I look forward to every Halloween. Not because of the pumpkins and trick or treats, but because it brings a new story in The Dark Pictures Anthology series for the PS4 (and now PS5). I keep myself well away from any spoilers, previews or in-game footage posted on the Internet so I can lock myself away and enjoy whatever Supermassive Games throws my way. Oh, and it's probably the only "new" game I buy each year that I pay the full price for on release day. So yes, it should be clear from the outset that I'm a fan. A big one. I'm hooked by Supermassive's concept of these 'decision-making horror survival games'. I'm so far down the e-commerce 'tunnel' that they could charge fifty quid a time and I'd still be camping outside Argos to grab the latest one.
Officially, House Of Ashes is the third in the series, although Until Dawn and Hidden Agenda really kicked it off a few years ago. In fact, Until Dawn still retains my first place if you've never played one of these games before - that game really has almost every single horror movie cliché rolled into it and is a classic comparable to Wes Craven's Scream movie. But Man Of Medan (the first in the Dark Pictures Anthology) and Little Hope (the second) did great jobs of rehashing the "keep all the teenagers alive until the end credits" formula, situating the unfortunate protagonists on a haunted ghost ship and a medieval village respectively. Truth be told, both seemed to have been made on smaller budgets than Until Dawn, and in particular Little Hope seemed to be very fond of almost completely dark locations, which seemed a bit, ahem, 'convenient' if ideas were running thin but Supermassive needed to push out another game quickly.
I wasn't going to let a fact I had a few irks with the previous games temper my excitement in respect of House Of Ashes though. I knew what to expect, you see. I would be playing 'quicktime' events (having to react to some on-screen horror by pressing one of the fire buttons as quickly as possible) to save a bunch of annoying teenagers from a masked serial killer. From the title, probably in a haunted house of some sort. And I knew probably, at least on the first time I played through the game, some of my charge would get offed as I fumbled my reaction, or the game trolled me by playing me a long cut-scene and then with no warning whatsoever, demanded a reaction within half a second. I knew what to expect, you see, because that's what this genre of games is all about.
Well, hooboy, was I wrong...! House Of Ashes took my expectations of a B-movie horror along the same lines as parts one and two, and it danced all over them. Yes, this game is about fighting ancient demons, so I suppose it's got that in common with its predecessor, but in all other respects it takes the series in a direction I would never have expected. The narrative is nothing short of spectacular. And, as for graphics, forget some sort of grainy B-movie, this is like triple A plus 4K definition. Better than a Disney/Pixar movie. Better than, um, well, better than anything I've ever seen before, in fact.
The main story in set in 2003, shortly after the joint American-British invasion of Iraq; however it is prefaced by an extremely dark prologue set some 4,000 years earlier. The game is for those 18 years and older and, when one of your first choices as a Sumerian guard is to slit a child's throat or impale her with through the heart with an iron sphere, it's certainly a fast introduction that, in this game, the horror's going to be absolute. In fact, these early scenes are probably the most atmospheric of the whole game (as well as providing the obligatory tutorial regarding quicktime events and how to react to the on-screen prompts). The on-screen warriors believe in some deity of the Sun, a very ancient Atahualpa, who demands continuous blood sacrifices, and their temple is under attack from an unseen enemy both outside and beneath it. It culminates in a particularly brutal manner before the familiar strains of "Oh Death, won't you spare me another year" introduces the narrator (again), who's now beginning to feel (to me, at least) almost like an old friend.
So, yes, there are no teenagers here. Instead, we've got a bunch of marines and, very interestingly, an Iraqi soldier that you may 'control' as the story of House Of Ashes develops. Without giving away any real spoilers, their mission is, initially at least, to find some evidence of Saddam Hussein's Weapons of Mass Destruction. This is a seriously brave storyline in itself, triggering as it did in my mind, all-too-horrifying memories of Tony Blair proclaiming in Parliament that Saddam was prepared to deploy such weapons against the UK within 45 minutes, the 'dodgy dossier' which the Labour Government was adjudged later in time to have almost entirely made up and the subsequent Iraq war which led directly to all of the horrors of homegrown terrorism that we still live with the consequences of. After the pirate ship of part one and the Fight Club-esque premise of part two, it's fair to say that I don't think anyone was expecting a horror film that was quite so rooted in contemporary reality. And it works brilliantly, especially in a game which is all about decisions.
The decisions you're called upon to make in House Of Ashes seem morally elevated, as a direct consequence of this backdrop of war. The clearing of the shepherds from the area that your marines wish to search, for example, immediately gives you such morally ambiguous choices as to go in all guns blazing or fan out and take prisoners by stealth. Tense standoffs where you may or may not choose to use your rifle also imbue you with a sense of dread unlike anything you might have experienced in any of Supermassive's other games. It really is masterful story-telling, and what's particularly impressive is the parallel between the Sumerian battle of the intro and the modern day Iraq invasion. In both you have the temple (the "House of Ashes") under attack from within, below and an external aggressor.
Now that brings me to a problem that I experienced.
When I returned home, and transferred House Of Ashes from my sweaty hands to my PlayStation 4, it began to dawn on me, just as the marines deployed, that something was very wrong. It slowly became apparent, as the central character Commando Eric briefed his squad, that all of the marines were talking to, and reacting to the presence of, a character who *wasn't there*. I've had some interesting issues a little like this with some of Supermassive's other games (Notably The Inpatient, where an NPC changed from uninjured to injured whenever I looked at him) but nothing quite so serious as scenes where a suitcase mysteriously hovered in the air, and conversations took place with the dialogue entirely dropped from the missing character. Clearly I couldn't play the game in this mangled state, so I reset the Playstation, rebooted, sat through all the intro sequences a second time and hoped this time, "Merwin" would render correctly. He didn't.
I fiddled with the difficulty level, saved and loaded my position, and selected Continue. At this, the sound of helicopters whirring came blasting out of my television set at such intensity that a full, live Swat team raid on my apartment would have made less noise! With all dialogue completely inaudible, it was back to the menu again. A few more random fiddles and suddenly Merwin appeared!
Ok. Weird. And annoying. But ok.
So, by far, that was the oddest thing. But it wasn't the only time I seemed to have problems with audio in the game, and audio problems are particularly difficult to describe in text but here goes... When characters were surrounded by other characters making a lot of noise, the background noise seemed to ebb and flow depending on the distance of the viewpoint from those characters. When the marines were holding a door closed, the sounds of the demons beating against it practically drowned out the dialogue. There must be hundreds of demons out there, all slobbering and slavering... Yet when the marines retreated inside the abandoned temple, within a few feet from the door they were in total silence! Similar effects occurred during gunfights, where music seemed to increase, drowning out all dialogue and the sound of live ammo, on close-up shots, before fading away on wider angles.
As we all, presumably, know by now, in these 'decision making' games, there is a central thread. If you're so minded to let all of your team members perish at the first opportunity, the games refuse to let you. They'll keep at least one of them alive (even if they kill him off in the very final scene), and they'll adapt the scenes of the game to suit. As a consequence of keeping all of these multiple 'Butterfly Threads' in memory, you occasionally get quite noticeable 'jumps' in the action. This happens because dialogue which would occur if characters were still alive is cut because they are not, or it happens because you have changed the relationships between the characters. As a result, characters can behave in pretty odd sort of ways - going from being in extremely over-excited moods to deadly calm in less time than it takes to wipe your nose. So when you combine this idiosyncratic sound, with this unpredictable cut and paste of scenes, you do tend to get some quite disconcerting stuff happening. Sometimes it's unintentionally funny. But, other times, it's clear that unintentional glitches occur. When I played, for example, a demon appeared whilst marine Jason and Iraqi soldier Sadim were working together. I made the decision that we would flank it together, and Sadim assured Jason he would "take care of" (i.e. kill) it. The next thing I knew the demon was dead on the ground between the two of them. The game had somehow glitched through the entire quicktime sequence of fighting it!
There's also the character of Rachel, who is caught in a love triangle between one of the marines (Nick) and her husband Eric (the Commando who is leading the mission). At the very beginning of the game proper, Nick asks her to choose between him and her husband, and she seems to indicate that she will choose him (Nick). However, as the events of the game unfold - and in the way that these decision making games do! - she ends up in a number of situations where she and her husband must work together to solve a problem. She then seems more drawn to her husband again, even indicating that she wants to make a fresh go of their marriage. As situations develop where both Nick and Eric are separately placed in danger, she therefore reacts wholly inappropriately in front of each of them, sticking her tongue down her lover's throat literally minutes after telling her husband she wants to get back with him... And it all ends up being a bit confusing to sit through.
And, whilst we're talking about confusing things, keep an eye out for the pivotal scenes where the marines decide to lay booby traps in one of the main temple halls, somehow inexplicably knowing in advance that they will end up retreating from the demons down this very same corridor... Also, the game can't seem to make its mind up about whether bright lights do or do not keep the demons at bay, meaning you get sub-missions where it becomes essential to maintain a generator. However, the demons later come barrelling in to attack everyone and don't seem to be perturbed by the light at all.
One thing that is much improved over previous games however is the difficulty level. There's none of this "lose this one quicktime event and you're dead" stuff that afflicted previous instalments, and you get a fair degree of warning whenever you're expected to pummel one of the fire buttons. I played it through on 'Challenging' difficulty, and I think that is pitched just about right for most players (Next time I might try it on 'Lethal' and see how I fare!). Another clever touch is the use of flashbacks which tell the story of a previous attempt to investigate the temple and the horror that resulted. These are done in very moody black and white still photographs with an incredibly eerie voiceover. In fact, the voice acting is superb throughout, although I was sad to see much less of the narrator in this instalment. In previous stories, he helped to break up the flow of the game and, when he appeared, it signalled it was time to go and make a cup of coffee before continuing. However, I can posit a theory as to why he's not in House Of Ashes as much, and that's because this game is huge.
Man Of Medan I played through in about two hours. Little Hope I think took me about three. Ok, neither of these came close to the epic twelve hours it took me to make my way through Until Dawn (nor were they anywhere near as short as the somewhat pathetic The Inpatient). House Of Ashes, on a first playthrough, probably weighs in at about seven hours. Again, this was something I absolutely wasn't expecting. And, unlike Little Hope, the action never drags, or feels boring. The characters here just have so much more, well, character than anything Supermassive has released before. Being able to play one of the Iraqis as well as the four marines is also a stroke of genius, making the game feel less of a "them and us" battle and more a moral conundrum.
I only have one more observation. As you would expect, when the game isn't demanding you complete quicktime events or watch cutscenes, you are free to investigate your current location. You see shiny white dots if an object or clue is present, or if a door or drawer can be opened. Unfortunately, some of investigatory actions lead immediately to a cutscene... which propels the characters into a location from which he/she cannot return. This means that, on a first playthrough, you are practically guaranteed to miss at least some important clues. I realise that that is, in all likelihood, done on purpose in order to extend the lastability of the game, but it's a tad annoying all the same. A visual indicator of whether the investigation leads to another scene would be very useful to warn the player that he should leave that one till last.
However, I have to say that, despite some of the issues above, House Of Ashes is really superb. I am actually amazed, not just by how much I enjoyed it, but actually how a game about fighting ancient demons manages to be layered, topical and even politically uncomfortable. I even managed to keep two marines and the Iraqi alive to the closing credits, despite some hair-raising close shaves. In fact, this is so good, and it includes so many guns, that I think it might even appeal to some First Person Shooter fans. Is it better than Until Dawn? Yes, on balance I think it is, and if that's not a good enough reason to rush out and buy it then I don't know what is.