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The Dark Pictures Anthology

Platform(s): Nintendo Switch, PC, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X
Genre: Action/Adventure
Publisher: Bandai Namco Games
Developer: Supermassive Games
Release Date: Oct. 22, 2021


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PS5 Review - 'The Dark Pictures Anthology: Episode 3 - House of Ashes'

by Chris "Atom" DeAngelus on Oct. 21, 2021 @ 7:00 a.m. PDT

The Dark Pictures Anthology is a series of stand-alone, cinematic horror games, designed to present a new terrifying experience on a regular basis.

Buy The Dark Pictures: Episode 3 - House of Ashes

The Dark Anthology and its spiritual predecessor Until Dawn are effectively playable horror movies. They take their inspiration for all sorts of classic concepts and lean hard into tropes and clichés, with the added enjoyment of being able to control the outcome of the horror movies. It's a neat concept that lets players either embrace or subvert horror movie clichés. The latest episode in the series, The Dark Pictures: Episode 3 - House of Ashes, doesn't stray much from the formula. It's the latest "game movie" that provides exactly what's expected from a cheesy B-grade action movie: lots of cursing, lots of gore, and one hell of a body count.

House of Ashes is set in Iraq in 2003, and it follows the story of a group of military soldiers. One tremendously unlucky Iraqi soldier suddenly falls into a deep chasm in the middle of a firefight. Beneath the ground was an ancient Mesopotamian temple, and like all good ancient temples, it is home to something besides relics. Mysterious batlike creatures swarm the underground, and the soldiers are forced to work together to find a way to escape before they become the creature's latest victims.

The best way to describe this entry in the franchise is "The Descent" meets "Aliens." The majority of the game is set inside an underground cavern that's swarming with creepy cave-dwelling beasts, with a cast primarily made up of overconfident soldiers who are outnumbered and without a way to escape. This stands out because it means House of Ashes is by a significant degree the most action-oriented of The Dark Anthology games. It's not suddenly a shooter, but it contains significantly more gunfights and explosions than the other games. This does deflate some of the sheer horror of the setting, as it's more about survival than suspense. The game's too quippy to be horrifying, but it can evoke the same sort of pleasant "we're doomed" tension, similar to "Aliens."

As such, the core gameplay hasn't changed overly much from the other The Dark Anthology episodes. You spend most of your time watching cut scenes where you can make choices or perform various QTEs to succeed (or fail) at challenges, with the plot shifting based on how well you do. You can sometimes control a character to walk around the environment and find items and clues that flesh out the backstory or offer alternate paths in cut scenes. This entry allows you to directly control the camera when moving around; it's nice but only slightly useful.

As always with The Dark Anthology franchise, you can play either solo or multiplayer, with multiplayer allowing for different scenes and events. You can also play the Curated Cut (available as DLC), which adds some of the multiplayer-only scenes in place of single-player scenes. There are also a host of accessibility features that allow you to turn off the timers for QTEs in case you'd rather have a choose-your-own-adventure experience instead of a timed button press.

The supernatural creatures are standard cave-dwelling monsters. They're gross, slimy, sightless bat-like creatures that are nearly impossible to kill by traditional means. In theory, they are overwhelmingly terrifying, but they seem to suffer from a rapid loss of invincibility as the game progresses. They go from killing people with a single attack to dying in droves, and that defangs them. Once it became clear that a single human could kill them with a knife and suffer no injury doing so, I felt a lot less tense when they got close to the protagonist. They're good enough at the job, but they feel too much like cannon fodder to be scary in the way the game wants them to be.

The biggest barrier to enjoyment is the main cast. They are a healthy collection of the most unlikeable protagonists I've ever encountered in a horror medium, aside from the well-meaning Iraqi soldier Salim, who is a thin character but likeable. A big part of this is the setting. The entire cast is tainted by being part of the 2003 war in Iraq, which gives them a very specific type of personality that can feel deeply uncomfortable in 2021.

For example, one of the opening sequences involves the American soldiers harassing and attacking shepherds as part of their stated mission of retroactively finding weapons of mass destruction to justify the invasion of Iraq. You begin with a politically loaded atmosphere, and the cast is knee-deep in it. There's a lot of casual and not-so-casual racism, and it can get more extreme, such as an argument over whether it's OK to bring illegal white phosphorus with them on their mission "just in case" and "only for a smokescreen." It sets up some abhorrent characters at first blush, and it can take time to see their softer sides.

This can make it difficult to push through the story. To the game's credit, it is aware that the characters are flawed. Salim is presented as the game's heart, a good-natured father who just wants to see his son, and it is the prejudice and bias of the other characters that cause issues. There's eventual growth and development (if you allow it to happen) that blunts the edge, but you have to get through a lot of incredibly crappy behavior to get there, and in a horror movie where you control who lives and dies, it can be agonizing to not intentionally miss a QTE.

The one other problem I have is just that the game is a bit overly long. It's paced like a breezy 90-minute action movie, but since it's a game, it blossoms to multiple hours instead. However, a lot of that time is taken up retreading the same few plot beats. Part of this is likely because if one character dies, you can miss out on certain bits of information, but it means that things can get repetitive if you keep the cast alive. This is the problem with taking a movie and making it a game, since you end up with a lot more dead air.

With that aside, House of Ashes feels exactly like the kind of cheesy Syfy Channel movie you'd toss on during a lazy Sunday. That is what it is trying to evoke, and the presentation nails it with stellar graphics. Being largely set underground and in poorly lit places works to the game's favor, as it can cover up the mild imperfections in the computer-generated faces. There are several scenes that looked so realistic I was taken aback. The voice acting is largely solid, but there are a few groan-worthy lines here and there. In short, it's the kind of schlock you can turn off your brain and enjoy, but you'll have more ability to control it.

That basically sums up The Dark Pictures: Episode 3 - House of Ashes. It's a cheesy action-horror movie, except you can help characters survive (or die) with your button presses. It's not my favorite of the lot, but I was relatively engaged. It's an enjoyable enough B movie and feels like it would thrive the best as a multiplayer party game. If you've enjoyed the rest of the franchise so far, you'll enjoy House of Ashes because aside from some quality of life changes, it's largely in the same mold.

Score: 7.0/10

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