Game Reviews

A Fantastic Narrative Game | “The Dark Pictures Anthology: House of Ashes” (2021) Game Review

Supermassive Games has had quite the series of adventures developing games over the last half a decade. Until Dawn was no doubt their finest work and may yet go down as one of the greatest horror video games ever. Their follow up, the Dark Pictures Anthology series, began quite slowly with Man of Medan before picking up a little bit with Little Hope.

Then, we got House of Ashes. Slated to be the third game of the four game ‘Season’, how did House of Ashes fare?

Well, as the title suggests, it did quite well. Let’s talk about the pros and cons of the game, starting with the former.

The cast of characters is absolutely amazing

This mainly pertains to the game’s five main, playable characters, though even the secondary characters have their moments. Simply put, the playable characters in this game of Eric, Rachel, Nick and especially Jason and Salim are flat out incredible and really gave this game wings. Each of them operates very differently from one another, they all get plenty of time in the limelight for the player to enjoy them, and because they can be perma-killed at seemingly any point, it is very easy for the player to grow attached to them and allow the characters to truly reel the player in for top notch immersive value.

Jason Kolchek

The first pro briefly touched base on the broader selection of characters, but this and the next pro aim to specifically analyze two standout characters. Here, the creation of Jason’s character was something that has rarely, if ever, been before seen in gaming. Jason was never designed to be hateable. In fact, Jason is portrayed as a patriot, who signed up to become a US Marine and emulates very selfless values that society has generally attached to those in service. He does, however, have one primary flaw that makes him interesting: he hates Iraqi people with a burning passion, and this is what makes his forced alliance with Salim all the more interesting. His character development is pristine, as he goes from hating the people of Iraq or, the classic ‘judge a book by its cover’ trope, into angrily yelling at US investigators at the end of the game about how Salim was ‘one of them’ despite Salim himself being an Iraqi soldier. Jason is both likeable, relatable, and has an excellent character arc that made him standout in this one.

Salim Othman

The creation of Salim as a playable character was a bit of a leap of faith for Supermassive Games — per Steam player statistics, slightly more than 80% of the game’s player base stems from within the US. That isn’t to say everyone in the US hates people of Iraq, more so that having people of US play as a man who probably at one point killed Americans and fought under a flag which killed many Americans in a war was definitely a leap of faith. Yet, it doubtlessly worked.

Salim is somewhat of a reluctant soldier in this one, as he is pretty much forced into armed conflict with the Marines in this game, willfully and even eagerly works together with them once they’re trapped underground, and can potentially save the lives of main characters in this game multiple times. As such, he is a fairly stark contrast to Jason Kolchek, as he doesn’t have any particular animosity towards Americans. Salim’s story is relatable and easy to get interested in. His main goal is to escape the underworld so he can get back to his son and away from all of the violence the war and events of this game have threatened him with. As such, Salim became somewhat of a fan favorite and was definitely an enjoyable character to play.

Immersiveness is through the roof in this game

Having an excellent set of main characters combined with serious weight going into player decision making gives this game somewhat of a rollercoaster feeling. Simply put, this game has established somewhat of a blueprint for how interactive story telling games should be developed. There should never be a consistent, predetermined outcome in games like this, and here, there isn’t. Every character in the game can die, the main characters can all potentially survive and their main actions and personality traits can be determined by the player. The player drives the narrative here, which gives it incredible Immersiveness as well as tons of replay value.

The world the player plays in is pristinely developed

There is an absolutely loaded amount of depth to the ‘House of Ashes’ or, the underworld. The vampires which dwell within it have been masterfully designed, both artistically and from an interactive standpoint. The atmosphere is pretty good, and there isn’t really any sort of confusion on where the player is for the most part unless the game intended for there to be a “okay, where are we NOW?” moment. As usual for a Supermassive video game, the overall artistic design of the game is flawless, giving life to even would-be dull areas, such as venturing through a dark, barren cave or wandering through an empty, open field. Simply put, the various settings established throughout the game are pretty much flawless and contribute to the game’s immersive qualities.

House of Ashes was overall a pretty great game, but it wasn’t quite flawless. Let’s have a look at what went wrong.

There is a distinct lack of horror in this game

Overall, it’s hard to argue that this seriously detracts from the game as a whole. Still, this game markets itself as a horror game much like Until Dawn or the other entries in the Dark Pictures Anthology. Even with creepy vampires in an abandoned, somewhat ruined underground temple, it never truly feels like Supermassive actually tried to make this game into a horror game. Even Little Hope and Man of Medan include a good deal of jump scares and unsettling music. Here, it feels like the idea of making this game horror was abandoned very early on, as the game never even really makes the player so much as a little unsettled.

Earning achievements in this game is a little more tedious or silly than it should be

It also has a tendency to be somewhat lacking in intuition as well. One in game achievement is to find every secret item in the game. This seems fair enough, but a few of these secrets require inputs that the game never even really warns the player about ahead of time. One example is the Mesopotamian Mythology book found on Salim’s son Zain’s desk. The book itself is in plain sight, but in order to have actually registered as finding this secret, the player has to flip through the pages of the book. The game never tells the player they need to do this, and never tells the player how they would go about doing this- depending on what console you play this game on, you would probably arrive to this sequence and then end up just mashing buttons until something gets Salim to flip through the pages and officially unlock the secret.

Secret #27 is hidden behind a fairly annoying mini game of sorts that is tedious and extremely punishing of even mild player error. Here, the player arrives upon a small valley of cocooned vampires. The player has to sneak past these vampires and arrive at the end of the valley in order to pick up the secret — inadvertently alerting the vampires will cause them to chase the player away and will lock Secret #27 away until their next play through — or force the player to replay the whole, lengthy scene all over again just so they can try once more. Actually navigating through this immensely dark valley without making any noise is incredibly tedious. The lighting is very poor, and it is extremely easy to step on a tree branch and make enough noise to alert a vampire and mess everything up.

As such, trophy hunters may find this game to be a bit of a nuisance.

That’s it, really. As a result, I’d give this game a grade of an A+. The two cons don’t really hinder the core gameplay at all, while the pros will make this game one to be remembered for a long time. Get this one for your libraries, folks. You won’t regret it.

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