The horror, the HORROR
Horror games are a dime a dozen. Scary horror games, good horror games—well, those are much rarer. We've rounded up some of the best horror games ever made, running the gamut from big-budget extravaganzas released this very year to... text adventures. I'm serious.
Turn out the lights, put on some headphones, make sure you've got a spare pair of underwear nearby, and enjoy these terrifying spine-tinglers.
Editor's note: This list is updated annually in October.
Killing Floor 2
If all you want to do is shoot zombies, you can’t really do better than Killing Floor 2 ($30 on Amazon) nowadays. With six-player co-op and a ton of unique weapons, your goal is to basically coat every single surface in the game with blood. I mean, technically your goal is just to kill every zombie that moves, but the persistent gore system is definitely a perk here. By the end of a level it’s like a meat-packing plant exploded.
Kudos to Tripwire for supporting the game through its rough patches, too. What started out as a so-so sequel has turned into one of the best zombie-slaying games since...well, since the first Killing Floor.
The Evil Within 2
The first Evil Within was a mess of a game. Oh sure, it had brilliant ideas, but the execution was just dismal at times—clunky movement, a tedious and poorly paced opening, and a save system that caused more than one person I know to quit after a few hours.
But The Evil Within 2 ($60 on Amazon) is excellent—maybe one of 2017’s best games. That’s my opinion after the first six or seven hours, at least. The more open-world structure of some acts takes a bit of getting used to, but its more story-driven bits are home to jaw-dropping spectacle: people’s last moments frozen in time, unsettling architecture, supernatural hallucinations. All the pieces that made the first game worth the grind are back, and paired with a game that actually plays well this time.
Dead by Daylight/Friday the 13th
I’m not going to wade into the argument about which of these asymmetric multiplayer games is better. One is (obviously) Friday the 13th themed, one more general horror with a dash of Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but both have the same conceit: Four survivors have to band together and hold out while another player, the monster, tries to kill them off. Think Evolve, but for sadists.
Both Dead by Daylight (pictured, $20 on Steam) and Friday the 13th ($40 on Steam) have more than their fair share of issues, be it bugs (a lot of them), lousy performance, or just toxic community members. But when you get a good match? There’s nothing else really like it. Having the source of scares be another human instead of a pre-programmed AI means constant surprises. It’s worth grabbing three friends and checking either one of these out.
One alien. That was the design direction behind Creative Assembly's Alien: Isolation ($40 on Amazon), which pursued the survival horror mood of the original 1979 film instead of the action-packed plot of Aliens.
And it worked. Though a bit overlong and at times needlessly difficult, Alien: Isolation is the strongest big-budget horror experience in years. This game is just plain tense—almost unbearably so if you play it with a VR headset. And it's available for Linux, Steam Machines, and OS X, too.
But the underwater confines of PATHOS-II are often unnerving, what with the groans of pressurized metal and the flickering lights and the robots that seem to believe they’re still human. It’s a strong experience, and one well worth playing even if it won’t make you leap out of your seat.
Amnesia: The Dark Descent
Now we're digging into Frictional's truly great scares. A Victorian-era castle may not seem like the best setting for a horror game, but with Amnesia: The Dark Descent ($20 on Steam) Frictional took everything it learned from its earlier games, polished it, and released one of the scariest games of all time. You play as Daniel, an archeologist who's lost his memory and has only a letter—apparently written by him—to guide his escape from the mad castle and shadowy figures that stalk him.
While it's more polarizing, the sequel Machine for Pigs is also worth checking out, as long as you curb your expectations.
Penumbra: Black Plague
Before there was Amnesia, there was Penumbra. Frictional's first horror series charged players with navigating an abandoned underground research compound. While the first game's cave system was a great start (Penumbra: Overture) it's Black Plague ($10 on Steam) that will make you need a new pair of pants.
Resident Evil 7
Resident Evil 7 ($60 on Amazon) is a huge departure for the long-running horror series—probably the biggest reinvention since Resident Evil 4. It gives up the third-person camera, abandons the usual Resident Evil aesthetic, and even gives up the focus on combat...for most of the game.
What’s left is very clearly Frictional-inspired, more similar to Amnesia or Penumbra (or, going outside Frictional, Outlast). There’s a lot of creeping around a house, playing cat-and-mouse with Jack Baker and his crazy family while trying to save your wife Mia. And being force-fed entrails.
It’s not only the best Resident Evil in years, it’s also one of the best horror games period.
Asylums are easy fodder for horror. That said, Outlast ($20 on Steam) makes the most of its clichéd setting by providing you no way to defend yourself and forcing you into the found-footage conceit popularized by horror films like Blair Witch Project. The game has some pacing issues, but it's definitely not for the faint of heart—gore and jump scares abound.
Layers of Fear
Layers of Fear ($20 on Amazon) and its story of a painter-gone-crazy has some hammy sections and a few too many cheesy jump scares, but its quieter moments are masterful psychological horror. Not scary, per se, but unsettling in ways similar to Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves.
See, every time you turn the camera, things change. Maybe the door you just came through disappears, or you enter a seemingly-normal room only to realize all the furniture is on the ceiling. You can never trust your surroundings, and there’s something captivating about that.
Like Frictional with Soma, Bloober’s follow-up to Layers of Fear isn’t nearly as scary. Observer ($30 on Amazon) trades outright horror for an oppressive cyberpunk atmosphere with a few disturbing dream sequences.
It’s so damn good, though. You play as Dan Lazarski, the titular Observer—a cyborg detective with the ability to infiltrate people’s minds and witness their subconscious thoughts. On the hunt for his estranged son, Lazarski scours a rat-infested slum apartment for clues, be it spots of blood or the psychedelic memories of a local drug addict.
What follows is one of 2017’s wildest adventures. Observer is an excellent homage to Philip K. Dick, and easily one of the best cyberpunk games ever made.
Grab a big-ass gun and get to Mars, because there’s a full-on demonic invasion happening and you’re the only one that can stop it. Doom ($30 on Amazon) resurrects some of the best bits of ‘90s shooters—the blazing pace, the over-the-top weaponry—and adds in a satisfying high-reward melee system that rewards getting up close and personal with the ugly hellspawn.
Okay, so Doom isn’t actually a “horror” game maybe. But you know what? It’s one of the best damned shooters of 2016, you spend part of the game in Hell, and there are a ton of demons to shoot in the face. So in a year that’s incredibly light on horror games, Doom is good enough for me.
Little Nightmares ($20 on Amazon) is the best Limbo-style platformer I’ve played. It borrows the standard Playdead template—you’re a small child and you do a lot of running (and sometimes jumping) to the right. Nothing new there.
But these sorts of games live and die on their aesthetic. Little Nightmares blends the surreal and the grotesque in a way that’s both fascinating and just plain disgusting. Its shambling, oversized monsters aren’t necessarily scary but they are unnerving, and there’s a certain Spirited Away quality to them too—a light but ever-present social commentary at work. It’s captivating, and more than makes up for the simplistic mechanics.
Condemned: Criminal Origins
There's a serial killer on the loose, and whoever it is really loves mannequins. You're a crime scene investigator and must catch this disturbing killer while also contending with your increasingly violent surroundings. Probably by hitting those surroundings (read: psychopaths) with a pipe.
Condemned: Criminal Origins ($15 on Amazon) is damn terrifying. You'll have nightmares about those mannequins.
Pathologic Classic HD
Pathologic has been on this list since its inception, but as of October 2015 there’s an update: A new, HD remaster of the game (complete with new translations) has been released on Steam. It’s not the full-fledged remake that Ice-Pick Lodge Kickstarted, but rather an intermediate step called Pathologic Classic HD ($13 on Steam).
Why’s the game so great? In short, Pathologic is like someone hired Kafka or maybe Camus (because of the plague storyline) to write The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. There’s a plague killing The Town, and you play as one of three characters trying to unravel the mysteries held within. Many people will die. It’s a cult classic, and Rock, Paper, Shotgun’s three-part tome about the game is pretty much required reading.
It’s a point-and-click, but Stasis ($20 on Amazon) has atmosphere in spades. You wake up on a strange spaceship, surrounded by bodies, and it only gets worse from there.
Styled after the classic isometric horror game Sanitarium and paying obvious homage to Alien, Event Horizon, I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream, and other bits of beloved genre fiction, Stasis is easily one of the best horror games in recent years—not necessarily because of overt scares, but because it tells a compelling story and has a way of getting under your skin.
Resident Evil HD
“Resident Evil 4 ruined Resident Evil.” Yes, I know you’re out there, angry person.
If you’re a devout fan of the classic Resident Evil feel, then you should know Capcom put out Resident Evil HD ($20 on Steam) last year—a remastered version of the GameCube remake of the original PlayStation 1 game. Phew.
It looks beautiful, as we mentioned in our Resident Evil HD review, and you can play without tank controls, which is (sort of) a relief. Just be sure not to end up a Jill Sandwich.
System Shock 2
Before BioShock there was System Shock.
It takes more than a few mods to get the best out of aging space horror game System Shock 2 ($10 on GOG) nowadays, but it's worth it. System Shock 2 is legendary due both to the atmosphere of the starship Von Braun and the quality of its writing.
If System Shock 2 is the best space-based survival horror game of all time—and it is—Dead Space ($20 on Steam) is a close second. Engineer Isaac Clarke attempts to repair an enormous space station, only to find it's infested by aliens known as the Necromorphs.
Dead Space is essentially the horror game Doom 3 so desperately tried to be. It’s absolutely worth checking out.
Scared by... a text adventure? It's true. The tale of a creepy old mansion and a young couple, Anchorhead is over fifteen years old at this point and owes a hefty amount to Mr. H.P. Lovecraft. Like a good horror novel, Anchorhead is less about jump-out-of-your-seat scares and more about creating tension, but it does that masterfully.
Plus it's free, like most modern text adventures, and playable through your browser.