Annual scare-a-thon anthology The Dark Pictures goes military with its latest interactive tale, House of Ashes, which is set deep underground in Iraq.
After surprising everyone with their out-of-nowhere 2015 interactive horror story Until Dawn, UK studio Supermassive Games clearly realised that it had found its groove. The Dark Pictures Anthology has been the ongoing result, taking the concept and mechanics of their Until Dawn and ramping up the graphical quality hugely (Until Dawn had originally been intended as a PS3 game).
It’s a smart idea – develop a game engine and the basic game mechanics, then weave different stories into it, meaning a theoretical quick turnaround for each release. The original idea of releasing one story every six months didn’t quite pan out, though the arrival of each new horror-themed adventure in the lead-up to Halloween has seemed like better timing anyway.
And so, after the ghost ship creepiness of Man of Medan and the ghost town scares of Little Hope, some may be surprised that this third instalment takes a sharp right-hand turn into the “something’s roaming the catacombs that wants to eat us” genre, with an unconventional setting.
After a prologue set in the year 2231 BC, two survivors of an attack by mysterious, lethal creatures flee to safety in the catacombs of the city’s temple. Feeling their way around the maze-like subterranean structure by torchlight, they soon come face to face with the fast-moving, angry creatures and meet a swift demise.
Thousands of years later, in the early days of the Iraq War in 2003, US Air Force colonel Eric King arrives at the site of the now-ancient temple to investigate intelligence that there may be a stockpile of weapons of mass destruction somewhere underground. Unfortunately, during fierce combat with Iraqi forces they get a more immediate look at what’s underground when the ground covering the temple gives way and our five protagonists – Eric, his estranged wife, two Marines and an Iraqi soldier – plummet into the dark depths, needing to find a way out while facing off with the ancient creatures still living in the shadows.
As usual, you play as various characters, depending on what serves the story, dealing with moral and emotional choices that effect each character’s relationship with the others. Better described as interactive fiction rather than a straight-out game, your main interaction with the environment is via exploration, finding artifacts from the past that help explain what’s going on, as well as facing the occasional puzzle. Action-wise, quick time events push players into time-limited decisions that can mean life or death. We were at one such moment on Xbox One X, where a character’s life was on the line, only to discover that sparing their life caused the game to freeze – every single time. Ultimately, we had to kill that character to progress, something that’ll hopefully get fixed in a patch soon.
Supermassive continue to impress with the visual style of these games – you only need to load up Until Dawn to see how far they’ve come since then. Presented in a “widescreen” format (which makes for a cinematic look while handily meaning there are less pixels to render) the camera and editing deliberately recalls many a big-budget war movie, making for an immersive experience that’s only let down by the character animation, which is passable at best (and sometimes outright comical).
But we’re here for the characters and story, and as usual, House of Ashes delivers on both with terrific voice acting (including almost every military cliché that could be vacuumed up from Hollywood) and a suitably eerie location. Ultimately, it feels a bit like “The Dark Pictures does Aliens,” but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. There’s a lot less outright horror here, though, aside from a quantity of jump scares – this one’s more of an unsettling adventure with heavy emphasis on exploration (the player gets more freedom with the camera, finally).
As a result, this instalment does feel decidedly more of a “sit back and watch” experience than previous games. Cutscenes are numerous and long, and more than once we put the controller aside as a scene played out, only to have to quickly grab it again to make a timed decision. More than ever, this is more interactive fiction than outright game, with replayability coming from the many branching paths the story can take.
“Supermassive continue to impress with the visual style of these games…”
And, of course, you’re encouraged to play the game with a friend – which can be done either as a sort of “couch co-op” or online, with the latter allowing each person to play different characters at the same time. There’s still a completely solo mode available, thankfully, but if you’ve got a friend who also has a copy of the game (on the same console) then it’s well worth doing a co-op playthrough.
It’s also worth mentioning that alongside the game’s usual accessibility features, this instalment also allows players to choose the difficulty. This basically comes down to how much time you’ve got to mash buttons before something terrible happens, so if quick time events aren’t your thing, there are now multiple ways to ease the pain.
If you’re already a fan of what Supermassive does with its unique brand of digital storytelling then you’ll be all-in for this third instalment of what’s planned to be an eight-game series. The story and characters are an unexpected left turn, but it’s all extremely well put together. Our main issue is that this one feels like the least interactive story so far, with so much emphasis on cutscenes that the player can feel a bit uninvolved at times. The character line-up this time around is also too male-dominated which, combined with the military setting, makes things feel a little one-dimensional. But interactive fiction fans will have a great time regardless – just be sure, as usual with this series, to play it in the dark!
The Dark Pictures Anthology: House of Ashes is available now on PS5, Xbox and PS4.