Anthology series tend to do best when each adventure builds on the concept of the core series. Part of The Twilight Zone’s enduring power is due to how quickly each world is established, built upon, and concluded. This is far from the only series to accomplish it, I have a certain fondness for the ‘90s run of The Outer Limits, with Black Mirror finding success in these more complicated times. Over the years we’ve seen Supermassive Games release chilling stories that grip players, not letting go until the very end. This started with Until Dawn, continued with Hidden Agenda, absolutely stood out in the VR experience The Inpatient, but their luck with The Dark Pictures Anthology has been iffy. Man of Medan was a divisive experience, Little Hope fixed some things at the cost of others, with the latest, The Dark Pictures Anthology: House of Ashes, hoping to bring the series forward. With a new adventure, is it a must or does it define the anthology?
There were a couple of things that stood out immediately about The Dark Pictures Anthology: House of Ashes. Certain early themes slowly build until they appear in the forefront, like religious items, with the core story playing out like a generic horror movie, just with a small introduction and monologue. But I am getting ahead of myself, so let’s start with the beginning, which takes place centuries prior.
One of the Cryptic Characters from the Past
At this point, players witness a sacrifice to the gods at the request of a powerful tyrant. Despite giving life to their god, these people are punished by having a mysterious creature come and destroy them. This scene is interesting because it’s not so much about the imminent demise of Balathu at the hands of these terrifying creatures, as much as a foreshadowing of the events to come.
As this scene plays out, a couple of key events occur. The room contains two people, one from the oppressors and the other from the group oppressed, a small nod about thinking the oppressed people were bad and a couple of quick choices to either work together or fight alone.
After this scene, we meet the Curator who offers some foreboding and ominous comments on what is about to transpire. This scene isn’t just well written, Pip Torrens’ delivery is just perfect. It’s the perfect introduction to a story that otherwise struggles to find its footing.
At this point, the adventure begins in Iraq in the ‘00s. The Dark Pictures Anthology: House of Ashes follows a group of Americans looking for Saddam Hussein, fighting the war on terror, and so forth. Most of these early scenes focus on establishing the time, place, thoughts, feelings, and emotions of those involved in the upcoming mission. Following this players are introduced to Salim, an Iraqi soldier who is thrown into conflict.
Both groups fight, an earthquake occurs and both groups end up falling through the floor and in a mysterious temple, the one seen in the past. From this point, the story opens up in a way that feels more traveled than it probably actually is.
There is evidence of people exploring this place in the past, concerns on whether or not US troops can trust Salim and his fear of being gunned down by hostile forces, mysterious items, and the sounds of the creatures from the past looming over the group.
This Was on the Wall of a Narrow Hallway that Might Go Overlooked
Where things go off the rails is, quite honestly, too much going on and not enough of it interesting. This fascinating location, filled with small details that show the dedication behind Supermassive Games, is lost on pointless side stories. A fair amount of time is dedicated to two of the character’s past love life, another’s a hot-headed attitude in regards to orders, advice, and unknown forces, with very little spent on the horrific monsters that have a chilling backstory.
Instead, everything plays out like your typical horror movie. The start fleshes out the characters that are oblivious to most of the events going on, but not without someone seeing a random idol on the ground and instantly explains it’s the Sumerian god Pazuzu. All of this builds to more and more conflict with these creatures until a final showdown determines everyone’s fate.
Things Lurk in the Shadows
Like other games in the series, The Dark Pictures Anthology: House of Ashes does a decent job offering different outcomes to situations. The changes aren’t always massive, but some of them defy expectations. Either by changing the information your team is aware of, to having optimism rewarded. It’s just a shame the adventure is just very slow with some odd choices.
One of the struggles behind an interactive story like The Dark Pictures Anthology: House of Ashes is trying to keep players engaged. Certain things need to happen to warrant a quick time event, exploration or choice. I often found some of the choices were odd. I didn’t mind players having the option to trust Salim or not, even if I didn’t think certain characters would be as open as I choose to be, there are just a lot of flights of fancy choices. I often found choices were between giving the satisfying answer and the right one. It takes away from the choice, though even if I knew it was wrong, I sometimes indulged.
The Dark Pictures Anthology: House of Ashes Review Verdict
Speaking for myself, The Dark Pictures Anthology: House of Ashes starts very strong, takes an instant nose dive, and then meanders to one of the conclusions. Linear paths, obvious secrets, blatant choices, and more take so much out of the experience. Sure, players are still rewarded with so many tiny details, it just isn’t interesting enough to warrant the ride. It’s hard to go from a man in a golden mask taking the life of a woman before his people are brutally killed by monstrous beasts to getting orders about how this insurrection is going to play out and then three hours in a hole looking for more interesting things to do. It’s a shame too since the interesting things are there, it would probably just work better as a movie than a game.
[Editor’s Note: The Dark Pictures Anthology: House of Ashes was reviewed on PlayStation 5 and a copy was provided to us for review purposes. The game was tested as well on PC.]