I first got a glimpse of The Dark Pictures Anthology: House of Ashes when I picked up the final premonition in Little Hope. This postcard depicted a soldier who fell down a chasm, her fate unknown. Eventually, it was revealed that this character would be played by none other than Ashley Tisdale.
Then, in late May, I was fortunate enough to watch a short video showcasing some of the events in the upcoming game. Tisdale’s character, CIA officer Rachel King, is one of five characters who find themselves in the middle of a warzone. The setting: the invasion of Iraq in 2003. The objective: searching for weapons of mass destruction. Unfortunately, things don’t go as planned, and a cave-in causes everyone to fall deep below the Zagros Mountains. That brings us to our House of Ashes preview which presents about an hour of gameplay.
Lost and found
The first section of the story gave me control of Sgt. Nick Kay, a US Marine. Falling down a crevice, he ends up searching for his buddy, Lt. Jason Kolchek (also another playable character). After making it past some twisting passageways and encountering a few jumpscares, Kay meets up with Kolchek. The two then open a doorway that leads them to two more of their comrades, Merwin and Clarice. Merwin is gravely wounded and covered in blood. As they attempt to free him, Clarice is dragged away screaming by an unknown creature.
Both Kay and Kolchek start firing wildly, all while attempting to get Merwin to safety. This sequence is followed by a couple of quick-time events (QTEs) where Kay has to keep Merwin quiet lest the creature find them. Mind you, since I had already watched the showcase video back in May, I knew that having Kay cover Merwin’s mouth would cause the latter to suffocate. I actually avoided pressing any buttons during this QTE, which meant that the two combatants were able to drag their wounded comrade away.
Are they real?
Without spoiling too much, let’s just say that The Dark Pictures Anthology has fiddled with psychological horror and mind games quite often. But, House of Ashes seems different. The monsters here look and feel more real.
I doubt that it’s simply due to the “unreliable narrator” trope because these denizens of the deep are visibly seen by most of the characters. Nowhere is this more pronounced than in a short chapter where I controlled Lt. Salim Othman, a member of the Iraqi army.
Othman sees the mangled body of another trooper. Then, as he heads through a corridor, a wailing shriek stops him in his tracks and a demonic beast lunges for him. In this particular chase sequence, you need to press the correct buttons to prevent Othman from stumbling. Flashes also occur, giving you a glimpse of the creature’s Predator-like vision.
When I was given a choice between running or shutting the door, I picked the latter. This ravenous beast would have none of it, continuing to claw its way out. Thankfully, another cave-in caused a truck to drop straight on its head. Othman breathed a sigh of relief, and so did I.
The Dark Pictures: House of Ashes is action-packed
In these short, bite-sized chapters, I could tell that The Dark Pictures: House of Ashes is already action-packed, featuring some thrilling moments. There are several chase sequences, as well as the aforementioned firefights. On a couple of occasions, you even get to aim your rifle or pistol at creatures to make them scurry away.
Perhaps my only gripe, at least from a cinematic standpoint, is that there were way too many camera cuts. I genuinely felt like I was watching The Bourne Identity and its sequels or a weekly WWE show. These occurrences were so jarring at times, certainly far from what I remember when compared to the previous Dark Pictures games (including Until Dawn).
Granted, this was only based on a preview build. It’s possible that the developers condensed these scenes and moments within a short time span, hence the jarring cuts. I’m hoping that this won’t be the case in the finished version.
In a couple of chapters, I did get to play as Rachel King (Tisdale) who winds up in the caverns with her husband, Lt. Col. Eric King (the fifth and final playable character). Let’s just say that the acting between these two seemed wooden to begin with. Then, I realized that this was because they’ve been separated. It’s why they’re so awkward when interacting with each other instead of having that chemistry you’d expect.
As both Rachel and Eric, you’re presented with decisions that aim to settle their differences and perhaps start anew. There were even serious discussions and sweet moments that affect their relationship/bonds (similar to past characters in The Dark Pictures games). Unfortunately, there’s a certain reveal that pisses off Eric.
In the following chapter, Rachel is about to fall down a chasm. Eric, holding on to the ropes, can either keep pulling her back up or cut her loose. As far as I know, you can’t trigger the outcome for the former during this preview build, which meant that Rachel had to take a long dive.
Then again, I believe the former scenario also leads to Eric’s doom. After all, the premonitions in House of Ashes (now depicted as stone tablets) are still around. In one such stone tablet premonition, Eric attempts to pull Rachel back up, only to slip and get impaled on a stalagmite.
This cutscene is followed by a cinematic showing various events that you can expect to see down the line. We’ll witness more deaths, destruction, and demons. Likewise, we’ll delve further to learn more about the mystery and historical setting of The Dark Pictures Anthology: House of Ashes.
It appears that your characters weren’t the first group to explore the underground caverns. These ruins in the Zagros Mountains were once discovered by an archaeological expedition. Instead of finding the long-lost tomb of Alexander the Great, these archeologists stumbled upon a temple built by Naram-Sin, a ruler of the ancient Akkadian Empire. A legend, known as the Curse of the Agade, tells of how Naram-Sin attempted to placate the wrathful god Enlil by constructing this temple. However, there’s more than meets the eye, as Rachel and Eric find out after picking up clues, letters, and a statue of the demon god Pazuzu.
All in all, the premise and historical backgrounds (both ancient and modern themes) are very interesting. The action and horror elements should keep you on your toes. Moreover, the visuals remain top notch, with light sources in the darkness playing a particularly important role in creating a foreboding atmosphere.
Some persistent problems in The Dark Pictures: House of Ashes
My only other concerns are related to character models, controls, movement, and scene skipping. In a couple of instances, I’ve noticed that some characters used the facial models of those from previous games (i.e., Clarice looks a lot like Taylor from Little Hope). It’s possible that Supermassive Games is simply cutting costs, or using these assets purely for the preview build, though I think long-time players will make the same observations, too. As for controls and movement, the characters are still slow and sluggish. I can forgive earlier games in the series for this, in a way the slow pacing is apt for a bunch of lost teens or yuppies who are exploring scary sites. But, it’s really odd when a group of trained soldiers move at a snail’s pace as though they’re all taking a leisurely stroll.
Lastly, scene skipping is something that’s desperately needed. I understand the need to retain that cinematic feel. However, with so many camera cuts during certain moments, it’s a surprise that you still can’t skip these scenes at all. Perhaps that function, along with other improvements, will be added once The Dark Pictures Anthology: House of Ashes releases on October 22. Otherwise, we’re bound to endure a repeat of this ordeal. If that’s the case, this will be the fourth offering from Supermassive Games to lack this important option.