I have a real soft spot for Supermassive Games. Until Dawn was a knowingly schlocky teen slasher horror film made into an interactive adventure game, and it was great for at least two thirds of its runtime. I've also felt the same about their more recent project, The Dark Pictures Anthology, which began with Man Of Medan in 2019. Every time a new instalment comes out I believe it's in with a shot of being well good - although each one has since made me doubt the "knowing" part of my interpretation of Until Dawn. The latest entry, House Of Ashes, comes the closest yet to recapturing the daft thrills of Until Dawn, with a classic survival-horror setup that's half The Descent and half Aliens.
The five playable protagonists you flit between are trapped in an ancient Sumerian temple that leads into an even deeper cavern, and then an even deeperer, ancienter ruin. The turducken of potholing. But instead of delicious stuffing, the surprise in these layers is a race of vampiric monsters whose vision is based on sound, and whose spit is LSD. Your job is to get your goons out alive, and the main problem is that the goons in question are - instead of a busload of teens on a field trip gone wrong - a small team of US marines searching for WMDs in 2003 Iraq. Wakka wakka.
You start off with a pretty large cast, though it's quickly whittled down. Your core group includes Rachel King (Ashley Tisdale, this entry's designated most famous actor), a CIA agent who was in command of the squad until her husband Eric (Alex Gravenstein) turns up with his fancy aviators and satellite imaging identifying what he thinks is a WMD silo. Then there's Jason Kolchek (Paul Zinno), the marine squad leader who has "Intolerant" as one of his dominant traits at the start of the game, and Nick Kay (Moe Jeudy-Lamour), a marine who is sexing Rachel and sad about shooting a civilian at a checkpoint (those character traits being important to the story in that order). Finally, we have Salim Othman (Nick Taraby), an Iraqi army officer who is just kind of over it, and by "it" I mean "basically everything".
As you explore the wretched tunnels, you discover that you're not the first to get trapped in them. An archaelogical dig pitched up here decades ago, but none of them made it out. Still, they rather thoughtfully left behind fragments of diary and other notes to give you some context, as well as dried out corpses and dynamite. These are more than just your standard exposition dumps, though. It's worth taking a close look at everything here, in case you miss bits of info - or big metal stakes - that are useful later, and it's satisfying seeing these things add up over time.
As has now become the norm with Supermassive's catalogue, these exploration sections are broken up by cinematic set pieces full of quick time events. Your QTEs come in four flavours: the familiar "press X to not die", the equally stalwart "mash a button to hold on to/push/escape a thing", the Dark Pictures' innovation "press a button in time to your heatbeat to hold your nerve", and the more exotic "move aiming reticule and shoot" variant. I found these easy to hit for the most part, and catastrophe more often came from the timed, binary choices I made in conversation or during an action sequence. These accumulate to create the dynamics between characters, as well as your ultimate outcome. When playing as Rachel, do you go back for Eric, or retreat? Do you man the antique machine gun to cover Jason? As Salim, are you friendly to Nick etc?
Because there is a theme in House Of Ashes, and it is, quite explicitly: "the enemy of my enemy is my friend". Characters say it out loud several times, and it's a very funny conceit when the same person is playing both parts of the argument. The amount of conflict between these two sides (by which I mean four Americans and one (1) extremely tired Iraqi soldier who just wants to go home) is determined almost entirely by you. It's also treated in a predictably superficial way: red team vs blue team. There's a bit of hand wringing over the Americans killing a civilian, and Jason wears a hat saying "Remember 9/11", but it might just as well have been two rival teams of paintball squads or Sealed Knot reenactors. Both of which would have been way funnier, and funny on purpose.
That said, I did really like Jason and Salim as characters. The interpersonal conflict they had to play out was quite silly in the end, but they're the most competent, level-headed characters in this whole situation, and Jason is a particularly charismatic dickhead (and will, if you take him in the right direction, reveal hidden, loser pothead depths). Salim is given short shrift by comparison, but their double act is certainly more watchable that the other three's minor adolescent soap opera about who is inserting what into who, and with what emotions are attached to said act.
House Of Ashes, like all The Dark Pictures Anthology games, suffers from having scripted parts alongside the interactive bits. Lines are wonkily pulled in from the consequences of your earlier dailogue choice, hence my playthrough featured Eric telling Rachel he wanted to get back together, then telling her he knew she was cheating, then letting her fall by cutting a climbing rope, then collapsing on his knees going "NOOOOOooooooo!" because she fell. I'm not saying this sequence of events wouldn't have been funny if Eric was 18 and wearing a Letterman jacket, but the melodrama of it all would have seemed more intentional and thematically consistent if it were.
It's frustrating, because at its most fun House Of Ashes shows these games can do silly stuff really well. There's an achievement called Chekhov's Gun for using a massive old mounted machine gun. The background music has little bleeps in it, like the motion censors in Aliens, during times of imminent vampire attack. There's a big cavern of gore that goes mostly unexplained because it's just there so you can be chased through waist high blood. This is all great! But it goes wrong when Supermassive try to be serious. At the start of the game, the marines raid a farmhouse and it turns out the farmers also have, just, a comical amount of heroin under their floorboards (this is never mentioned again), and then you get to choose whether to shoot a fleeing, limping farmer in the back or not. And if you don't, Salim thinks you're an okay-ish guy. I suppose we can infer that doing an "intolerance" is bad, because in the end the optimal way to play the game is by not doing an "intolerance". But I don't know if that's a recommendation, is it?
The tissue-thin layer of political commentary in House Of Ashes mostly serves to get in the way of what is almost a decent horror romp. It has real monsters! A big length of iron thrown at head height! Flashbacks to the past with a creaky old English voice! A cool combined knife and flare fight! Mushrooms! For God's sake, stop trying to say something meaningful beyond, "the member of your group who has been bitten cannot be trusted." By going back to being a silly 00s survival horror, House Of Ashes has taken a step firmly in the right direction compared to other Dark Pictures Anthology games. But what it really needed was the cast to be two cheer squads from different schools, who were on their way to regionals when they fell into a vampire nest. I'm sure you could come up with another way for them all to have massive guns.