Content warning: contains potentially triggering images and descriptions.
It’s no secret that I’m a huge horror game fan. There’s nothing quite like it. A lot of people avoid the genre, but to me, the spine-tingling, creepy games that fill you with fear are the greatest. And here, in no particular order, is a list of my personal favourites.
SOMA [Frictional Games, 2015]
Amnesia: The Dark Descent may have been the breakthrough title for Sweden’s Frictional Games, but to me their 2015 follow-up SOMA is their masterpiece. Taking all of the tension they created with The Dark Descent and ramping it up to near-palpable levels, you play Simon Jarrett. Simon is a twenty-something average joe who, after going for what seems like a routine brain scan in 2015 Toronto, wakes up almost 100 years in the future, in a dilapidated scientific facility at the bottom of the Atlantic ocean.
In the early game, very little information is given about where Simon is and why he’s there, and as the horrifying truth is slowly revealed, the player can sympathise with Simon’s plight. There’s no plot the player knows that Simon doesn’t know. The intelligent story is just punctuated by the gameplay. With a few puzzles scattered here and there, most of the game is spent exploring the various stations of PATHOS-II, avoiding it’s mutated denizens. You can run, you can hide, but you can’t fight back.
The “no weapons” gameplay mechanic is pretty standard for survival horror now, but in SOMA it makes it somehow even more terrifying. You can’t fight the monsters, and even if you had a weapon you’re not even sure how you could fight them. The game is light on jumpscares, but the atmosphere is incredible, and more than makes up for the lack of them. In terms of tension, story and sheer fear, you won’t find much better than SOMA. The greatest horror game of the last decade, hands down.
SCARE RATING: 8 chainsaws out of 11. Tense, moody, oppressive. You’ll get tingles.
Resident Evil HD Remaster [Capcom, 2015]
While I hold a dear place in my heart for the PSX original, I don’t see it as being particularly scary, or even a particularly good game. It’s clunky, cheesy and often hilarious. A lot of people see Resident Evil as a joke, thanks to Jill sandwiches and boulder punching. Before Resident Evil VII gave the series a much needed shot in it’s rotting arm, I would have told people to play REmaster and then come back to me. Where the original had English teachers, REmaster has solid voice actors. Where the original had blocky polygons, REmaster has a fully rendered dilapidated mansion, which holds plenty of shocks and surprises for even series veterans. Changes have been made from the original to the remake which turn it into a vastly different experience, even adding a new enemy in the form of Lisa.
But is it scary?
Well, it certainly has it’s moments. Scenes like the first zombie reveal and the cerberus jumping through the window are now iconic in gaming. But there are plenty of other spooks and shocks in store. It’s no jumpscare-fest like REVII. But whether you’re trapped in an enclosed space with a zombie, or getting surprise-decapitated by a Hunter, you’ll always be on the edge of your seat.
SCARE RATING: 6 chainsaws out of 11. Won’t keep you up at night but may make you panic a few times.
CONDEMNED: CRIMINAL ORIGINS [Monolith Productions, 2005]
Right from the opening credits, Condemned is a hellish, gut-wrenching fight for survival. As an FBI agent wrongly accused of being the very serial killer he’s investigating, you have to fight your way across the bad side of town against an army of psychotic hobos. Condemned is a dark game, in more ways than one. It’s more of a first-person brawler than anything, with the few times you manage to procure a firearm ammo coming in short supply. Enemies are also fiendishly clever, running and hiding when they’re being beaten and even ganging up on you. Some can even get the jump on you when you least expect it. Combine this unpredictability with the dirty, grimy environments (which require the use of that trusty horror companion, the flashlight) and you have a game where you are constantly on your toes and the edge of your seat.
The action is broken up by neat little sequences which have you using near-future tech to investigate bodies, odours and other nastiness. You also have a camera which you can use to snap evidence and bodies (leading to one particularly memorable moment in the school). Your only companion for most of the game is Rosa, the forensic expert at the end of your phone and your only connection to anything remotely clean or sane. You’ll come to appreciate the moments of calm with her.
Jumpscares? Plenty. From hallucinations reaching out from stairwells to not-dead bodies leaping out of lockers (as you’re trying to take a photo, inconsiderately), Condemned is full of shocks. Not one for the faint of heart.
Sure, the ending is a bit of a wet fart, but by the time it comes you’ll be too worn out from the sheer terror of your journey to care about it.
SCARE RATING: 10 chainsaws out of 11. A thrill-ride of pure terror.
OUTLAST [Red Barrels, 2013]
An instant survival horror classic, there’s a reason Outlast has become a benchmark for horror games. Those who love it, love it. Those who don’t like horror games often cite it and Five Nights At Freddy’s as the scariest games ever. While Five Nights is essentially a cheap screamer simulator (and hence why it won’t appear on this list), there’s something to be said for Outlast’s notoriety.
While Outlast isn’t the scariest game ever (that title goes to Fatal Frame II) there’s a reason that it’s become an “event” game for streamers and other content creators. From the first sight of the imposing Mount Massive Asylum, you know you’re in for one hell of a ride. Developers Red Barrels go all out to shock, scare and disgust you. There’s something for everyone here; graphic violence, gore, nudity, genital mutilation, necrophilia, cannibalism. Outlast doesn’t hold anything back. The night-vision part of your camera racks up the tension when you’re forced to creep around in the pitch black, not knowing what, or who, is just in front of you. There’s even a solid story here, as plucky journalist Miles Upshur seeks to uncover the asylum’s true purpose, and finds more than he could have ever bargained for.
Certainly the best horror game set in a mental hospital (compared to it’s many contemporaries and rip-offs), with memorable characters and moments that will replay in your head as you lie in bed.
SCARE RATING: 9 chainsaws out of 11. An essential survival horror experience.
That’s it for part one. Part two coming soon!