The interactive Dark Pictures gaming series returns with a bang, this time finding ourselves ensnared in a tomb with many secrets embedded in the walls - and stalked by something unhuman.
If you’ve played a Dark Pictures game before you’ll know why the upcoming House of Ashes title is such a big deal: it is the third of eight scheduled games in the series, and the quality that precedes it is (find the trilogy here) immense. In 2019 we had the chance to become sea-sick exploring wreckages whilst playing Man of Medan, last year it was Salem-oriented Little Hope – and today it is Bandai Namco published House of Ashes. The Supermassive Games series is moving fast; it’ll conclude by the late 2020’s at this rate. The next iteration of the survival horror saga releases on the 22nd of October and fully avails itself of the quintessential horror gambits – put it this way, it is no coincidence that the game releases just a week or so short of Halloween.
I've never played any Dark Pictures games, what are they?
The Dark Pictures Anthology games are interactive dramas in that you don’t only respond to the plot; the plot also responds to you. We are presented with setting, character and context – but the story is heavily tailored to the decisions you make throughout the game. If you choose to shut the door rather than run in the heat of the moment, your decision will alter the trajectory of the game and present ramifications further down the line. More, dialogue tree choices exchanged between characters will determine the state of their relationship. You must use your head and heart to analyse your decision; it’s often a matter of life and death. House of Ashes is even less linear in structure than its immediate forerunner, Little Hope, taking the term ‘Moral Compass’ to the next level and instead giving decision compasses for us to brood over.
'You must use your head and heart to analyse your decision; it’s often a matter of life and death.'
What is the tale of Naram Sin?
House of Ashes finds inspiration in many popular media, notably the Alien/Predator films wherein our characters ‘encounter something horrible’. Not often in video games is the plot based off semi-accurate history, but House of Ashes finds its feet in legitimate events of the past. Developing on the tale of Naram-Sin, an Akkadian king (Akkad was a Mesopotamian city that sat in what is now the borders of Iraq, Syria, and Turkey, not far from Mosul) who declared himself a God and was henceforth cursed. Naram-Sin had plundered a temple, enraging a real god named Enlil in the process who in retort cursed the city of Akkad. More, Naram-sin had fought the Gutian empire under an eclipsing sun; always a baleful sign, that. Something awakens underground, and what subterranean remains exist after curse and battle harbour the mysteries and beings we are then to encounter in House of Ashes, a game that turns what was once myth to a very real nightmare. As described by a researcher who found an unfortunate end in the game, we were once children wandering naively on the surface, unaware of what lay beneath – that is about to change.
Where is the game set?
Trapped in an ancient underground temple dating back to the Sumerian/Mesopotamian era, a time in which the rise of cities took place, House of Ashes is set in the modern events of the 2003 US/Iraq war. That said, Supermassive Games maintains that the title is free of political stance or ulterior motive and uses the theatre of war only because it gives an appropriate basis to the direction the game takes. Either way, things go very wrong for the Americans in their search for WMDs, and soon enough a squad of soldiers find themselves plunged into a bygone infrastructure covered in millennia of dust. Pretty neat at first… until you realise you are not alone down there. In typical Dark Pictures style, House of Ashes has a very, very cool concept you have to say.
'Things go very wrong for the Americans in their search for WMDs, and soon enough a squad of soldiers find themselves plunged into a bygone infrastructure covered in millennia of dust.'
What does gameplay involve?
Players are taken through House of Ashes in a terrifying labyrinthine odyssey where reality begins to crawl up on them with each footstep. We travel a slew of beguiling hieroglyphic-stained temples and tunnels where all that stands between us and any potential foe is a flashlight, a gun and the protection of our squad mates, like Ashley Tisdale who is the voice and face of Rachel, going from High School Musical to hieroglyphic maniacal. The game’s sublime graphics allow for no escape from what lies beyond, much like the widescreen of the cinema, and encourages the spine-tingling story to weave its way through narrow passages in plenty of brilliantly designed cutscenes. House of Ashes sets players tasks and goals that serve to descend us foot by foot through the game’s pragmatic, military-style survival narrative. Elsewhere, the exploration of the ancient stone jungle confers to us notes and artifacts, giving us a break from the feeling of dread and instead gives time to ‘Secrets’. Lying covered by dust and debris is a long story predating House of Ashes – the first of our Secret finds is of a model of Pazuzu, a Sumerian Demon God, giving us some rudimental hints as to what calibre of curse was set on the Akkadian population. The Secrets help the graveness of the situation dawn on players, and effectively give context to why, where and who (or what) you are surviving against. As we tip-toe through the maze we can come across useful resources and supplies, as well as the ominous remains of those who have purposefully unearthed the tomb before.
Who are we fighting against?
What was once a vanguard civilisation was cursed, destined to reside in a wretched house of ashes. While ashes are null and without a heartbeat, what lurks in this temple are real and tangible monsters, not hallucinations – the denizens of the once apocryphal Underworld. Our enemy turned in minutes from the opposition of human soldiers to something unhuman, a creature with the senses of a bat and the body of an alien; millennia has turned these humans into beasts resembling gargoyles. Our mission to escape and survive is not helped by the fact that these life forms are umbral predators, they will stalk you throughout their home turf and emerge from the shadows when you least expect them. The overhaul of the game’s camera system gives further terror to the House of Ashes horror potential, culminating in a thoroughly hair-raising experience.
'Our enemy turned in minutes from the opposition of human soldiers to something unhuman, a creature with the senses of a bat and the body of an alien.'
Supermassive Games are sympathetic in that they give you the option to play in Movie Night Mode and Shared Story Mode, essentially 4 player LAN Co-op and 2 player Online Multiplayer campaigns – you don’t have to undergo the Tomb of Alexander the Great alone. Whether you choose to take on the Underworld alone or with friends, House of Ashes looks to be one of the most cogent horror survival games of its ilk to date, stating its own take on the terror formula and serving up an incredible gaming experience. In two years, Supermassive Games managed to create a horror equation that caused a real storm in the gaming scene, and now with a distilled approach to development after myriad fan feedback we have the latest product of the captivating series, a Lara-Croft-gone-FUBAR sort of game: House of Ashes – we cannot wait for this one!
If you are a sucker for interactive horror games like the Dark Pictures Anthology, be sure to check out House of Ashes here.