Developed By: Supermassive Games
Published By: Bandai Namco Entertainment
Platforms: PlayStation 4 & 5 / Xbox One X, Series S & X / PC
Reviewed On: PS5
Like most people, Supermassive Games first truly registered on my radar when Until Dawn was revealed. It sold itself as a playable survival horror cinematic movie and me being a horror movie fan was eating out of their hand before even getting to play the game. When I finally did jump in, it wasn’t a revolutionary experience but a really fascinating one with the branching storyline and choices that could make or break your journey, but the game did have its obvious shortcomings.
Thanks to Bandai Namco Entertainment Asia, we were granted the review code for House of Ashes, the third entry in The Dark Pictures Anthology after Man of Medan and Little Hope. Just to be forthcoming I did not review or play Man of Medan extensively and a huge part of how it was kind of a technical mess early on in that game, so I just dropped it. Last year I did a mini video review project for Little Hope and found the game to be just a run-of-the-mill experience.
After digesting it for a bit I feel that House of Ashes was more enjoyable compared to Little Hope but that might not be because of the game itself.
For They have Sown The Wind And They Shall Reap The Whirlwind
House of Ashes tries to blend real life with fiction as the story is set during the invasion of Iraq by the United States to take down Saddam Hussein’s regime due to the alleged nuclear weapons that he was hiding. During a routine mission to check out a suspected nuclear silo site the team of US Marines inadvertently find themselves falling into an ancient temple that houses a terror long dormant. If you have watched countless horror movies you really will find yourself right at home as The Dark Pictures Anthology does its utmost best to bring the player the most accurate horror movie experience it can.
One of the biggest names attached to this project is Ashley Tisdale (of High School Musical fame) and she plays someone who is in charge of a group of Marines. The team is as stereotypical as you can get with Ashley’s character Rachel being the “Queen Bitch” just because she is in charge, Jason the army vet who has to say “oorah” every chance he gets, Nick who is full of guilt due to a botched operation, Merwin the offensive one, and Joey the superstitious one. They are joined by the man whose program found the underground location in the first place, Eric who conveniently also happens to be Rachel’s husband, and his snarky assistant Clarice. Rounding out the cast is also Salim an Iraqi soldier who just wants to go back to his son and his anti-American general Dar.
It’s funny how the only character I actually liked in this game is Salim and that’s not because he plays the earnest underdog character. It’s because his character’s journey from start to end just felt the most natural compared to the rest. He’s just a father who wants to get back to his son and does what he thinks is best. I’m not saying that the rest of their story arcs are rubbish but there are just some branching arc motivations that just feel out of place. The game tries to be clever by hiding certain aspects of some characters and only revealing them later on but depending on the choices the player makes they still can somehow be played out in a different way that contradicts the reveal anyways.
Like Rachel’s marriage to her husband Eric. In the beginning, Rachel is unhappy so she has an affair because Eric is a huge asshole and yet during the course of the game the player can choose to play Eric as loveable and the game even implies that he has been trying hard to be good for a long time and yet later in the game just three weeks prior he is still shown to be an asshole. It’s moments like these that just don’t fit together but it’s there. Not to mention how she flip-flops between Eric and her lover is just so weak because it’s barely explored.
I enjoyed most of the main story but again there are some aspects that just didn’t work and made redundant only to serve as a false lead or just going too far when they could have tightened it up. The game starts you off in 2231BC where the supernatural threat first arises and introduces you to two characters obviously to show how ancient this threat really is but if they had cut off this section completely and just started out present-day, nothing would have been missed. That’s because it just isn’t important in any way except for providing cameos that also don’t feel important. That also goes for the big reveal of the supernatural creatures terrorizing the cast. They go from being ancient creatures to vampires to alien vampires and as cool as that sounds the whole alien thing just didn’t work for me.
It’s an improvement over the past two games in the anthology but not by much.
Freely They Stood Who Stood, And Fell Who Fell
Playing the game on the PS5 provided a much better experience compared to the past two games. Like most PS5 games nowadays there are the Quality and Performance modes and graphically the only difference I found for both is just some minor extra enhancements on the quality mode and is locked to 30fps. I played mostly on the Performance mode because I liked the higher framerate, and the image quality was still very nice and sharp. The performance of the game was also much better as loading speeds were below 5 seconds and frame drops were just little to none. Sound design was effective but not anything that felt “next-gen”.
This game was made with cross-gen in mind, and it shows. For a cinematic game, there are a few obvious assets and visual effects that just don’t match up to the promised spectacle. The biggest one would be explosive moments where you understand what the developers were aiming for but it’s like waiting for a firework to just blanket the sky only for one tiny one to pop oh so far away.
The gameplay is also completely unchanged from previous entries where players can collect premonitions that reveal potential futures, collectibles that expand on the story of the game, the heartbeat minigame where players must press the corresponding buttons, QTE moments, and lots of walking.
Straight up, this game really feels like a 3–4-hour movie at most but stretched way more due to really irritating design decisions. I feel that the game has some gameplay balancing issues and as much as I tried to be open to it I just felt suffocated by the experience. It’s okay that the responses are timed but why is exploring also timed but only sometimes? Why are some items clearly labeled to move the scene along but others not? Why can’t I fast forward? Why can’t I just bloody run?
Apart from these issues is also the fact that the player can spend a huge amount of time just watching only to suddenly be thrust into a QTE event and miss the prompt. That’s why all those issues I brought up above just matter more as it makes it evidently obvious how padded the game is.
It is a unique experience, but it just should be easier to digest especially for a game that prides itself on giving that level of replayability for the player, why insist on wasting so much of their time?
What I Thought Was Okay
- Story – I liked the story well enough to look forward to the next entry.
- Replayability – If you can stomach sitting through whole scenes over and over again then it’s definitely a bonus to see the branches.
What Should Have Been Better
- Characters – Is it possible to write better characters instead of resorting to just the stereotypes?
- Gameplay – Shouldn’t the gameplay also be evolving three entries in? It feels like I’m just playing the same exact game just with a different story each time.
I enjoyed House of Ashes more than Little Hope but after the credits rolled am I ever going to go back to it? I want to but I won’t and that’s purely because of the tedium. I actually restarted twice on my initial playthrough because I missed my cue or made a choice I didn’t want to but just getting to those points back again just wasted too much time (up to 20 minutes in fact). Imagine that happening and missing the cues again and repeating that whole experience again. How does that translate to fun? I think it was because I played this on a PS5 that the experience was just tolerable enough to enjoy but I really do wonder if I would have felt the same way playing on last-gen hardware.
If you enjoyed the previous games in this anthology House of Ashes is worth a pickup but is this game the one that can really inspire more casual players to jump aboard? That’s still up in the air.
Strangely though I am really looking forward to the next one, The Devil In Me because it looks like it’s drawing inspiration from the Saw franchise. I’m cautiously optimistic that the fourth time is the charm but I know deep down the next one is going to play exactly the same just with a different story.