The Descent VS Aliens
If you’ve played any of the entries in The Dark Pictures Anthology, House of Ashes should come as absolutely no surprise. The latest Supermassive title is, in its simplest form, a riff on both Aliens and The Descent. The surprising part here though comes from how well it works. While the game suffers from a contrived ending and thin characterization for half its cast, this rip-roaring adventure leans much harder into thriller territory than past entries – and it’s all the stronger for it.
Unlike the isolated boat on Man of Medan or the abandoned town of Little Hope, House of Ashes ditches those tropey areas in favour of the sandy horrors lurking in Iraq, 2003. Saddam Hussain has been killed, the war is at an uneasy standstill and soldiers on both sides of the conflict find themselves stuck in limbo.
A brief prologue kicks things off, diving back to Akkad in 2231BC. An Akkadian general called Balathu is summoned by the King to carry out an execution. It’s a simple set-up, one that introduces all the key mechanics of the game (more on that in a minute) before diving into the main story. A solar eclipse brings out long-dormant demons that begin running riot at the temple and killing Balathu and his enemy-turned-uneasy-companion Kurum.
Fast forward to Iraq and those horrors stir again, ultimately opening up the ground and swallowing up five unsuspecting main characters whom we follow across the course of the 5-6 hour run-time. Eric is the Colonel in charge and he tumbles down with his wife Rachel. Only, Rachel has been hooking up with fellow Marine Nick, who urges Rachel to tell Eric the truth.
There’s also Salim, a loyal Iraqi soldier who just wants to do right by his son and Jason, a man with a serious vendetta against Iraqis and whose story is easily the stand-out of the whole game. In fact, I’d argue that Jason and his uneasy alliance with Salim is the stand-out of the entire Dark Pictures anthology and that of Until Dawn too. It’s beautifully paced, meticulously plotted and every single event between the two – both good and bad – serves a purpose.
Both characters grow and evolve over time, with wider questions about the war and what they’re both doing fighting for doing well to juxtapose and compare their ideals. Jason, in particular, is one of the most-rounded characters found in these choice games and by the end I found myself rooting for him. That’s quite a feat given the start had me groaning and shaking my head every time this guy showed up.
Less ambitious and insightful though is that of Nick, Eric and Rachel. Rachel in particular is dreadfully characterized and Nick doesn’t fare much better either. There’s a chapter where Eric does eventually figure out what Nick and Rachel have been up to and everything from the dialogue to the lame fight between the two feels like something ripped right from a Hallmark movie.
These blemishes though do thankfully pale next to such an enjoyable story. There’s rarely a lull in this and every scene serves a purpose to drive the plot forward. I actually completed this in a single evening although those with less time could easily pace this out across a few days or even a week.
The story has a good amount of action and each chapter features bouts of exploration too. It’s pretty on-rails stuff, with the areas in question very small by comparison to say Little Hope, but that’s to be expected given the entirety of this game takes place underground.
The controls are similar to what we’ve seen before, with the left analog stick used to move your character around and the right analog stick choosing dialogue options. It’s also used to swing the camera too, but we’ll get back to that in a second. There’s also your usual inputs for a heartbeat monitor, which helps to heighten tense segments, and slow-mo aiming for pointing a rifle or spear in the direction of the enemies.
Given the confined areas on offer, House of Ashes is ultimately its own worst enemy. The camera can hang horribly onto edges, or zoom in extremely close to characters when you’re trying to look around. Swinging the right analog is far more sluggish than it should be, and a great example of this comes during one of the game’s opening chapters. Here, you’re told to explore small Iraqi huts but in doing so, the hallways are congested; good luck trying to turn the camera there.
Visually, the game looks really good although whoever rendered Rachel into this game should probably have some additional training. She really doesn’t look great and the facial expressions are so extreme that at times it felt like watching an AI wax figurine try and blend in with humans. Imagine Jude Law from A.I. thrown in the middle of The Descent and you get a pretty clear impression of what it’s like.
The choices themselves are actually decent and while everything cleverly steers toward the same conclusion, there is a lot of room for error in this title. There are numerous opportunities to slip up and during one particular chapter, aptly titled “The Assault”, there’s more than one way to kill several characters. Having played through the game three times now, this chapter slipped me up numerous times, with Rachel, Eric and Nick all able to be killed here in pretty unpleasant ways.
I won’t spoil more of the game for obvious reasons but there’s a lot of variation to how this story plays out. As I said before, this game is carried by the exceptional work done with Salim and Jason, a duo who are foreshadowed to work together all the way back in the prologue. Whether intentional or not, these two make the game and carry what’s otherwise a pretty simple cast of characters.
House of Ashes doesn’t have a wide-spanning story but if you’re looking to see everything this title has to offer (and get all those trophies) you’re looking at around 20 hours of so of play-time.
One of the biggest gripes I have with this game – and the series as a whole to be honest – is the inability to skip dialogue and cutscenes a second time through. Replaying the same scene again and again is fun but sitting through a 3-5 minute cutscene with the inability to skip it is most certainly not.
I can’t help but feel a “Hold X to skip” button would have been perfect to cut out the grind, locked behind completing the game of course. Replaying some of these long chapters just to find a single secret or change one dialogue option should be a simple task but alas, it’s made much more cumbersome because of this.
Gripes aside, House of Ashes is easily the strongest of the Supermassive titles to date. The studio are clearly confident and competent with these titles now and the changed location to Iraq and the cavernous depths works wonders to shake things up.
This is a solid, well-written entry in the Dark Pictures Anthology, typified by excellent characterization for Jason and Salim. It may not be the best game of the year, but like an old acquaintance who drops by around the holidays, this is a welcome distraction and a fun way to pass some time.
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Verdict - 7.5/10