Our following hands-on preview of the title reflects our thoughts on an early build supplied by Bandai Namco for PC. Dark Pictures: House of Ashes will release on PlayStation, XBOX and PC platforms, October 22, 2021.
Perils and Pitfalls...
Thanks to the kind folk at Bandai Namco, we got to go hands-on with one of 2021’s most anticipated entries in the Dark Pictures Anthology, House of Ashes. Earlier this year, we were given a quick glance into development and overall improvements made to the horror series’ pre-existing engine, which included fundamentals that made Supermassive’s Until Dawn, a critical hit for the Guildford based studio. Steadfast approaching its release, we were interested to get physical with the game and note an astonishing upgrade in visual aesthetics that have been applied to the cinematic-heavy experience. As a narrative driven title, its imperative for its presentation to be top notch, and I can already see that Supermassive wasted no resources here to demonstrate a stellar achievement that may set the bar for graphically demanding and immersive games.
With former Disney actress Ashley Tisdale, admitting the title was well outside her wheelhouse, it lured the unconventional fan – like myself – to immediately express interest in Dark Pictures’ latest chapter. In the early access demo provided, my first-hand experience felt similar to what I’ve had the pleasure of playing in both Man of Medan and Little Hope, but with repurposed action sequences to match the events of the Iraq War in 2003. While the country remains under siege from a Militia, Spec-Ops and CIA officers are dispatched to the area but a series of unfortunate events lands them in turmoil, as the team are separated underground. There, Officer Rachel King (Tisdale) and her husband Colonel Eric King (Alex Gravenstein) discover the ruins of a forgotten city, buried alongside monuments, ancient architecture and late 18th-to-19th century military equipment.
Meanwhile in an unknown location separate to the couple, Marine’s Jack Kolchek (Paul Zinno) and Nick Kay (Moe Jeudy-Lamour) are hastily fending off an unknown lifeform that inhabits the temple. Discovering their comrade Merwin, had been strung up presumably by a sinkhole after an earthquake destroyed the floor below the soldiers. Clarice Stokes tries to aid Merwin to no avail, asking the Marines to cut him down when suddenly she’s taken by the mystery creature. Creaking and clicking, the unknown specie circles the trio with a vulnerable soldier riving in pain. Provoked, the soldiers quickly drag Merwin to safety but only for a short period. Injecting a heavy does of morphine into the cadet’s leg, Merwin’s state of sedation helps them quietly escape. This continues to all unfold while Iraqi Lieutenant Salim Othman (Nick Tarabay), becomes trapped beneath the warzone, requesting help with no response.
Credit: BANDAI NAMCO Entertainment
Gameplay wise, subtle changes are apparent from before you begin the campaign. The title will ask you your preferred difficulty, a first within the Dark Pictures Anthology. Choosing to play with the lights on and going the medium route here, I was met with fairly few jump scares but did manage to have every muscle in my body recoil at every turn. Story beats are fundamentally a dealer’s choice, forging your own path through simple selections from the familiar dialogue wheel, which shapes your journey by depicting your protagonists through the eyes of coinciding characters. Personality traits and character building are key strategies to breaking or mending bonds between each playable character, but a range of unlockables may dispose knowledge you may share or hide. You can closely keep track of your character’s stats and balancing them to fit your narrative.
The disparity between sequences are in storyline and style, both divulging a unique demonstration in gameplay, presentation and tone. For example, while playing as Eric and Rachel, there are romance options available that acquaint themselves to their marital status. There’s a moment while portraying Rachel in third person that requires you to search for duct-tape, which demonstrated the new free-form 360-degree hard cam that exposes massive areas and helps while utilising your flashlight. Just bear in mind that the default option is Inverted, so you may want to change that. While each character carries multiple pieces of artillery, you will only be required to use them upon QT request. An alarming moment occurred where Kolchek and Kay were extracting Merwin, only to have the mammoth creature mere feet away from the trio. A crosshair appeared on-screen for a limited time to aim and shoot. These moments are purposely stifled to carry out various outcomes to your story, and whether integral characters survive, much like its predecessors.
Moments of allegiance and betrayal are signified through Bearings, similar to the Moral Compass seen previously in Man of Medan and Little Hope. Each collectable is banked within the menu, and formatively acts as clues towards a bigger secret. Your character traits are shown around their respective avatars, and are boldly highlighted as you continue to build on each attribute. Mature, Courageous, Dutiful, Hopeful, Knowledgeable, Stubborn are just a few examples of what can be attained towards their personality. The pause menu will dictate and summarise your experience as you progress, almost like feedback or drafting a rough idea on how you are shaping your tale. Personally, the narrative I created was said to have been “only choices made with [my] head, where possible”. Yes, quite the judgemental feature, but I love its reflection upon a person’s own moral compass. Of course, this can be manipulated in anyway possible, but my choices were certainly hasty at times.
The ongoing objective is highlighted so you don’t lose track of what your goal is upon reaching your next major story beat. QTE’s did throw me off at times as they appear sporadically while immersed within emphatic plot points. However, it’s the surprise of being involved with the outcome that keeps you completely enamoured. The engagement rate between gameplay and cinematic is obvious, but the intent is clear that you’re in it for sheer entertainment quality rather than a deep dive into mechanics. Dark Pictures: House of Ashes is shaping up to be an amazing addition to the established line-up of horror tales that make up a superb, story-driven Anthology. Loosely based on real world events, boldly told through fictitious plot points and imperative character building, separated by respective arcs that eventually intertwine. Cannot wait to experience this spine-tingling trial by fire.
Dark Pictures: House of Ashes releases for Windows PC, XBOX, and PlayStation on October 22, 2021.
House of Ashes is the third installment of The Dark Pictures Anthology series. It is an interactive horror game under development by Supermassive Games and to be published by Bandai Namco Entertainment for a multi-platform release on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC and, for the first time, on PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X/S in 2021.