Plenty of games are cinematic, but ever since 2015’s Until Dawn, developer Supermassive has earned a reputation for taking the idea of a cinematic game to the next level. In the years that followed, the studio continued to refine its interactive take on the same tropes and aesthetics of horror cinema under the umbrella of a sprawling Dark Pictures Anthology.
The third title in the collection, House of Ashes, stands out as the best of what Supermassive’s development ethos can offer, and its inclusion on PS Plus as of October 17 makes it the perfect game to play during the spooky season. Here’s why.
Every Supermassive horror game tries to emulate a specific sub-genre. Until Dawn is a cabin in the woods story, Man of Medan tackles ghosts, and The Quarry is a summer camp slasher. House of Ashes is slightly more ambitious, blending aspects of survival, cosmic, and monster horror. Set in 2003 Iraq, the game follows a group of soldiers who become trapped in a cave system where they encounter an ancient evil who seeks to murder the main cast and find its way to the outside world.
The emptiness of the game’s cave system (which can feel both claustrophobic and awe-inspiring) constantly instills a sense of fear in the player, whether it be a fear of being trapped or a fear of being out in the open for the monster to catch you. This helps accomplish the number one goal of horror: to unsettle the audience.
However, it’s House of Ashes’ use of horror as commentary that sets its story apart from the rest of The Dark Pictures Anthology. The backdrop of the U.S. invasion of Iraq is the central concern of the game. By comprising the cast of U.S. and Iraqi soldiers, and beginning the game with a dubious mission of discovering weapons of mass destruction, House of Ashes constantly wrestles with the cost of warfare and, more importantly, the cost of wrongly justified modern imperialism on the part of Western powers.
The American soldiers are quick to let the prejudices that the propaganda machine has stoked to a burning fire take over their minds once they are besieged by horrors they couldn’t possibly understand. Just like the conflicts that go on uninterrupted above, the battle occurring within the cave system is made more costly to its participants due to the unwillingness to reckon with the truths behind the bloodshed. (Not to mention the game’s entire plot could have been avoided if the main cast hadn’t been sent on a wild goose chase for WMDs that didn’t exist.)
Mechanically, House of Ashes also noticeably improves on its predecessors. Instead of the often-abrasive tank control of the past games, House of Ashes frees the camera and turns traversal and exploration into a more traditional third-person action game. Thanks to the well-designed environment, the ability to freely control the camera doesn’t lessen the tension of the game.
The hallmark choices of Supermassive’s titles also feel more fine-tuned than even the developer’s latest game, The Quarry, offering more meaningful ways to influence each character’s path forward that leave the player feeling responsible for success… or failure. It all adds up to make House of Ashes the most competent of Supermassive’s cinematic horror games. If you have a PS Plus Extra or Premium subscription, don’t miss your chance to experience it for yourself.