House of Ashes is the third entry into Supermassive Games’ Dark Pictures Anthology series of narrative-driven horror games, a series which is ambitiously targeting a total of eight instalments. So far they’ve done an admirable job keeping to a yearly release schedule, with each game showcasing a unique horror take on a piece of real-world inspiration, such as the Ourang Medan in Man of Medan and the Salem Witch Trials in Little Hope. Supermassive have given us a short sneak peek into House of Ashes, which promises to evolve the series in some interesting ways, while still remaining a good place to jump on board for newcomers.
While it’s still based on real-world elements, House of Ashes looks to be potentially the most fantastical concept so far. According to Will Doyle, Game Director at Supermassive Games, House of Ashes takes inspiration from H.P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness, as well as Aliens, Predator and The Descent. Taking place in the Middle East during the Iraq War in 2003, American forces are hunting for chemical weapons of mass destruction. Coming under attack by Iraqi soldiers, the entire area collapses during an earthquake, which plunges both sides deep into a vast subterranean ancient Akkadian temple.
They discover the temple was built by the God King of the Akkadian Empire, Naram-Sin, a real king who reigned around 2550 BCE. In House of Ashes, Naram-Sin is said to have upset the gods by ransacking a temple of Enlil (a Mesopotamian God), bringing a curse upon his people which he hoped to alleviate with this temple, built as an offering. That curse may have something to do with the nasty monsters that now nest in the caves – none of which we could clearly see in the preview, but which have been created by Supermassive using mocap suits to make something “very vicious”. Basically, the Americans and Iraqis are going to need to start trusting each other fast, if they want to have a hope of surviving.
As with other games in Supermassive’s oeuvre, House of Ashes is a cinematic interactive drama, that often features long cutscenes interspersed with player exploration, quick-time events and dialogue choices, which all affect how the story plays out. There are five player characters – four from the US (including the star revealed in last year’s trailer, played by Ashley Tisdale) and a fifth Iraqi officer – and there’s multiple ways to play through with them. In co-op mode, you and a friend can experience two different vantage points of the same scene, as you role play as two of the characters. The ‘Movie Night’ feature lets you assign each character to five players in one room, and prompts you when it’s time to take turns. If you choose to play single player, the ‘main theatrical cut’ will place you in control of certain characters that deliver the main story, while a pre-order bonus, ‘the Curator’s Cut’, will place you with alternate characters and include extra scenes.
Supermassive have a talent for replicating cinematic visuals in their games, and in the gameplay shown, the graphical fidelity seen was pretty unreal. Character models are top notch, and there are some vast, unnerving but meticulously detailed locations that make up the lost Akkadian kingdom. Confirming support for next-generation consoles, Supermassive say you’ll see a marked improvement as well in overall graphical fidelity.
Feedback from the previous two games has been taken on board as well, and Supermassive have replaced the former fixed cameras in interactive sections with a fully player-controlled 360 degree camera. It comes with a player-controlled flashlight which can be switched on and off – keeping it on slows you down, but helps clues become illuminated with little shiny shines on-screen. Difficulty settings have also been added to the House of Ashes, including for quick-time sequences.
In the small section of House of Ashes we were shown, characters Nick and Jason find each other after falling into the caves after the earthquake. Nick gets a few early jump scares from sightings of the creatures, leading him to warn Jason things aren’t hunky-dory in the ancient Akkadian death-trap. Jason, his superior, assumes Nick is losing it and shuts him down quickly. Together, they find another soldier, Merwin, severely injured and tangled in wires hanging from the roof, and Clarice. Unfortunately Clarice is quickly dispatched by unseen creatures, and when Jason and Nick drag Merwin away, Nick is left to look after the poor bloke. First Nick has to go through a QTE to keep pressure on his wound, and then another to cover his mouth so he stops alerting the monsters. The only catch is Nick is a little too keen on this second QTE – he accidentally smothers Merwin and causes him to choke to death.
Is Merwin’s death preventable if you chill out a little on that QTE? If you play as Jason, do you approach the scene differently and instead listen to what Nick is saying, rather than letting a pipsqueak he outranks start panicking? Do all the monsters have the same great dramatic timing? That’s what we’ll all have to find out, when the game is released later in 2021, for both current-gen and next-gen consoles.