate towards choices more organically rather than pick the one which I think would have the best outcome.
In previous games, I sometimes felt robbed when losing a character, but with House of Ashes, if I did manage to lose a character, I never felt it was due to an unfair chain of events. While still being a scary game with a few jump scares that tested my grip on the controller, the fear that stuck with me came from the constant bouts of tension that would build up due to the creepy and sudden crescendo of violins, drums, and high hats. The spine-tingling screeching and distant screams of people being ripped limb from limb echoed off the underground caverns made me take a deep breath before pushing forward.
I will acknowledge that this game style isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, given that a majority of the game is a hands-off experience. I have, however, heard glowing responses from people who are not confident enough to play more hands-on games as they felt they could actively contribute to the experience in this environment. There were some truly wild reveals during my first playthrough, and thanks to the astounding amount of branching paths, there are rewards to be found with each return trip for the completionists out there.
- Game engine has pushed the series to new heights
- Movie night game mode is an absolute must
- Story keeps you guessing and maintains a good pace
- So many options to encourage replay
- Weird clunky movements can break immersion
- Despite strong writing, there is the occasionally eye browsing lines of dialogue
- Occasional pop in issues during scene transitions