The Dark Pictures Anthology: House of Ashes is the latest in the playable horror movie genre from Supermassive Games. So far we’ve had a haunted diving trip, witch-hunting in ye olde Salem, and now we’ve got military monster mayhem.
The game is set in the dying embers of the Iraq War in 2003, and our heroes are a bunch of American Special Forces looking for weapons of mass destruction. They find them, sort of, when they’re trapped underground in a Sumerian temple full of monstrous creatures. The group is separated, and in our hands-on, the action swapped between the different collections of characters, like the couple with a history - Rachel and Eric - to Allied Forces soldier Salim. Horror fans will feel familiar with the territory, it feels very The Descent meets The Excorcist, you'll even find a statue of Pazuzu hidden as a little Easter Egg.
Our hands-on with a chunk from early in the game - our crew is underground but doesn't really know what those weird sounds in the dark are all about - proved that The Dark Pictures is sticking with its usual gameplay formula. Lots of story delivered in cutscenes and chats while you walk slowly through ominous areas, near-death events marked with QTE button mashing, and awkward conversations about dating or the FUBAR situation where you choose between a couple of dialogue options.
You don't have to wait very long for the first real horror moment, as two of our soldiers, Nick and Jason, stumble upon their friend hanging from the roof of a cavern like a gory marionette, bleeding heavily. The woman with him is quickly yanked away into the darkness by an unseen force and you're left to deal with the injured soldier. As the creatures descend he dies, possibly thanks to the terrible medical treatment delivered by my QTE morphine ministrations. Either way, he only would have slowed us down.
It was the standout moment in the small section we played, which otherwise focused on exploring the space and setting out the story and relationships House of Ashes had in store. Rachel - played by High School Musical's Ashely Tisdale no less - and Eric wandered around a huge room filled with the detritus of previous explorers and worryingly wired with dynamite. You can go straight for the set goals to move the story on - finding the fuel for a generator to power up the scattered equipment, and then check out an old recording - or you can wander around a little. This exploration usually pays off in The Dark Pictures episodes, you can find secrets like notes left behind that add to the story, artifacts that will trigger a "premonition" video clip that might guide you in a future choice, or just stumble across something that will save you some time later. I found some duct tape that saved me a second search when the generator sprung a leak and got some nice back story about the explorers that had preceded us.
Although, it is impossible to not play a game about American soldiers on foreign soil right now and not wonder how it will feel by the time October rolls around.
Head in the sand
The setting is undeniably atmospheric, moving between claustrophobic corridors with the walls marked with deadly-looking scratches and vast halls filled with statues and ruined masonry. Whether or not the sand-colored will start to wear thin after a few hours, or the game has some surprises in store as your work your way deeper into the temple is something only the developers and the monsters know for now. This slice felt like only a taste of a bigger story, some characters like Salim and Nick were only roughly sketched out in this early chunk, while conversations hinted at bigger issues that would need to be addressed - who was at fault for the events that led to the need for a prosthetic leg, for instance - along with the monsters.
House of Ashes also stands out for having a bunch of characters who are carrying serious weaponry and are trained for combat situations but managed to resist the temptation to make every situation a QTE shooting range. As a fan of the series I didn't expect to enjoy this as much as I did - the witches of Little Hope better reflected my horror leanings - but there's a tension to the story and a depth to the characters that definitely made me want to keep playing after my sneak peek drew to a close.
The Dark Pictures: House of Ashes will be released on October 22 on PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X, and PC.