2021 is gathering steam and we are all looking to shake off the horrific residue of 2020. However, that doesn’t mean we can’t still enjoy a little slice of scary. Here are the 15 most terrifying survival horror games of all time.
As a genre, it feels as if survival horror games have really hit their stride in the past ten years. Hell, past five maybe. Hi-tech ambient headsets, polished 4K graphics, and horrifying settings have led to some genuinely terrifying experiences that really stick with you.
The most powerful thing about survival horror, and why I believe it will continue to grow and define the next decade of gaming, is simultaneously gaming’s greatest strength: putting you in the shoes of a character. And when you are seeing through the eyes of someone alone in an asylum who won’t move until you do, it’s one hell of a waking nightmare.
Layers Of Fear
While Layers Of Fear has been accused of being a walking simulator, it is indeed far more and it must be praised for its rattling original themes. The story has you play a nameless artist returning to his Gothic 18th-century mansion.
You soon descend into madness, due to questionable paint ingredients, and it quickly becomes apparent that the narration is unreliable and you are objectively a very bad person who will “die to finish your last painting”.
Few games make you question literally everything in the game world as your psychosis slowly engulfs you. “Hey, was that chair there a second ago?” Pure brilliance.
The Evil Within
While most modern survival horror games understandably adopt a first-person perspective, The Evil Within pays respect to the genre’s pioneers like Resident Evil and Silent Hill, and the over shoulder view is awesomely terrifying as the story unravels.
Horror mastermind Shinji Mikami created some truly grotesque creatures into The Evil Within and the pervading anxiety of having only one shotgun shell never eases until after the credits roll.
Blurring the lines between humanity and technology, SOMA is a horror game with a deeply philosophical underpinning. Frictional Games – the minds behind Amnesia – prove they are still the masters of survival horror, offering you no weapons but your legs to run with.
The gripping atmosphere of an underwater labyrinth known as PATHOS-II is openly reminiscent of Bioshock’s Rapture in all the best ways. You play Simon who has to escape from an existential nightmare of strangely human robots before the sea crushes you completely.
Dead Space is the progenitor to all modern sci-for horror games and breathed new life into the dormant genre. Isaac Clarke is investigating a deep space mining ship that has been infested with monsters known as Necromorphs and the void of space is the perfect setting for grotesque horror.
With plenty of firepower at your disposal, it certainly leans into more FPS territory than survival horror at times, but it absolutely nails the core elements of the genre. Its popularity and initiative in drafting a blueprint for sci-fi horror is undeniable and everlasting.
Resident Evil 2 Remake
Over 20 years ago, one of the greatest and first true survival horror games was released on the PS1. Now the classic Resident Evil 2 is back and it has had a facelift. Not only does Resi 2 look flipping gorgeous, but the whole game has been rebuilt from the ground up.
It’s a time-honoured retelling of Leon and Claire’s horrifying journey through a zombie-filled Raccoon City with more gore, clever puzzles, and smooth gunplay. The perfect way to go back to the very roots of the survival horror genre.
There have been many horror games adapted from movies over the years. And many have flopped before they even began, but Alien: Isolation is the exception. Its aesthetics are closely sketched from the designs of the first movie, taking us to a time just after the Nostromo’s demise and Amanda Ripley is beginning her search of her mother.
Hearing the haunting Xenomorph rattle through ducts above your head or stalk the hallway ahead is a truly terrifying ordeal. The gameplay is surprisingly challenging too, balancing survival and gunplay elements well. Along with the alien, intelligent AI can often be just as frightening, if not more so.
Amnesia: The Dark Descent
While many modern survival horror titles take place in the future – I mean, what’s more frightening than the future, right? – Amnesia: The Dark Descent takes us back to the 1830s. It was deservedly a huge success upon release due to the absence of weapons and new insanity features, making you think carefully about burning any lantern oil.
Yet what made Amnesia shine was its hugely compelling and complex stories, acutely combining elements of history with science fiction and, of course, insanity.
Silent Hill 2
Silent Hill 2 is a dark game. One of the grimmest and most nightmare-inducing ever made in fact. Following a message from his missing wife, James Sutherland journeys to an ominous town called Silent Hill, and understandably, shit starts going awry.
Silent Hill are the masters of survival horror. They revolutionised the genre in 1999 on the PlayStation 1 and were the first to focus on atmosphere rather than cheap jump scares. Silent Hill 2 was a revelation and a must-play for any survival horror fan.
When I first played Outlast, I was so frightened and shocked that a game could so powerfully rock me to the core that I felt sick. Granted I played it with the lights out and a headset on around midnight, but I was truly, honestly frightened and very much felt as if I was the character.
Exploring an old asylum with nothing but a handicap that drains batteries with a vengeance, Outlast is incredibly thematic. Using a night vision to explore dark spaces, the grainy green glowing effect is very original and wholly terrifying.
Simply one of the greatest and most terrifying games of all time, Outlast is singular. Your only options are to run or hide.
Resident Evil 7: Biohazard
The most famous survival horror franchise of all time took a huge risk in 2017 by tapping into the first-person titles waves at the time. The main story is complex, shocking, and completely gripping.
Finding yourself in the Bakers’ family home, a twisted shack in America’s deep south, you are in for the hell ride of your life. The horror is in your face, gruesome and gleefully evil. Plus, it can be played effortlessly as a standalone game or in VR. Proof, that 2o years on Capcom are the undeniable masters of horror.
It’s also the perfect time to get into this one; as the sequel, Resident Evil: Village, will arrive May 2021.
Darkwood is a truly horrifying experience, one that is a lot scarier than it may initially appear. This little indie game is inspired by Polish folklore and has a dream-like energy that soon starts to morph into a nightmare.
You wake up in a twisted forest that has been cut off from the rest of the world. The game doesn’t hold your hand, or give much direction in general, other than to let you know that you must try to escape the forest. So starts the nerve-shredding process of exploring and gathering supplies during the day, and then securing your home at night. Because at night terrible creatures will come looking for you. Or not. It really depends if they feel like it.
This tension, and the fear of what may be lurking just out of sight, is critical to Darkwood. It’s also what makes it one of the best survival horror games of recent years. For my money it’s scarier than anything that has come out in 2021.
Some might argue that BioShock isn’t a survival horror game at all. I would argue that they are wrong. Quite simply, BioShock is about exploring a world where something has gone very wrong. Science and technology have been used to try and allow humankind to reach its full potential. However, this hubris backfires and results in everyone morphing into deformed, insane mutants that will kill anyone they come across. Sounds like a survival horror game, right?
You must make your way through this world, an underwater city called Rapture, trying your best to help other humans along the way. The story revolves around a mystery that will keep you guessing until the end. Well, almost the end (if you know, you know).
A classic of the genre that is still definitely worth playing for those that missed it when it was originally released. If you can, get a hold of the 2016 remaster.
Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth
Any list of horror games that doesn’t have something influenced by H.P. Lovecraft on it isn’t trying hard enough. Unfortunately, when it comes to video games that are directly related to Lovecraft’s works, the number of quality titles is limited. That said, that makes this decision an easy one.
Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth is an oldie, but most certainly a goodie. It is one of the most successful Lovecraft adaptations full stop, films included. Based on the short story The Shadow Over Innsmouth, you take on the role of a private investigator that is on a missing persons case.
You end up finding a lot more than a missing person; human/fish hybrids, terrifying ancient gods, and all manner of things occult. It’s enough to drive anyone to the brink of insanity – which is also a major theme in this classic survival horror game.
Perhaps more of a shooter than an outright horror game, this one makes the list because of how damn scary it is. If creepy little children are your kryptonite, then this one should be avoided. Or embraced, depending on if truly terrifying is what you are looking for.
You are a member of a special forces team that specialises in dealing with paranormal threats – which is a good thing because this game is full of paranormal shit that needs to be taken care of, particularly a mysterious young girl who seems to have extraordinary telepathic powers.
F.E.A.R. has a lot of jump scares, and a really creepy atmosphere that recalls The Ring.
System Shock 2
Space is a great place to set survival horror games – you are surrounded by infinite black and there isn’t really anywhere to escape to. System Shock 2 utilises this setting well, but has more than its fair share of original concepts too.
It also has one of the greatest villains in video game history. Shodan is an AI that has taken control of a whole spaceship and is in the process of playing god. I won’t go into too much more detail, as it is best to go into this one blind. However, if you aren’t sure, perhaps thinking the game looks too old and outdated, find a clip of Shodan’s voice. It should be all the proof you need that this classic is still capable of sending a shiver down anyone’s spine.
A remake of System Shock 1 is scheduled for 2021, so if you enjoy this, make sure to keep an eye out for that.