Supermassive Games continues to lead the charge in the medium of interactive storytelling. This 'Choose Your Own Adventure'-inspired, consequential gameplay popularized by Until Dawn has appeared across several titles and platforms over the past generation, yet none rivalled the impact of eight doomed teenagers trapped upon a lonely mountain. I'm happy to report that the trend has largely been broken, and while House of Ashes may fall just short of eclipsing Until Dawn's brilliance, it's easily the best entry in The Dark Pictures Anthology, representing that significant bump needed to move the genre forward in a meaningful way.
Taking place at the onset of the 2003 American invasion of Iraq, a unit of unsound, headstrong U.S. Marines embarks on a mission to locate Saddam Hussein's fabled 'weapons of mass destruction'. Besieged by a group determined to overthrow said occupation, the two factions are swallowed by the desert beneath them, descending into the ruins of an ancient Akkadian temple used for ritual sacrifices. In the ensuing bloodshed, an ancient evil awakens from the depths of the earth to satiate its hunger, bringing death to all that lives. Any hopes for the future reside between your mind and fingertips.
Being the third 'episode' of an eight-part series (which itself is a refinement of an ongoing formula), the gameplay in House of Ashes has become standard operating procedure; players grasp for straws while being strong-armed into making horrible decisions that have devastating consequences from which there is no escape. This is more entertaining than it sounds, particularly if you have friends to muddy the waters of clarity, complicating the proceedings. The future can be seen, but has this habit of changing after catching a glimpse of itself.
Though the majority of improvements in House of Ashes won't be able as noticeable to passers-by, the fanbase will appreciate that all of them are for the better. Performance Mode makes its debut, and while a high framerate might seem like a luxury in these types of games, the overall smoothness it brings goes a long way towards selling the cinematic presentation; there's no going back now. The improved responsiveness this brings to the controls helps considerably during QTEs and makes basic navigation a more pleasant endeavor. A new 3D camera with over-the-shoulder capabilities has been added; it's not perfect by any means, but it's a significant step above what we've had thus far.
Other additions are more subtle, but important. The 'flashlight' button gives players command over the visuals, as intractable objects shine brighter to grab their attention. A difficulty setting finally rears its head, adding extra replay value and accessibility. Interestingly, the trait 'limiters' that afflicted Little Hope have been removed entirely. These negative qualities served as shackles holding characters back and, barring their eradication, became virtual death sentences. As much as I like this idea, it was a detriment to the storytelling. Its exclusion is commendable.
Perhaps the greatest stride forward House of Ashes takes is with its cast. The ensembles presented throughout The Dark Pictures Anthology are consistently smaller than Until Dawn, offering the possibility for more intimate relationships between them. In this respect, House of Ashes actually trumps its spiritual grandmother, bringing more volatile dynamics to explore along with it.
The love triangle/'turf war' between Eric, Nick, and Rachel can go in just about any direction, including an unlockable trophy for bringing the two suitors closer together. Likewise, the friendships or rivalries between Jason, Salim, and Nick run as far north or south as players care to take them. The potential of Iowa farm boy Jason befriending his Iraqi assailant (and their subsequent journey together) can be the highlight of the entire game, and the schisms involving Nick are equally delicate. If this isn't the best cast Supermassive has assembled, it's certainly the one that's been given the most attention. As a result, multiple playthroughs are not only warranted but are more desirable than in previous entries.
The final new aspects concerning House of Ashes are the multiplayer options available. Though much hasn't changed from a technical perspective (aside from cross-gen functionality that works great), the way the story is structured makes sharing the experience with others an integral one, pitting gamers against each other (particularly when playing online) in a bid for survival. Whether it's opposing military forces or the vertices of love, everyone is in a position to be at their most aggressive, while simultaneously being at their most vulnerable to treachery. Cooperation requires more trust than ever. This competitive facet is definitely something to consider exploring further.
On a more personal note, I give Supermassive and writer Khurrum Rahman considerable credit for having the courage to set House of Ashes amidst the Iraq War. While the creators shy from developing any sort of political agenda, there clearly exist some topical conversation pieces that desperately need a platform for discussion. Every American citizen should be ashamed at the sight of monuments that have existed for centuries riddled with bullet holes, defaced and forever ruined – if not worse. The U.S. military's use of White Phosphorus continues to go unaccounted for on the world stage, and what about the ramifications of unmanned drones causing PTSD in civilians throughout the Middle East? Were I in charge, I would be learning a language like Arabic or Farsi with the rest of my countrymen in an effort to try asking for forgiveness; instead 'Mission Accomplished' is censored by our media nationwide.
House of Ashes is the closest Supermassive has come to replicating the success of what made Until Dawn a modern-day favorite. It'll take another game or two before finally getting there, and when it does Supermassive will be in a unique position to sell high-quality, story-based titles for half the price it charged in 2015. There are still concessions that need to be made concerning game length and online play, but as it stands this is the step needed for progress. Those unimpressed with Man of Medan or Little Hope should take a look at House of Ashes – and if they happen to be Americans, might get a taste of the atrocities committed worldwide in their name.
If “those that sow the wind, reap the whirlwind.”, we should all aspire to be the tornado leading towards harmony, if not for our sake, then to honor the departed who rightfully deserved it. The truth will only be revealed to those who seek her, but justice discovers all enemies of peace and knows a thing or two about culpability.
This review is based on a retail copy of The Dark Pictures Anthology: House of Ashes for the PS5
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