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House of Ashes Review

I kicked off the spooky season by playing House of Ashes. PlayStation Plus Extra members can currently download it for free. It was already on my to-do-list for a while, so this was the perfect time. I’m a sucker for games from developer Supermassive Games. Their games always feature a horror/thriller theme, and you can influence the course of the cinematic games through the choices you make. I have a particular weakness for the latter (that’s why I’m also a massive fan of the Quantic Dream games).

I thoroughly enjoyed games like Until Dawn and The Quarry. In The Dark Pictures Anthology, I previously played Man of Medan and Little Hope, both of which provided me with a great time. So, it was high time for me to dive into House of Ashes as well. Does Supermassive Games continue to impress? Find out in this review.

The Story in a Spoiler-Free Nutshell

House of Ashes Review - Story

House of Ashes starts out as a war game. You take on the role of various soldiers within a special forces unit, dispatched to Iraq in search of weapons of mass destruction. Noteworthy is the game’s references to real historical figures and events, with discussions about the Iraq War and key figures like George Bush Jr. and Saddam Hussein, raising moral questions throughout the game.

The game, apart from the introduction, begins rather straightforwardly. The horror element is temporarily absent, and it demonstrates how a war game, where your choices affect the fate of your teammates and local residents, could actually work quite well. But, of course, it’s Supermassive Games, so we’re eagerly awaiting the appearance of demons, witches, or other bloodthirsty creatures.

Amidst a military battle, the ground literally disappears beneath your feet. The soldiers under your command discover a historical hidden temple underground. It goes without saying that they’re not the only ones there. It doesn’t take long for the first horrors to surface, and it’s up to you to ensure that the group can survive this spine-chilling adventure.

The Most Mature Group of Characters So Far

House of Ashes Review - Cast

In the typical style of horror, the characters in Supermassive Games’ titles often don’t leave a highly intelligent impression. Just like in most horror films, I often derive the most enjoyment by temporarily suspending my thoughts and not dwelling too much on logic. The cast of House of Ashes did, at times, raise an eyebrow or two for me, but all in all, they are the most mature and human group of protagonists presented to us so far.

On the American side, the main characters you will be guiding through the darkness are Jason (First Lieutenant), Rachel (Field Officer), Eric (Lieutenant Colonel), and Nick (Sergeant). However, it’s the Iraqi character Salim (Lieutenant) whom I found to be the most significant part of the game.

The American/Iraqi conflict is a more serious theme than Supermassive Games has tackled thus far, and the fact that House of Ashes sheds light on both sides of the conflict is a well-executed choice.

Salim is introduced as the most level-headed among the group, providing a welcomed balance to everything occurring in the dark temple. Additionally, he forms an interesting contrast with Jason. Jason is portrayed as fairly close-minded, harboring deep resistance toward the Iraqis.

House of Ashes introduces the soldiers to a new common enemy, compelling former foes to work together. This leads to engaging dialogues and dynamics between the main characters, who gradually come to understand not only each other but also themselves better as the story unfolds.

House of Ashes Review - Love Triangle

The love triangle between the married (but separated) couple, Rachel and Eric, and the new lover, Nick, adds an element that doesn’t necessarily contribute significantly to the story but is entertaining enough and serves its purpose. It occasionally places players in Rachel’s shoes, presenting interesting choices: do you want to give your marriage another chance, or is your heart now with Nick? At the same time, this entire affair was sometimes eye-roll-inducing. Sure, love is important, and a broken heart sucks, but when I find myself in a nest of enormous, terrifying killing machines, I think my thoughts and priorities would be elsewhere.

The choices made in the game don’t always align with how characters behave and speak when you don’t have control over them. For instance, there was a moment when I treated Salim well and cooperated with him, only to see that same character fail to defend and stand up for Salim a minute later. At another point, as Jason, I supported my supposed buddy Nick and told him I would always have his back. Not long after I witnessed Jason lashing out at the man for pretty much no reason at all. Player choices and predetermined character behavior don’t always smoothly align with each other.

Familiar Gameplay With One Supermassive Improvement

House of Ashes Review - Gameplay

The gameplay in House of Ashes largely follows the familiar formula we’ve come to expect from Supermassive Games. Quick time events dictate our fate during action and/or stealth sequences, we make decisions and dialogue choices by pointing the analog stick in a specific direction, and the ‘don’t breathe’ mechanic is also present. When a character needs to make as little noise as possible, you press the button at the right moment as the heartbeat line scrolls by.

As an armed soldier, you can also defend yourself. During action sequences, you will sometimes need to aim and strike quickly and precisely at a specific target, such as the enemy’s heart.

You can choose from three different difficulty levels. I opted for the middle one, “challenging,” which, in hindsight, might have been just a tad less challenging than the name suggests. I believe I missed 1-2 QTEs. Nevertheless, I still had to remain vigilant at any moment.

In between these sequences, you explore the environment. Interesting objects and secrets are indicated by a sort of flash of light. The more secrets you collect, the more pieces of the mystery will come together.

Unlike previous games in The Dark Pictures Anthology, this time, you can rotate the camera 360 degrees around your characters. This is an improvement over the earlier games, where you had to switch between different camera perspectives. This sometimes led to less fluid and frustrating navigation, a problem that is finally addressed in House of Ashes.

That’s Nice and all…but Is It Scary?

House of Ashes Review - Dark

The setting of House of Ashes is perfectly suited for horror. Given that the majority of the game takes place underground, darkness is a natural element. Fortunately, there is a flashlight mechanic. The fact that it only illuminates a small part of the screen, leaving the rest in pitch darkness, adds a good dose of tension. Add to that the numerous narrow passageways, in which I was always afraid something would suddenly jump out, and you get a thrilling experience.

However, I felt that this suspenseful setting was underutilized. There might have been 1, 2…okay, 3 moments when I got startled, but I felt there could have been many more. On the one hand, jump scares can sometimes feel a bit cheap, and I appreciate tension being built without necessarily leading to a scare. Unfortunately, I often had the sense that things could have been a lot scarier, and the game could have made better use of the many tight, claustrophobic alleyways it had to offer.

The ‘monsters’ themselves are beautifully designed. However, as is often the case in horror, much of the scariness dissipated once they were fully revealed. There were many phases where it started to feel more like an action game than a horror game.

Conclusion

House of Ashes Review - Conclusion

Supermassive Games remains a reliable presence. The games in The Dark Pictures Anthology may not be perfect 10s, but they consistently offer more than enough, ensuring around 6-8 hours of entertainment.

House of Ashes introduces us to the best cast since the beginning of The Dark Pictures Anthology. It tackles more mature themes like wartime conflicts, and multiple characters undergo intriguing character development, a facet that was often lacking in the mostly one-dimensional characters from previous installments.

The improved camera eliminates past frustrations and enhances the overall gameplay. Unraveling the plot remains, as always, engaging, but the horror itself loses its threat too quickly. The captivating and visually impressive surroundings were ripe for a more intense horror experience. Nevertheless, House of Ashes is a highly enjoyable adventure, and I’ll undoubtedly return to make different choices and experience other outcomes of the story.

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