Content warning: contains potentially triggering images and descriptions.
Part two of my favourite horror games. I tried picking some titles that were less obvious. I omitted games that, despite me loving them, crop up on all the “best horror game” lists. That’s why you won’t see PT or Amnesia here.
F.E.A.R. 2: Project Origin [Monolith Productions, 2009]
*Spoilers for F.E.A.R. ahead!*
Monolith strike gold again. The sequel to the game mockingly known as “the game with the girl from the ring” delivered not just a very solid first-person-shooter, but a very effective psychological horror too. The first game saw you playing the Point Man of the titular First Encounter Assault Recon as they hunted Paxton Fettel, a black ops commander gone rogue. With a penchant for eating people. Who psychically controlled an army of super-soldiers. If that doesn’t sound bat-shit enough for you, throw in Alma, the now-iconic little girl who turned what was already a solid shooter into a stone-cold classic.
F.E.A.R. 2 tightens up gameplay while managing to be even scarier. The game picks up a little before where the first game left off, as you play a special forces soldier en route to arrest the shady corporate figure behind the events of F.E.A.R. As you may expect, things don’t go to plan, and the game quickly has you fighting through a ruined city against an even more powerful army of clones than before. And of course Alma is a constant source of tension and terror throughout. Revealed at the end of the first game to be both Point Man’s and Paxton Fettel’s mother (yes, really), Alma really is a step above most creepy little girl tropes. She manifests herself in different ways; from creepy little girl to seductive young woman, to deformed ghoul. Your mission to stop Alma literally destroying the world with her unstable psychic powers leads to an ending that is genuinely shocking.
There are other horrors to contend with too. Fast mutants that can strike from anywhere. Invisible, knife-wielding super-soldiers. Mechs! There’s a lot of variety in the environments, weapons and enemies that even when Alma isn’t spooking you, you’ll find a very enjoyable shooter alongside too.
It’s not a perfect game, by any means. Sometimes the AI goes a bit nuts and the bullet-time is, despite useful, a tired gimmick. But for a game from 2009 it’s actually incredibly smooth. And you can kick people in the head. Surely worth it just for that.
Despite lukewarm reviews and slow sales, I still stand by F.E.A.R. 2. Both an incredibly underrated shooter and horror game. Just don’t mention the mess that was F.3.A.R.
SCARE RATING: 8 chainsaws out of 11. Great tension, and Alma is an iconic villain.
HARVESTER [DigiFX Interactive, 1996]
So it’s not a pure horror game, as the game’s intent isn’t to scare you. In fact I would primarily describe it as a black comic adventure game. But Harvester contains enough blood, gore and other disturbing content to be included as a horror game. A response to the “video game violence” controversy of the early 1990s, the game is a ultraviolent headtrip into a bizarre 1950s shithole and its wacky inhabitants. There was nothing quite like it at the time. There may be nothing quite like it again.
A point-and-click game at heart, you play Steve, a plucky 18-year-old waking up in Harvest, a little town in 1953 where nothing is as it seems. He has no memory of who or where he is, but no one believes him because he “always was a kidder”. He has a little brother who does nothing but watch violent cowboy shows on TV. He has a mother who does nothing but bake cookies (and heavily implies that she wants an incestuous relationship). And he has a father who is bedridden, covered head-to-toe in bandages because… let’s just say, I guess mother focuses on the “sado” part of “sado-masochistic” too much.
One of the highlights of Harvester is the glorious FMV, which truly highlights the b-movie level acting on display. It’s not clear whether the performances are intentionally bad, but I want to say that they are. One of my personal favourite scenes, which is one of the most b-movie things I’ve ever seen, is the moment where the Sheriff (pie in hand) comes to the conclusion that a bloodied skull and spinal cord on a bed means “death by natural causes”. It’s genuinely hilarious, and to me sums up what Harvester is truly about. It’s a satire about whether being exposed to violence in the media truly turns people into killers. It’s both very clever and knowingly stupid.
So why is it included in this list?
Well, let’s start with the characters. You have a teacher who doesn’t believe in using a cane on her children, because a baseball bat is much more effective. You have a lady who quite possibly has sex with wasps (as someone with a wasp phobia this is particularly terrifying for me). You have a man with a pair of balls so blue you could use them for pool. You have a perverted sheriff’s deputy whom you have to give a “girlie magazine” to so he’ll go and masturbate in a jail cell while you get into the evidence locker. And you have a paranoid army colonel, with no legs, who could quite possibly cause nuclear armageddon if you’re not careful. Need I go on?
Let’s continue with the violence. Child murder, shootings, decapitations, dead cats, children cannibalizing their own mother. When you enter the mysterious Lodge the game goes into overdrive, with enemies exploding into fountains of gore. It’s all knowingly schlocky and over-the-top, with the game’s entire mystery becoming unraveled with the final murder.
There’s no jumpscares or any real attempt to create a “horror” atmosphere, but the ultraviolence and overall weirdness of the game is disturbing enough. It has to be seen to be believed.
SCARE RATING: 5 chainsaws out of 11. Not a “scary” game but you’ll find something here to freak you out.
THE CAT LADY [Harvester Games, 2012]
From one Harvester to another. Harvester Games’ The Cat Lady is a bleak, creepy adventure game that deals with themes of suicide, depression and murder. Despite this rather off-putting description of the game, there is a lot to enjoy about the game.
The Cat Lady is Susan Ashworth, a lonely, middle-aged woman who, after suffering chronic depression, decides to take her own life. But upon death, she is met by the mysterious Queen Of Maggots, who says that before she can be at peace, she must return to earth to rid it of five “parasites”. These parasites are truly evil people who, to the Queen, deserve to die, and Susan is sent back to life with the “gift” of immortality.
One of the reasons the game is so enjoyable despite the story and subject matter is it’s characters. Susan is an endearing protagonist, and it’s hard not to sympathize with her plight. We’ve all been put into situations that we had no intention of being in. It’s just that Susan’s situation involves murder and eternal life. But despite everything, Susan is a wonderful protagonist. She’s witty. She’s funny. She has a tragic past. You feel for her every step of the way. Susan is joined by chirpy sidekick Mitzi. Mitzi really is the perfect foil for Susan. She’s bright and positive, despite her condition. She’s the shining light in darkness of Susan’s life, and she helps Susan see hope for the first time in a long time. It just goes to show that even small indie games can have well-rounded, well-written characters who feel truly alive.
The game is very visually distinctive. Most of the game is set in grimy black and white, and the primitive graphics are incredibly effective at establishing a grim atmosphere. From Susan’s dismal flat to the basement of a crumbling townhouse, it’s unashamedly ugly. But it works. Even the voice acting, though very-well performed, pops and distorts in ways that would make most audio engineers cry. But you don’t mind because it fits the roughness of what you’re seeing.
Then you have the parasites. Five psychopathic killers, each putting Susan (and sometimes Mitzi) in incredibly disturbing situations. From a serial killer masquerading as a therapist (in some cruel irony), to a bumbling pest-control man, developer Remi Michalski doesn’t skimp on the violence; there are some nasty scenes in this. But often the violence is punctuated by humour. A particular highlight is the pest-control-man being harassed by his zombie-like wife. And by “zombie-like” I don’t mean comatose. She literally looks and walks like a zombie. And she wears a nurses outfit, I’m guessing in some futile effort to appear “sexy” to her husband. These light touches make the game a more wholesome, memorable experience.
Apart from a few light jumpscares and some bloody violence, the game is relatively tame. It’s a gloomy, immersive experience with an excellent story, and one of the best indie horror games out there.
SCARE RATING: 7 chainsaws out of 11. Not “scary” in the truest sense, but the disturbing content may not be suitable for some.
And a bonus…
Vampire The Masquerade Bloodlines (The Ocean House Hotel) [Troika Games, 2004]
Vampire Bloodlines isn’t a horror game. Not entirely. 90% of the game is an excellent RPG which sees you as a blood-sucker loose in early 2000s Los Angeles. 10% of the game is a sequence that reaches levels of terror most horror games wish they could reach.
In the early game, club proprietor Therese Voermann orders you to retrieve an amulet from an abandoned hotel, so the spirits haunting the place will leave and she can renovate the building like a smart businesswoman. Simple, right? Of course not, this is a role-playing game. It turns out one of the spirits is the ghost of a woman murdered by her husband, who grew jealous and paranoid to “if I can’t have you, no one can” levels. So he murders her, their children, and presumably himself. The problem? The other spirit is the husband. And he doesn’t want you there.
One of the things that makes the level so memorably scary is that you’re just not expecting it. Before this, your vampiric jobs have simply amounted to errands, with a bit of killing here and there. It’s like meaning to go on the bumper cars but accidentally walking into the ghost train instead. It’s also really effective. Objects flying at you, creepy messages written on walls, a ghostly figure just out of the corner of your eye. Lot’s of horror games wish they were this scary.
Vampire Bloodlines is a great game in it’s own right. But Troika Games just decided to spoil you by sliding a genuinely frightening horror story in there as well.
SCARE RATING: 9 out of 11 chainsaws. Most horror games have to try to be this spooky.