What horrors lurk below the Iraqi mountains in the House of Ashes?
House of Ashes is the third installation in The Dark Pictures Anthology by Supermassive Games. The formula remains more or less the same following an ensemble of characters, who find themselves in a less than fortunate situation and it's up to the player to help them survive their ordeals. It's a formula that has been tried and tested both in the previous games in the anthology series as well as Supermassive's breakthrough game Until Dawn, and you are in control of the fate of the characters, as you take control of each one of them in different situations.
However, House of Ashes is not quite the same as its predecessors. Even though it follows the same horror theme as the rest of the games from Supermassive, the setting that House of Ashes takes place in is not like the other games. In fact, it reminds me more of Alien vs. Predator than the first Alien film.
The setting is the Iraqi war in 2003, and you take control of a squad of marines led by a newly arrived Colonel named Eric King. At the beginning of the game you set out on a mission to find Saddam Hussein's hidden nuclear silos, which have been spotted on an advanced satellite developed by King, but of course, nothing is as easy as it seems. The mission quickly goes south and the team ends up trapped in an old temple below the Iraqi mountains, and the goal is now to escape and survive the eldritch horrors down there with as many team members alive as possible (unless you plan on killing them off for fun, which is also totally cool!).
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During the set-up of the game you are introduced to the cast of characters: Rachel King, the wife of Eric, who is also the leader of the squad (portrayed by the Disney-star Ashley Tisdale by the way); Jason, a more stereotypical marine filled with prejudice and male toxicity; Nick, a more romantic and sensitive marine, who also has an affair with Rachel; and lastly - my personal favorite - an Iraqi soldier named Salim. The cast may not be quite as diverse as previous games, but the characters still have their own individual character traits and secrets that you uncover during your playthrough.
As predicted, the game is filled with "Oorah!" and marine energy, and even though it most certainly is different from the setting in the previous games it automatically becomes more of an action horror-vibe than one of true survival-horror. Hence my reference to Alien vs. Predator rather than the first Alien movie. The setting actually draws a lot of parallels to Alien vs. Predator, both taking place in a forsaken underground temple/tomb with a lot of trigger-happy marines. So you better change your survival-horror expectations to action-mode and expect a lot of gunshots and explosions, and unfortunately also unnecessary "army"-misogyny and a bit too many cringeworthy "your mom" jokes.
The main cast however grew on me during my playthrough and it of course might have something to do with the fact that you, as the player, are part of sculpting the characters' different traits and it's up to you whether Eric acts like an arrogant asshole or a kind, romantic leader/husband.
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Not all choices are without consequences which is the premise of most of Supermassive's games, and this one is not an exception. If you make the wrong choice it might lead to the death of one of your main cast characters, and that is something that constantly keeps you on edge.
Just like the previous titles, the gameplay consists mostly of cinematics and quick-time events mixed with a small amount of exploring and finding secrets. Even though the quick-time events themselves never were quite demanding like games from Quantic Dreams, they still kept you on your toes and the pace of them could be quite unforgiving. I mean, one time I failed a single button prompt, and my character died. Not because of a wrong choice I had made, but because I pressed X too quickly in an intense situation. It just felt unjustified and it made me quite frustrated.
Sure I would accept it if it had been on my shoulders, but not being able to scratch your nose without dying is on the borderline of too unforgiving for me. It wasn't because of the challenge either, because the prompts never really relied on more than a single button prompt, and I think I might have failed only two of them during my entire playthrough. However, it might have been different if I had shared the controller with a friend.
Because The Dark Pictures Anthology-games are best enjoyed with a couple of friends passing the controller around, and House of Ashes even has a "Movie Night" setting which utilises just that. I think that might be one of the reasons for the simplistic gameplay, and even though a veteran quick-time event-gamer like myself might not feel challenged, the situations still remained quite intense and even more intense with several players yelling left and right at the same time. The biggest challenge for me wasn't the gameplay but choosing the right answers and paths during my playthrough.
Luckily, House of Ashes has a neat system for helping the player choose the right course of action. Something they call "Premonitions". And sorry for sounding like a broken record, but if you've played previous Supermassive games, there's nothing new under the sun here. Premonitions show a possible outcome to hairy situations, and most often shows one of your characters' death. Which might give you a clue as to which decision to avoid during a conflict or moment of action. I've always liked that mechanic, as it is quite subtle in the exact situation, and never reveals too much information. But if you can recall the different locations and situations in the premonitions - given that you've found the right ones - you might be able to save lives.
Graphically the game has an incredible ambivalence. It is both very beautiful, but also really ugly. The actors do a great job of portraying the characters, but the facial animations are so unreliable it is insane. One moment it truly resembles a movie, and the next the character model animations are so stiff it might be a PS3 game. In the temple below the environments are detailed one scene and the next they are incredibly bland and uninspiring and don't even get me started on the environment on the surface, which Supermassive clearly forgot to put any work into. The game balances on being a technical wonder and a huge leap for facial animations, and then being no better than Until Dawn was in 2015. Stiff animations and clunky gameplay do not help on that fact at all!
Aside from the graphical/technological problems and the quick time events, I, unfortunately, think that one of the weaker points in House of Ashes is the entire setting. Even though I really dig the Ancient Temple and the backdrop of the Iraq War, the action movie-vibe takes a lot away from the horror aspect, and the enemies below are never actually that frightening. The "monsters" are too quickly revealed and the horror, unfortunately, subsides too fast and the focus lies mostly on surviving thereafter. In my opinion, the enemies are too "physical" in their beings and the whole game lacks a psychological aspect - which is more than necessary for a horror game to be truly horrific. That, and the fact that most of the solutions require shooting a shit ton of bullets at the problems or blowing them up. It could have been solved more elegantly and more scary I think.
Not that I didn't enjoy House of Ashes, because I really think it was a lot of fun, even though it might not have been the fun I was signing up for. If you are hoping for another thrilling horror game, you might be really disappointed, but if you are a fan of Aliens (note that it is the second movie and not the first!) this might be up your alley. It is filled with intense moments, hard decisions and deadly quick-time events, and a truly exciting playground to experience all of these in.
7 / 10
Intense situations require the player to be on the edge of their seats. Exciting cast of characters. Cool action-movie setting.
Too focused on action for a horror game. Facial animations are too stiff. At times clunky gameplay. Not that scary "monsters". Lacks a psychological aspect.