The Dark Pictures Anthology: House of Ashes Preview Probes New Depths
House of Ashes refocuses your fear of the dark.
Similar to Ryan Murphy’s genius approach to anthology horror stories on the small screen, Supermassive Games is continuing its collection of scary stories to tell in the dark with The Dark Pictures Anthology. House of Ashes is the third game in the torchlight, which is a device you will be thankful to have while you investigate these foreboding, new grounds.
This particular compilation of eye-widening, interactive narratives began in 2019 with Man of Medan and its delivery of a summer vacation gone awry. The anthology repeated the feat the following year with Little Hope, which was Supermassive’s answer to the haunted town trope. In 2021, House of Ashes drags your curiosity underground and offers a crucible of scares, surprises, and a host of popular influences.
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My introduction to the House of Ashes preview dropped me hastily into the Iraq War with my hoo-rah comrades and interjected an immediate circumstance to take our campaign deep underground. The initial hook is that stiffening feeling of claustrophobia and the triggering of our primitive fear of the dark. The deafening wall of darkness caused my gameplay to quicken until I had found Jason – my missing battle buddy.
Traversing the sand and navigating through confined, stone passageways begged for the assistance of my flashlight and piercing, red flares – a tool that looks fantastic against the monochrome setting throughout the preview. Becoming familiar with the oppressive setting allowed me to appreciate the smooth character movements and interactions with nearby artifacts that illuminated as a twinkle in the sand.
As artifacts and premonitions were gathered, a prompt point towards sinister, Sumerian mythology was realized as the primary source of chills for this Dark Pictures chapter. With premonitions stored safely under “Pictures”, a further “Secrets”, “Bearings”, and shifting characters tab was also revealed, with the first two functions remaining rather ambiguous until the full release of the game.
The five, playable characters introduced in the preview were Eric, Rachel, Salim, Nick, and Jason. Nick was the first soldier to control, whose choices during my first monster attack set the moral standard that these characters are capable of sliding under. My time playing Salim was short-lived, but his place on the roster – as an Iraqi soldier and therefore enemy of the other characters – was an interesting addition, which will no doubt cause some conflict within the full story. The over-the-shoulder camera angle and the right-trigger mechanic to pick up items were two, notable components to firstly add to the preview’s cinematic visuals, and its immersion secondly.
The preview allowed me to spend most of my gameplay with Eric and Rachel, a divorced couple who felt like it was an appropriate time to discuss their relationship issues. Despite the sandy temples – haunted by an unknown, monstrous threat – being the worst place to get lovey-dovey, their interaction and the anthology’s return of the dialogue compass (which takes a few tries to figure out if you’re unfamiliar) demonstrated House of Ashes’ character-driven premise. Similar to The Walking Dead’s success at making the zombie scares secondary to the character development, this preview sets up a similar approach, promising plenty of shocking character decisions in the future – despite some dialogue choices being left by the wayside to make room for the programmed narrative to barge through.
In favor of not comparing House of Ashes to its influences too much, a brief moment of recognition towards its Prometheus vibes and inspiration from The Descent are a few obvious nods that film buffs will find particularly pleasing. The preview’s introduction to just how dark this game can get is equally as realistic as it is terrifying. While the dark abyss is a classic setting for ghouls to hide in, the fact that we’re accustomed to it by now doesn’t make one bit of difference when the underground devils come out to play.
My first encounter with the winged, blood-thirsty adversaries instantly brought back the trauma of seeing the alien’s leg retract back into the cornfield in M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs. The blink-and-you’ll-miss-it movement of limbs darting across your path from shadow to shadow, or the gradual fan of fingers gripping the edge of the wall were classic tropes that played to the genre’s strength. When the vampire-like, flying mutants did reveal more of their form and sounds, it only promised the magnitude of their threat that will be ever-present throughout the full release.
The preview of a game should always leave you wanting more, and while this short introduction supplied nothing groundbreaking within the genre, it did leave a hunger for more character development and an appetite for the underlying mythology fueling the monsters’ thirst for blood – including Pazuzu, the king of the demons. It’s clear that there will be a mix of characters to champion and others to wish death upon, but House of Ashes’ engaging mechanics, cinematic score, and surprising character decisions should be enough incentive to brave the dark over and over again.