Game Review: House of Ashes Goes Up in Flames
Supermassive Games have become something of a notable horror brand since 2015’s well received breakout hit, Until Dawn. Fresh off the success of Until Dawn and focusing their future approach to suit anthology styled execution, Supermassive Games have churned out a plethora of horror video games every year since 2015 with the intended big boys releasing under the branding of The Dark Pictures Anthology.
First there was Man Of Medan in 2019, then Little Hope in 2020 and now we have House Of Ashes. Man Of Medan and Little Hope were far from well received at release but with every Supermassive Games release there remains a glimmer of intrigue as to what they may conjure up next. Would House Of Ashes break the critical curse and provide an experience hearkening back to the highs of Until Dawn? Truthfully, the answer is no.
House Of Ashes opens in ancient Akkad, the year 2231 BC to be precise, where famine and plague have turned the ruling Akkadian King to madness. The raging war with the Gutian people has made its way to the king’s doorstep and he turns to human sacrifices as a means of appeasing the Gods he so dearly worships. In eerie fashion, a solar eclipse occurs and with it something rises from the depths with an insatiable thirst for human blood.
This prologue, along with its final third but we will get to that, is where House Of Ashes leaves its best impression upon us. Akkadian history has rarely been explored in horror gaming and Supermassive Games thankfully make the most of that concept even if it is extremely premature and underused.
The opening prologue is built entirely around atmosphere and the actions of this mad king ruling Akkad with Supermassive Games opting for disorientating tunnels and creepy noises in the darkness. It is a solid start that hints at the disorientating horror – don’t get too excited – to come that Supermassive Games have openly revealed was influenced by the likes of Neil Marshall’s The Descent and John McTiernan’s Predator.
As an opening, Supermassive Games presents us with an intriguing beginning that should pave the way for an interesting tale clearly intended to reference Akkadian history whenever possible and from initial impressions, House Of Ashes isn’t focused on showing its hand too early and plastering the screen with gnarly creatures (for now anyway) which was extremely positive and I emphasis ‘was’.
Jump to Iraq in 2003 and disappointingly, things quickly fall apart. Gone is the Akkadian atmosphere and history and instead it is replaced by US Marines who all possess the IQ levels of potatoes and the personalities of blow-up dolls. In an attempt to locate a stash of weapons believed to belong to the Saddam Hussein, these Marines journey into enemy territory and as you’d expect find themselves prey for a much bigger foe.
The Marines are all your favourite generic templates. The bickering couple, Eric and Rachel (played by the utterly dreadful Ashley Tisdale) who haven’t seen each other for quite some time and their marriage is falling apart because of it, the hard as nails Lieutenant Jason who has everyone’s back even though he doesn’t and the clueless lover boy Nick who is clouded by his desire for a taken woman. It’s all extremely generic and the rest follows suit.
But the glaring issue with House Of Ashes early on is Supermassive Games’ decision to reveal these creatures of the night at every possible opportunity. Where the prologue kept them hidden to the shadows, the rest of House Of Ashes’ playtime willingly discards the fear of the unknown for constant intended ‘scary encounters’ that are anything but scary when you’ve witnessed them about a hundred times by the conclusion. It’s a complete misfire that feels like a bargain bucket straight-to-DVD action movie as opposed to creepy atmospheric horror video gaming.
Gameplay is completely disjointed too. Five characters are the main focus here with the only interesting one being Salim, an Iraqi soldier who learns that the enemy of my enemy may just be my friend, but it is all underused until the final third. You’ll find yourself constantly chopping and changing between perspectives and it never gives proceedings a chance to breathe. Some segments last thirty seconds before you find yourself controlling someone else and some other segments last up to an hour. It is a strange, disjointed focus when House Of Ashes clocks in at roughly six to seven hours. Had the leads been dwindled down to two or three, maybe House Of Ashes would have more of an assured focus.
There’s only so much of dimly lit tunnels and constant reveals of pursuing aggressors one can take as well before your mind becomes pure mush. Early on it is revealed that these creatures are resistant to firearms and yet these Marines continue to use guns at every opportunity, and you can’t help but scream at the screen in disbelief. Salim fashions a stake which he puts to splendid use but all the characters around him are utterly clueless dismantling any weight survival segments may have because you know deep down, bullets don’t work.
It’s amateur hour and one has to question Supermassive Games’ story writing with this one. Throw in unimpressive character models that look outdated, clunky controls, constant button mashing in survival segments that just end in the same manner pretty much every time and an irritating camera that shudders and jolts when trying to traverse steps or tunnels and you have a real stinker here.
Look, it’s not all bad though, the final third is interesting if still a tad underwhelming. Supermassive Games opt for a different kind of resolution that brings to mind Lovecraftian styled horror, but you can’t help but wish the generic Predator worship was discarded in favour of exploring this creepy revelation a lot sooner. As characters discover journal entries left by a deceased explorer, we slowly piece together what these creatures actually are, and it is interesting but that’s about it.
Further Reading H. P. Lovecraft and the Fear of the Unknown.
The conclusion itself is bloated and after a mind numbing five or so hours that preceded it, you just want it all to be over. An interesting finale just isn’t enough to save House Of Ashes from becoming another underwhelming entry in this anthology series much like the subpar Man Of Medan and Little Hope.
With the conclusion of House Of Ashes, Supermassive Games showcase their last entry in Season One titled The Devil In Me and once again it looks interesting but given the quality of the titles before it, one can’t help but think it will be yet another generic stinker. There is still hope (just a Little Hope… get it) but I’m beginning to believe that Supermassive Games named 2021’s entry House Of Ashes because when you are done and the credits roll you’ll want to literally turn to ashes so you don’t have to play anymore of this generic stinker.