Much like the crumbling Akkadian statues in the subterranean ruins where most of the carnage in House of Ashes takes place, time has not been kind to Supermassive’s reputation as the developer that finally nailed down the template for an interactive horror movie. While sticking to the formula established with Until Dawn, The Dark Pictures Anthology has been growing stale with each instalment. This latest offering is no exception, although the reasons for the slump aren’t immediately obvious. This remains comfortably familiar generic fare, populated by an array of recognisable character types that, on various climactic moments, you can either save by pressing the right button at the right time, or watch spectacularly perish, leaving the rest of their story blank, at least until subsequent playthroughs. So what gives?
Set during the 2003 US invasion of Iraq (with a few flashbacks to the 3rd millennium BC), House of Ashes retells a timeless narrative of mortal enemies uniting against a common, overwhelming threat. A contingent of American soldiers, including an estranged couple awkwardly reunited and two quarrelsome buddies situated on opposite sides of the ideological spectrum, enter a series of desert caves in hopes of finding Saddam’s fabled weapons of mass destruction. Shadowed by a reluctant local conscript (the skirmish between their respective groups triggering the earthquake that launches them, headfirst, inside the catacombs), they find themselves separated and disoriented, in the midst of an ancient necropolis where long-slumbering creatures stir and their companions disappear one by one.
There are clear nods to the spelunking horror of The Descent, not least a harrowing trudge through an underground lake of blood that, more or less, recreates that movie’s most iconic sequence. But, whereas director Neil Marshall’s chiller thrived on the toxic underbelly of its all-female troupe’s interpersonal dynamics, tension in House of Ashes feels contrived. The cast of characters is sympathetic, but the bickering Yanks on offer manage to surpass even Man of Medan’s insufferable brats for unpleasantness: Colonel King’s a bitter, needy child; Rachel’s a standoffish career officer, and Kolchek’s an out-and-out racist.
The stoic Salim fares better but, as the lone Iraqi in a group of outsiders, he inevitably feels like a token inclusion, a concession to Supermassive’s milquetoast notion of “progressiveness”. The latter conceit collapses promptly after Salim’s superior is painted as the most heinous villain in the game, a caricature of the bloodthirsty Arab, complete with maniacal laughter at the death of infidels and no scruples about sacrificing his own people.
Still, political naïveté and literary deficiencies aside, the formula remains sturdy enough to provide an intriguing first journey – at least when the cogs stay in place. Agonising over the long-term repercussions of your choices is as fun as ever and quick time events are sensibly placed, governed by a range of difficulty options that make it easier to tailor the experience to your liking – unlike previous instalments, I never felt a character death was unfair here. The newly liberated camera is a double-edged sword, contributing to a more direct engagement with the Mesopotamian undercity but, at the same time, underlining how little there is to do there, other than scour its ancient tunnels for the occasional secret and collectable.
On the other hand, while the motion-capture technology behind the series could only have evolved in the last half-decade, House of Ashes remains, somehow, more firmly stuck in the uncanny valley than any of its predecessors, with facial expressions often appearing forced and unnatural. And the immersion is further disrupted by a variety of glitches: persistent flickering, unsynchronised audio, and, most distractingly, a mouse pointer spontaneously popping up on the screen and refusing to go.
But the crucial reason why a once-vibrant template increasingly registers like a humdrum Halloween tradition, not entirely unwelcome but lifeless and predictable, is that the studio’s former penchant for cleverly subverting horror tropes has been abandoned for undiscerning, homogenised genre fodder. Where Until Dawn distinguished itself by upturning every convention in the teen-slasher playbook and by injecting a dash of complexity into stock personality types, House of Ashes tries to provoke a reaction through telegraphed jump scares and piling on the shocks (“Wait, those creatures are both demons and vampires?”). At the end of the five-hour feature, a ridiculously neat denouement that sees the surviving members of your team emerge into the light feels rushed and unearned, cementing the impression of a series drained of all vitality. Like a pre-carved pumpkin, The Dark Pictures has turned into rote annual service, rather than the love letter to cinematic horror the series was intended as.
As the demon colony that has slept for centuries erupts, near the end of the game, the action starts rapidly switching between characters. It’s a simple but effective device that perfectly captures the chaos of the situation – the kind of inspired blending of narrative and mechanics the series could use more of.
Regurgitating rather than subverting familiar horror tropes, House of Ashes is an adequate, if eminently forgettable, distraction.
Genre: Interactive movie | Format: PC (tested)/PS5/XB S/X/PS4/XBO | Developer: Supermassive Games | Publisher: Bandai Namco | Price: £24.99 | Release: Out now | Social: @TheDarkPictures