It’s almost Halloween, so it’s a great time for some frights. And there are few things more frightening than being lost in an abandoned temple, hunted by all kinds of ghoulish monsters. House of Ashes, the newest entry in the Dark Pictures Anthology, delivers that kind of terror in spades. It unleashes creatures like a mummified, sprinting Akkadian priest alongside a zombie-bug version of a former friend. The game manages to pull off some spectacular horror set pieces in its short runtime, and it deploys some truly audacious writing in the process.
House of Ashes is political, and not in the tip-toe “not really political” kind of way. The game starts in 2003, with the American military setting up shop in former dictator Saddam Hussein’s palace. One of the main characters is Eric King, an Air Force lieutenant colonel with a sophisticated AI scanning program that has seemingly uncovered what might be a cache of chemical weapons nearby. It’s a none-too-subtle nod to Erik Prince, former Navy SEAL and founder of Blackwater USA. Sure enough, while playing as Eric, I found myself faced with the choice of whether or not to use white phosphorus as a weapon. This is not subtle writing.
This commentary continues even after the ground crumbles beneath King’s squad’s feet, and the five main cast members find themselves in an ancient temple that once housed Naram-Sin, the God of Akkad. Not only are they lost, with many of their companions dead, but the survivors are being hunted by a vampire bat-like monster menace. Even though the cast is well armed, the guns only really work on other human beings — they only slow the vampires down.
In Dark Pictures games, players control five members. In Shared Story mode, my friend and I each play one distinct narrative path. We choose what the character we are controlling says and does at the time, and we do our best to keep them alive when quick-time events pop up. All five characters can die or survive, and it takes a combination of good (and sometimes lucky) choices and quick reactions to keep the cast alive.
In this particular entry, that cast is strongly characterized, but one in particular stands out. Salim, a member of the Iraqi Republican Guard and one of King’s ambushers, ends up uniting with the American survivors, who often treat him with suspicion. Thanks to the choices I made with a friend on a Shared Story playthrough, Salim ended up having a buddy cop dynamic with Jason, a U.S. Marine, that ended in an incredibly satisfying and bittersweet way. My group of friends cheered Salim and chanted his name as the absolute legend used his steel pole to spear through vampires and rack up kills.
It’s just infuriating that so much of the narrative is spent on the other four members of the cast, who each treat Salim badly. A lot of scenes with Salim see the other party treating him like an aggressor and the enemy, even after the guy saves their life or gives them some valuable intel. All of this occurs even while Salim is the story’s MVP, racking up an enormous vampire kill count, all the while pursuing the heartwarming goal of returning to his son. The game has a great premise, but even while playing the most benevolent options across from Salim, I was still frustrated with how the cast would choose to be a petty dick.
The second act drags a little, and I think it’s because the American characters are a little more one-dimensional, and focusing on them takes up valuable real estate for more ancient cult intrigue or deep character connections. Jason and Nick, for instance, could probably be merged into one character to make room for another Iraqi.
The American side of the main cast feels crowded, but there’s some compelling and campy drama to play through. CIA agent Rachel King is forced into close spaces with her estranged husband Eric, but she’s also having a thing with the traumatized but handsome marine Nick. This interpersonal drama plays out in small bursts, frequently interrupted by the arrival of vampires or infected versions of their fallen comrades.
At the same time, painting the American protagonists as boorish and flawed people works with the horror themes of the game. The fall of empires is a major theme here, and developer Supermassive isn’t exactly shy about using this cast to explore those ideas. House of Ashes has some thoughts to share on imperialistic invaders, and even though I ended up disliking many of the characters, I sure did have fun watching them get slaughtered in a variety of brutal ways. It all leads up to a twist in the third act that is too good to spoil.
Little Hope, the second Dark Pictures Anthology game, was a railroad that led towards a very limited set of endings. House of Ashes is much more flexible, offering a variety of fates for your characters. In Man of Medan, the first entry, I took pride in getting our seafaring party out alive in a Shared Story. In House of Ashes, Supermassive returns to branching endings with a variety of satisfying fates. It’s absolutely restored my faith in the franchise, and I’m eagerly anticipating the next Dark Picture, which looks to be a Saw-style psychological thriller.
House of Ashes doesn’t make any great leaps in gameplay or structure, but in terms of narrative, it relentlessly swings for the fences. There are times when the writing doesn’t quite land, but the awkward moments rarely stick around for long thanks to the game’s expert pacing. It’s a fantastic horror social experience, just in time for Halloween, and it’s enough to get me back into the deep lore and hidden secrets of the Dark Pictures Anthology.
House of Ashes is available on PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Windows PC, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X. The game was played on PC in Shared Story mode using a code provided by Supermassive Games. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.