We’re in an express elevator to hell
At this point I feel like we know what to expect from The Anthology of Dark Images, a sometimes scary, sometimes campy, always best series with friends of standalone cinematic horror-adventure games. You are either in it or you are out – or are you waiting for a full collection, which, three games with House of Ashes, still feels quite far away.
Some decisions about framing the story in The Anthology of Dark Images turned out to be more and more confrontational among fans, and if you couldn’t tell by my high score Little hope review, I wasn’t too bothered by them – but a lot of fans hated the ending of this game. That said, I would have been annoyed if Supermassive Games tried to pull the same round three times in a row, and I’m happy to say straight away that House of Ashes goes in a different direction (very preferred). Whether it’s a course correction or the plan from the start, who knows.
House of Ashes is a riff on Lowering and Aliens. Monsters lurk underground, and it’s not so much fear of the unknown as it is a well-armed fight for survival. This is my favorite version of the mythology of this studio since the always unbeatable Until dawn.
The Dark Pictures Anthology: House of Ashes (PC, PS4, PS5 [reviewed], Xbox One, Xbox Series X / S)
Developer: Supermassive Games
Publisher: Bandai Namco Entertainment
Released: October 22, 2021
MSRP: $ 29.99
Of all the possible settings, House of Ashes takes place during the “end of the war in Iraq”.
The impulse to find yourself stranded in a hidden underground Sumerian temple with ravenous ancient beasts rampaging around is, brace yourself, a weapons of mass destruction hunt near the Zagros Mountains due to a possibly-legitimate intuition- maybe not by satellite.
If that storyline seemed uncertain to you after watching the trailers, or if you didn’t vibrate with the characters, including Ashley Tisdale’s CIA officer Rachel King, I’m here with you. As much as I tried to enter with an open mind, controller in hand, I struggled to connect with this crew or their cause at first. I wasn’t directly rooting three of the five stars.
It’s not that it’s handled in a particularly clumsy way, or that you can’t have a horror adventure game with heavily armed protagonists in a modern real-world conflict, rather it’s what it looked like to a missed opportunity. I hesitate to use the word “forced” – rather “distracting”.
I understand what they wanted (see: Aliens and Predator), and I understand The Anthology of Dark Images tries to be grounded and contemporary. I just think there could have been a better, more engaging setup. The theme of this game – both in a short prologue with Akkad’s Naram-Sin, and in modern times – is “my enemy’s enemy is my friend”.
I’m going to be honest: they put it on pretty thick, and it might feel heavy, but when the game cares less about beating that drum and it gives the characters some room to breathe in a more personal, emotional, and human it starts to click. I warmed up to most of them. The story also progresses into the final act with some interesting multi-layered myths, to the point where it made me retroactively appreciate the whole game more retroactively.
There are five characters to keep alive House of Ashes, including four Americans, and only one of whom, Salim Othman, is a lieutenant in the Iraqi Land Forces. Salim is by far the friendliest, most pragmatic and most accessible of the group. He will try to convince his stubborn superior, and his so-called enemies, that they should Probably be more concerned with getting out of this monstrous tomb than trying to stab yourself in the back.
As always, the climax of the experience is making the right choice with dialogue choices and intense action-packed moments – or deliberately making the wrong choice, maybe even over and over again, because you want to. see how the branching story will shake. For my part, House of Ashes kept wanting me to turn on someone fishy, and I refused to do so in a big-brained chess fit. It came back to bite me. But that’s all part of the fun.
Without spoiling anything, expect a tone more action-oriented than horror or terror, the latter of which I sorely missed. I wanted much more Lowering. There’s a purple-drenched streak straight out of that movie, and it’s fantastic, but it’s also short lived.
As you regularly weave your way through dark tunnels with a flashlight or lighter, House of Ashes doesn’t always do a great job of instilling paranoia or fear. I felt like Little hope could have done a little more in that regard as well, and it’s a shame to feel his absence again.
I like the third-person camera here (as opposed to the fixed angles), and I also liked the fact that some of the collectibles – scattered lore fragments from 1940s archaeologists – were accompanied by footage from fully dubbed stories. I will say that picking up those well-preserved pages felt very “video game” to me, even more so than usual. I felt too safe looking for them.
Tonally, House of Ashes feels distinct from The man of Medan and Little hope, For the best or for the worst. Think more along the lines of Until dawn – especially how it felt once you knew what the real threat was and how dangerous it could be if you got it wrong in a quick event. Of course, they were teenagers, and they are battle-hardened teammates. But these winged creatures are relentless. And there is a horde of them.
If you’ve seen the monsters up close before playing because of a YouTube thumbnail or the Collector’s Edition statue, don’t let that put you off, there are more surprises. The game does not sink or swim based on how they look or how they are treated.
Technically, I didn’t have any big issues with the PS5 version. Load times every now and then are near instantaneous, lighting effects stand out (especially with torch-lit tunnels), and a stable and smooth frame rate has come a long way. House of Ashes felt like a noticeable tech upgrade after playing Little hope on my PS4 Pro. While these aspects don’t necessarily make or destroy the game, they are certainly appreciated.
One thing I noticed, more than before, was that some scenes had these split second quirks where I noticed the seams. For example, a character’s facial reaction would stay on slightly longer than it should, or someone would stay a little too still in a scripted moment. I felt like under the hood the game couldn’t quite keep up as it gathered all of my past picks – making sure the next streak was logically checked out, considering who did what and when. This is by no means a dealbreaker, but my immersion took a slight hit.
While Little hopethe end ruined the whole experience for some players, I feel like House of Ashes‘surprising final act, plus its intriguing mid-credits conclusion scene with clues across the wider Anthology of Dark Images world, raised the game for me. I’m so curious how it all fits together and what the dark conservative’s deal is. That said, while I love the way this game ended, I always struggled to feel very invested in the story, the characters, or their well-being for much of the experience. , doubling a second (Curator’s Cut) play. The first conversations are so slow.
My biggest problem with House of Ashes is the less than ideal backdrop to the Iraq war and, related, some of the characters, who are just plain unpleasant or boring rather than people you “love to hate” in this fun, movie-like way of life. horror. Note: both elements are at their worst at the start. Things are improving. You’re not above the ground for too long, the characters get more nuanced (or hey, you just get them killed), and the story unfolds in cool visual and themed locations that are unexpected for this series.
As much as I feel like this series is stuck in the shadow of Until dawn for a large part of the public, collectively, The Anthology of Dark Images becomes something memorable in its own right. I will continue to enjoy these games for as long as I can, House of Ashes included.
[This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]