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House of Ashes Achieves Interactive Drama Glory

Courtesy of Supermassive Games
Courtesy of Supermassive Games

The Dark Pictures Anthology: House of Ashes

Release Date: October 22, 2021
Available as: Digital and Physical

The Dark Pictures Anthology Returns For Another Frightfest

Supermassive Games, veterans of the "Interactive Drama Horror" adventure genre, began The Dark Pictures Anthology in 2019. Beginning with Man of Medan and 2020's Little Hope, House of Ashes is the third game in the anthology. From the first game, the anthology is a planned series of eight games, mixing real-world events and horror fables. In the case of House of Ashes, the game takes place in 2003 during the end of the Iraq War. According to the developers, the decision for the location and time period was due to its relation to the game's setting. In House of Ashes's prologue, the player explores the same land over 2000 years B.C, when the curse is first introduced.

My first introduction to House of Ashes and The Dark Pictures Anthology as a whole was during Bandai Namco's E3 conference. With the entire conference dedicated to the game, many including myself were disappointed. Not because of the game itself, but because Bandai Namco only showed this game. Looking back in hindsight, it seems I was wrong in snubbing this game because others weren't shown. Another advertising point this game made was the promotion of Ashley Tisdale voicing one of the main characters. So, despite its rocky introduction entirely outside of its control, had the Until Dawn developers lost its touch? Is House of Ashes an actual good game in this genre?

House of Ashes Salim
The Dark Pictures Anthology: House of Ashes - Xbox Series X Direct Capture

'Your Choices Matter' Is Cliche At This Point But It's The Truth

I remarked that Marvel's Guardian of the Galaxy impressed me as a superhero movie that felt like a movie as well as a video game. It seems like a coincidence that I feel a similar sentiment with House of Ashes. From the beginning, the player has the choice to go at it solo or with friends. If played with friends, each player controls a specific character when it's their turn. In solo, the player is responsible for all five playable characters. The cutscenes, atmosphere, graphics, and overall art direction felt like a high-budget motion picture. Some of the character facial animations break the immersions, but it's not too terrible There were several moments when I cheekily asked if this was The Mummy, especially in the prologue.

As mentioned early, the game takes place during 2003's Iraq War, with many references to the state of the world during that time. Two of the playable characters, Nick and Rachel, are seen having a romance with each other. Things take a turn for the dramatic when Rachel's husband, Eric, arrives on base earlier than anticipated. Wartime infidelity? Check. Strange bedfellows between forces? Also, check. Of the five characters, one of them, Salim, is an Iraqi soldier. This, alone, has the potential to cause tension with some allies considering the circumstances but it also highlights the bigger picture which is beyond politics.

House of Ashes Rachel Decision
The Dark Pictures Anthology: House of Ashes - Xbox Series X Direct Capture

Everyone Is Kinfolk When Dealing With Survival

It is here that I can appreciate Supermassive Games sticking to their word in only using the Iraq War as a setting, only using references when necessary. After all, when the ever-looming threat of a 2000-year-old curse approaches, there's no time to fret on such things. This is focused on as early as the prologue when an oppressed prisoner is forced to momentarily bond with his would-be executor as they fight an unknown supernatural enemy. At the end of the prologue lies a sweet Aliens reference, making their momentary allegiance all the cooler.

Gameplay is linear, as expected for narrative-based games, where quick reflexes and wit determines the fate of your allies. Depending on the player's answers to dialogue, categorized with the heart and mind, certain characters will behave differently. A positive response from a crewmate doesn't mean giving the same response will net as favorably. When dealing with enemies, players aim at the general location within a time limit to fight. Common tropes of games like these including button mashing and QTEs also persist. Failing these, as expected, can seal a character's fate.

The Dark Pictures Anthology: House of Ashes Aliens
The Dark Pictures Anthology: House of Ashes - Xbox Series X Direct Capture

In The House of Ashes, Everything Falls Down

Of the gameplay mechanics, my favorite inclusion was dealing with stressful situations provided in game. At certain sections, specifically high tension scenes, the character will have to calm down by controlling their breathing. This is done by pressing a button to the rhythm of a heartbeat. Missing the rhythm will cause the character to freak out, leading to a fight, detection, or worse. Aside from these mechanics most of the gameplay is exploring areas until the plot demands to go forward. It is here that House of Ashes is more of an interactive movie than a traditional game.

The Dark Pictures Anthology: House of Ashes Controlled Breathing
The Dark Pictures Anthology: House of Ashes - Xbox Series X Direct Capture

Players who boot up The Dark Pictures Anthology: House of Ashes expecting a "David Cage" style game will feel right at home. Drama is used as a leverage point to fuel the player's compassion towards keeping characters alive. The supernatural is seen as an undefeatable force and acts of over-compassion may lead to a pointless death. Those who want a little more "action" in their adventure may be disappointed in House of Ashes. Should expectations be kept as a minimum, taking the game as an "interactive drama," even the most stubborn will appreciate this cinematic experience.

The Dark Pictures Anthology: House of Ashes is available on the PC, PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X, and Xbox Series S.

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