The third entry into Supermassive Games' horror anthology ditches its clunky controls for something smoother--and possibly scarier.
With the third game in The Dark Pictures Anthology, developer Supermassive Games is making some serious improvements--ones that could very well make House of Ashes all the scarier. In a way, the developer is taking a note from a similarly spook-driven series: Resident Evil.
In a short hands-off preview for the game, Supermassive demonstrated some alterations it's making based on player feedback to its previous two Dark Pictures games, Man of Medan and Little Hope. The most notable is that the studio is doing away with placing fixed camera angles on the action, which should make it easier to explore the game's environments and locate the secrets and items that help tell the story.
That looks to be a good move, based on the focus of House of Ashes. The next Dark Pictures story is set in Iraq in 2003 at the tail end of the major portion of the US war in the country. The story follows a group of US soldiers searching for a cache of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, when they're engaged by holdout Iraqi Republican Army forces. A pitched battle takes place, but when it's interrupted by an earthquake, soldiers from both sides find themselves trapped underground in a massive, dark cave system, which hides a millennia-old temple.
The preview showed off some gameplay from an early portion of House of Ashes, which takes place soon after the soldiers have fallen into the cave and are searching its dark tunnels in hopes of regrouping. Where previous games, like Man of Medan, had you moving characters around locations with the camera fixed in one spot, House of Ashes gives you full control to move it around in 360 degrees. While the caves can often be tight and narrow, Supermassive says House of Ashes is also full of larger, fuller areas you'll want to comb through--and the untethered camera allows you to search the game's shadows and appreciate its larger, spookier underground locales.
It's a change that feels extremely akin to the Resident Evil series' presentational leap between the first three Resident Evil games and Resident Evil 4. For the first three titles in the series, players navigated locations like the Spencer Mansion and the Raccoon City Police Department with each room presented from a fixed camera angle. That could make getting around difficult, since judging distances and finding pathways could be confusing from certain angles, and pathways and objects were often obscured. Earlier Dark Pictures games took the same approach, and even featured a similar "tank" style control system.
The fixed camera allowed Supermassive (and Capcom before it) to create some really inventive and fascinating images, but the presentation makes those games feel more like watching a movie than playing. Those camera angles also make the games feel kind of clunky, with characters getting stuck on furniture or objects as you try to move them around. The free camera makes it easier to check your surroundings, and you can pair it with the ability to control where your character swings their flashlight. In the dark locales of House of Ashes, it looks like the free camera could potentially make things even creepier than those fixed angles--and their ability to hide scares--would.
That's because, while you'll have more freedom to look around and explore the darkness in House of Ashes, you're likely to feel more oppressed by that control, not less. According to Supermassive, the game draws inspiration from the likes of horror movies such as The Descent and Aliens, and if you know those films, you might have an idea of what's lurking in the cave with you. There are deadly creatures waiting in the shadows. The free camera and flashlight mean you'll be able to check more places as you hear things skittering in the dark--but from the sounds of things, there's also much more darkness to check. The result sounds like a much more potentially panicky take on the series' exploration portions.
The camera isn't the only thing Supermassive is changing with House of Ashes. Also getting an overhaul is the series' quick-time events--the encounters that require you to quickly respond to prompts and hit buttons in order to help your characters avoid danger in the nick of time. Director Will Doyle says Supermassive has received some pretty split feedback on the QTE system, so with House of Ashes, it has overhauled it to allow players to pick the QTE experience they want to have. You can set the game to give you easier QTEs if they're not really your thing or you prefer to focus on the story, or amp up their difficulty if you want House of Ashes to present a more challenging, more traditional game experience.
In general, though, the footage we saw presented a quick look at House of Ashes that appears to be more of what the other Dark Pictures games have provided, but with better graphics and tighter controls. The scene followed one soldier, Nick, controlled by the player, as he found and met back up with his friend, the higher-ranking Jason. A few moments later, the pair found Clarice, a third soldier, trying to help Merwin, one of their group who'd been wounded in the fighting. As the group tried to stop Merwin's bleeding, the scene turned into something that felt extremely akin to The Descent.
Suddenly, Clarice vanished into the darkness, as if pulled away by some monumental force. Jason struggled to stop Merwin's bleeding and give him morphine, but the wounded man's intense pain caused him to struggle and cry out, drawing more danger toward the three. As Nick, the player could cover Merwin's mouth in an attempt to quiet him as the two men tried to pull him away from danger. But before long, Nick got too overzealous with a button-mashing QTE--and instead of just quieting Merwin, he accidentally suffocated him.
It was an intense scene, and between moments like that and the dialogue options, House of Ashes looks like it'll continue to provide all the choice-based depth and moral quandaries The Dark Pictures has traded in so far. With the new changes and updates to the underlying formula and graphical presentation, House of Ashes looks like a big step forward for The Dark Pictures Anthology, without getting too far away from what horror fans already like about the game.
Look for The Dark Pictures Anthology: House of Ashes sometime later this year when it launches on PlayStation 4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S, and PC.