Supermassive's Dark Pictures Anthology is poised to spit out its third grisly instalment this year, once again pitting five unlucky souls against a seemingly supernatural threat. The series is no stranger to unlikable characters that make you question how hard you really want to work to save them, but in House of Ashes I might actually be on the side of the monsters.
This time we're in 2003, during the US invasion of Iraq. Instead of a gang of holidaymakers or students on a field trip, we'll be deciding the fates of soldiers and CIA agents. The Iraq War had plenty of horrors, but in House of Ashes there are also literal monsters accompanying the war crimes.
"Hunting for weapons of mass destruction, a team comprising U.S. Special Forces, Air Force and CIA is sent on a mission to unearth an underground chemical weapons depot that's been picked up on satellite," game director Will Doyle explains. "Arriving on the scene, they come under attack by holdout Iraqi forces. And during the firefight, an earthquake pitches both sides into the ground below, where they discover a vast underground temple dating back to the ancient kingdom of Akkad."
That's where the hands-off demo begins, with us following Nick, a marine, as he finds himself underground and separated from his allies. The temple was erected around 2250 BC by Naram-Sin, a historical Mesopotamian king who fancied himself a god. Like all of the Dark Pictures Anthology, real history and myth inspire the supernatural shenanigans. In The Curse of Akkad, a real poem written centuries after Naram-Sin's reign, it's claimed that the king angered the god Enil, who punished the kingdom with plagues and famine. In House of Ashes, he built this temple to appease the god, but it failed, and now it's home to a pack of bloodthirsty creatures.
Nick eventually finds Jason, his commanding officer, and later will team up with CIA operative Rachel (played by Ashley Tisdale), her husband Eric, who's a colonel, and finally an Iraqi officer, Salim. This quintet is who you'll be playing, at least for as long as they survive. Once again, you'll be able to play them all, bouncing between them as the story requires. It's a shame that we're seeing the Middle East mostly through the eyes of a bunch of Americans sent there to fight, but it's a relief to see at least one character providing a different perspective. They're probably not all going to see eye-to-eye, though. And while there are things hunting them in the caves and temple, there are also Iraqi troops on the surface waiting for them.
"Our protagonists find themselves trapped underground between two separate groups of enemies: those from above and those from below," says Doyle. "To survive, they must forge an alliance with their enemies from the surface." And you'll need to decide how much you want to work with your quintet. "When faced with overwhelming odds, each character in House of Ashes must decide whether to save their own hide, or set aside their personal rivalries and prejudices and work together to survive."
In the demo, we only get to spend time with Nick and Jason. Mere seconds into finding himself underground, Nick sees his first glimpse of one of the horribly long-limbed subterranean monsters. Revealing this detail when he bumps into Jason makes his boss start questioning his sanity, sowing the seeds of doubt that the series has so far thrived on. Mistrust is a big part of the Dark Pictures Anthology, and even more so when you play with friends in the simultaneous co-op and pass-the-controller modes.
Things devolve into chaos pretty quickly. After a tense chat that reveals Jason is a massive dickhead, the pair find some other survivors. But not for long. One soldier is dangling from the ceiling covered in blood, but it's the uninjured one that falls first, snatched by monsters in the darkness. Then all hell breaks loose and the rest make a run for it, amid some very unpleasant monster noises. And it's during this crisis that it becomes less clear whose side we should be on.
See, the wounded soldier is being a little bit loud, what with his guts spilling out and everything. At first, as Nick, you can try to stem the bleeding, but then you have to choose to muffle his cries so they don't attract the monsters. There are a couple of opportunities to do this, and in the demo it leads to the soldier being suffocated. It's deeply unpleasant. It's technically an accident, but it doesn't make me much of a fan of ol' Nicky. Naturally, the scene could play out differently in your hands.
I'm pretty tired of playing American soldiers, but the setting does open the door to some interesting scenarios and conundrums. You've got pragmatic operatives and gung-ho cowboys forced to work together with their enemy, where they'll have to set jingoism and racism aside to survive. Or maybe they don't and it all goes to shit. The dark, claustrophobic tunnels aren't going to be the only sources of tension.
For any of you who've played the previous games—which isn't essential, since they're all standalones—you'll know what to expect from House of Ashes' systems, but Supermassive have made some tweaks again based on feedback from Little Hope, specifically in regards to the camera and difficulty.
The Dark Pictures Anthology isn't tricky, but frequent QTEs do create accessibility issues, and some people just don't like them. "Our fan feedback around QTEs shows that you're quite divided on this issue," says Doyle. "Some of you think they're too hard, while others think they're too easy." In Little Hope, they were greatly improved by the inclusion of warnings that even showed you what kind of action you'd be doing, and this time there are also new difficulty settings that let you change the speed to match what you're comfortable with.
House of Ashes also unshackles the camera, so you'll have full control over it. Inspired by horror flicks as it is, the fixed camera made sense both in terms of aesthetics and creating a sense of vulnerability, but it could also lead to some jarring transitions. Along with this change, you'll now have a torch, which should come in very handy when you're rooting around underground. By shining your torch, you'll be better directed towards points of interest, though I expect there will also be some occasions where that power will be cruelly wrenched from you in the name of scares.
I'm a sucker for Mesopotamian mythology, and Doyle also mentions that Aliens, Predator and The Descent serve as inspiration, which makes me very happy. Expect nods to Lovecraft, too, what with all the ancient gods and spooky temples. I could do with less of him these days, frankly, but we can't have it all I guess.
You'll be able to try your hand at escaping monsters in a crumbling Sumerian temple later this year.