The Dark Pictures: House of Ashes – Semper Fi(ne)
PS4/5, Xbox Series/One, PC
The Dark Pictures series has quickly become appointment playing for me, and I was lucky enough to get a preview of House of Ashes last month. I look forward to each year’s instalment, devouring them quickly (and only partly to get them done in time for review) and often keenly going back to play again and again, determined to discover the impacts of all my choices. Even though the characters in these horror-movie-esque tales are terrible people, I want to achieve the best possible outcome for them and their trashy relationships. I like that each completion of one of these games leaves me with more questions than I know can only be answered by another playthrough, and I am usually more than happy to oblige. But House of Ashes, which is a tonal departure from the other titles in the anthology so far, left me with fewer questions I felt compelled to answer. There was some horror, sure, but few surprises, and after getting a pretty good ending for my first playthrough by… not being a racist, I think? I’m not sure that I feel so keen to jump back in. But your mileage may vary.
Far more than its predecessors, House of Ashes feels like an action game rather than a mystery or a thriller. I will admit that from the get-go, that’s my least favourite horror sub-genre. It takes a second to get there – at first, it sets the scene with the obligatory Dark Pictures prologue, showing a flashback from long ago that allows us to witness what seems to be the prelude to a ritual sacrifice, putting us in the shoes of the man who is tasked with delivering the doomed prisoner to face his fate. Here, you make some choices that will set the scene for the rest of the game, and it instantly leans heavily into the motto that forms the strongest theme throughout the title – “the enemy of the enemy is my friend.” I found it pretty easy to agree with this statement given the circumstances, but the game seemed to think I needed some convincing.
And it didn’t let up. After the prologue, we’re introduced to the present-day setting of our narrative – 2003, at the “end” of the Iraq War – and we see that our heroes come from both sides of the fight. I’m not sure if this game expects its players to be going into it with a different mindset to what I did, but this set-up instantly rubbed me the wrong way. I’m not particularly interested in military storylines at the best of times, and something about the comments it tried to make on this setting felt wrong. It seemed to simultaneously be trying to reflect on the horror and futility of war, while also celebrating the soldiers at the centre of its story and allowing the player to play them as at least a little problematic without consequence. It very quickly presented cooperation as a good idea for living through the hell the characters were about to embark on (again, the enemy of my enemy is my friend), but seemed to ignore the terrible reasons they were there in the first place. I often felt like I was being told “hey, you shouldn’t be a racist right now, because being a racist will probably lead to your death”, not “hey, maybe don’t be a racist because being a racist is just a generally shitty thing to do”.
I know I’m being harsh. And the story at the centre of this whole thing goes far deeper than the war, but I’m almost sad that the rest of the story was tainted by what they were trying to do with these characters. There was some intrigue to be found in the caves that these characters find themself in, but it was overshadowed by some weird overtones and the fact that for me, the game gave itself away too quickly. I’m sure some people will enjoy this – it’s just a different type of horror setting – but I found myself missing the mystery. There wasn’t really a greater puzzle to solve here, it was just about survival. That’s not to say it isn’t tense, of course – it is. The game is action-packed, and some of the moments get very heated – and not just because of the enemies you’re fighting.
These characters – Eric King, a scientist, Rachel King, a CIA field-operative (and yes, they share a surname for a reason – they are divorced! Oh, the scandal!), Nick Kay and Jason Kolchek, the resident marines, and Salim, a member of Iraqi Ground Force patrol, all have a whole heap of interpersonal drama and conflict that adds a good source of tension to their situation. Some of them are brothers in arms, some are rivals in love or war, but they all have different motivations driving them through their journey, and it does make for some interesting narrative moments. As always, you can influence these relationships for better or worse, and these choices can affect anything from minor moments to who lives or dies. There was a bit of interesting depth to the characters, but only two of the five were genuinely likeable for me, and I would have liked to see a little more variation between them.
It’s possible that the characters were made a little harder to appreciate due to the strange facial glitches that appeared for most of the game. There was nothing game-breaking, but there was something not quite right about the way their expressions formed, and every move of their heads felt a little jilted. In many ways the game was a graphical upgrade for the series – it’s the first entry to appear on next-gen consoles, and playing it on PS5 meant that I got to see the environments in all their high definition glory – but, while sort of more realistic, the character animations are still not quite there.
I feel torn about House of Ashes. I’ve been overly negative here, but it isn’t by any means a bad game, it just didn’t gel with me in the way that Little Hope, for example, did. That won’t be everyone’s opinion. There was an interesting story (with a slightly too far-fetched ending for me, but that’s personal preference), some good narrative tension, and some fine characters, but it lacked the mystery at the core of the previous entries in the series. I’ll still await the next entry with baited breath, and I’ll still probably go back and replay House of Ashes a few times to try and understand how I ended up implicitly making some of the choices I apparently made. But for me, this was the weakest entry in the series, with some themes that just didn’t quite hit the mark. ‘Semper fi’ is a term that gets thrown around a lot in this game, and is apparently a ‘marines thing’ that means ‘always loyal’. And while I’ll always be loyal to this series, I’m not going to be this entry’s greatest defender. But hey, at least not being a racist was rewarded, I guess.
Player2 was kindly provided with a code for House of Ashes by the publisher.