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Scary games are generally more terrifying than their movie counterparts. Watching a movie is a largely passive pursuit, but when you’re in the driver’s seat you’ll have to push on through the terror, which provides a greater sense of immersion.
In the spirit of Halloween and all things scary, here’s our pick of the scariest and most atmospheric horror games of the last few years. When you realize I haven’t included your favorite, please head to the comment section and let me know how wrong I am.
This list focuses on “recent” releases. I’ve stuck to horror games from the last two generations (Xbox 360, PlayStation 4, etc). They’re still easy to get hold of on Steam or in the pre-owned bin at your local retailer, and some have even received remasters and remakes.
Until Dawn (CA) (PS4)
Until Dawn isn’t just a great horror game, it was one of 2015’s best games overall. The plot gives you control of eight characters plucked right out of the post-Scream survival horror movies of the 90s and early 2000s. These walking clichés are trapped in a remote mountain retreat, where something terrible happened a year ago.
As a player you take on a directorial role. Your actions will have consequences: thanks to the “Butterfly Effect,” snap decisions you make under pressure will determine the fate of the flawed characters. Until Dawn isn’t about saving everyone with a flawless run. It’s about the unfolding narrative, plot twists, and owning the consequences of your actions.
Layers of Fear (PC, Mac, PS4, XB1)
Released in February 2016, Layers of Fear takes the first-person horror experience in a refreshing direction. The game puts you in the shoes of a mentally disturbed painter who is trying to complete his magnum opus. After the protagonist adds the first layer to the painting, he begins hallucinating and the experience takes on a dark and twisted psychedelic turn.
What follows is a puzzle-filled horror experience that blends an overarching feeling of dread with puzzles that rely heavily on visual clues. As you venture further into the painter’s house, the environment begins to warp, visual disturbances become more grotesque, and plentiful jump scares keep you on your toes.
SOMA (PC, Mac, PS4)
I vividly remember my first play through of SOMA, and how much I enjoyed it. The game doesn’t rely on jump scares to keep you on edge (though jump scares aren’t inherently bad), and it keeps you thinking for pretty much the entire experience. It’s a deeply psychological game, where much of the atmosphere is generated by your own pondering: where am I? Why am I here? Who’s chasing me? And what’s with these robots?
The game takes place in an underwater research facility that’s fallen into an eerie state of disrepair. As you venture past the flickering lights and sparking terminals, you’ll have to make some tough decisions and contemplate the implications of your actions. You’ll spend much of the game wondering if you did the right thing, while contending with just enough tension to keep you moving forward. SOMA keeps you guessing right through to its conclusion.
Alien: Isolation (CA) (PC, Mac, PS3/4, X360/1)
To understand what developer Creative Assembly were going for with Alien: Isolation, consider that the engine used was built entirely from scratch with the game in mind. This was to ensure atmospheric effects like lighting, refraction, and the behavioral design of the Xenomorph matched Ridley Scott’s 1970s vision as closely as possible. There’s even a generous helping of faux film grain enabled by default.
The game takes place aboard a decommissioned space station known as the Sevastopol. Conditions have deteriorated, the remaining inhabitants are fighting among themselves, and to top it off there’s a deadly killer on the loose. A survival horror mix of stealth, exploration, and limited combat — as well as plenty of “run for it!” moments — will keep you on your feet.
Outlast (PC, Mac, PS4, XB1)
Take on the role of freelance journalist Miles Upshur as he decides to go poking around an old dilapidated psychiatric hospital. Armed with a notebook, camcorder, and impressive parkour skills; Miles must vault obstacles, crawl squeeze through tight spaces, and hide when the patients get a little too close for comfort.
The game borrows heavily from the “found footage” horror movies that seem ubiquitous these days. You’ll need to make sparing use of your camera’s night vision mode to light the way on your journey to revealing the secret of Mount Massive Asylum. After a positive reception, a sequel is in the works and due out in early 2017.
Condemned: Criminal Origins (PC, X360)
Condemned blends real world grit with supernatural elements. You take on the role of investigator Ethan Thomas as he tracks Serial Killer X through a series of dilapidated settings. The fictional city of Metro feels like a character in and of itself, including an especially memorable shopping mall that’s full of terrifying mannequins that still make me shudder 16 years later.
From a first-person perspective the player must make heavy use of improvised melee combat, and though guns are present they are uncommon. You’ll need to use pipes and other objects in your environment to block incoming threats and finish your attackers.
Amnesia: The Dark Descent (CA) (PC, Mac)
Many games have tried to do what Amnesia did in the time since its release, which means we now have a lot of unarmed first-person exploration games to choose from. Amnesia was early to the party though. Many of the mechanics employed seem tired by now — hiding in cupboards, a fear meter, having to physically “push” and “pull” doors open and closed — but the game is still bloody scary.
The game is set in 1839, and you play the character of Daniel. You awaken in a castle with little memory of who you are and why you are here. You soon realise that you are being hunted, you have erased your own memory, and you must descend into the depths of the castle to finish what you’ve started. A spooky setting, otherworldly threat, and a requirement not to expose Daniel to too much “stress” all make for a chilling experience.
ZombiU was one of the few launch titles for the Wii U, and for a time it may have been one of the scariest horror games that nobody played. Fortunately you no longer need a Wii U to experience it, as it has since been released as Zombi on Windows, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One with better graphics and a few other improvements. Reviews are mixed and the original Wii U version is worth picking up if you can find it. It’s one of the few games to make decent use of Nintendo’s GamePad.
The game is set in present-day London, in the midst of a zombie apocalypse that was prophesied 400 years prior. You must fight, loot, and make your way through the English capital while avoiding death by zombie (which is inflicted with a single bite). If you do die you don’t load or restart the level, but instead carry on where you left off as another survivor.
Resident Evil (Various)
I’ve left this wide open, because there’s a lot to the Resident Evil franchise. On the one hand you’ve got hackneyed puzzles and clunky tank controls, on the other you have a survival horror masterpiece that kickstarted one of the most iconic gaming franchises of all time. I’d argue that Resident Evil 2 is probably the scariest, though Resident Evil 4 had its moments too.
Assuming you have no prior experience with the series, the best place to start is 2015’s Resident Evil HD “remaster of a remake,” which is free on PlayStation Plus this month. It takes you back to the start of the series, wandering around a creepy mansion as either “master of unlocking” Jill Valentine or Chris Redfield. It doesn’t quite have the tension it did upon release in 1996, but it’s still an important blood spatter on the horror video game landscape. A Resident Evil 2 remake is coming in 2017.
Metro Redux (CA) (PC, PS4, XB1)
Containing remastered versions of Metro 2033 and Metro: Last Light, the Redux bundle is a great way to experience this first-person shooter again complete with all DLC. Based on a series of novels by Dmitry Glukhovsky, Metro is set in the post-apocalyptic ruins of Moscow, which has been devastated by nuclear war.
In 2033, the remaining population has holed up in the city’s extensive underground rail network, which provides some shelter from the lethal levels of radiation. You take on the role of Artyom, a 20-year-old survivor born before the bombs fell. You have enlist the help of others living within the system to fight a mysterious mutated enemy known as the Dark Ones. Metro conjures up a brutal environment that’s as unnerving as it is dangerous, hostile radiation-affected enemies, and a fear of the unknown that permeates its narrative.
Dead Space (CA) (PC, X360, PS3)
If you prefer your horror with a side of sci-fi, 2008’s Dead Space and it’s sequels are well worth your time. The game takes place aboard the USG Ishimura mining starship in 2508. Humans have developed the technology to allow them to “crack” open planets and extract the precious resources within.
You play systems engineer Isaac Clarke who must fight his way through a ship infested with an adaptive alien threat. Your adversaries take the form of “Necromorphs” — terrifying reanimated corpses that make use of various forms that require differing tactics to defeat. It’s The Thing meets Alien, from a third person over-the-shoulder perspective.
Siren: Blood Curse (PS3)
The only PlayStation 3 exclusive on the list is the last installment in Sony’s Siren series, which is actually a re-imagining of the first game released in 2003 for the PS2. Blood Curse is a stealthy third-person take on the J-horror genre, complete with remote Japanese village setting, a cast of interconnected characters, and suitably terrifying enemies.
The game features a unique mechanic known as “sight jacking” which allows you to see your surroundings from the perspective of your enemies. Mastering this ability is key to your survival, as it will reveal your core objectives. You can only carry one weapon at a time, which forces the main character to resort to defensive or evasive tactics in order to survive.
Five Nights at Freddy’s (PC, iOS, Android)
This simple survival horror game has probably seen more success on mobile than it has on the PC. It’s still worth your time though, particularly if you prefer the “less is more” approach to scary games. There are also four sequels available for those of you who can’t get enough.
FNAF uses the jump scare as a sort of end-game scenario. You use security cameras to survive a shift without being attacked by a murderous animatronic. It’s a point-and-click horror with resource management elements, and the gameplay will have you on edge before leaping out of your seat.
We’ll finish up with a few honorable mentions which didn’t make the main list. This is either because they’re not full games, or they fall into another genre altogether but still contain horror overtones. But if you’re reading this article, we thought you might want to hear about them. So here they are:
- Slender (PC, Mac) — A completely free downloadable game based on the SomethingAwful forums meme “Slender Man.” It was followed up with the slightly disappointing Slender: The Arrival.
- Resident Evil 7: Beginning Hour Demo (PS4) — It’s a demo, it’s free, and it’s terrifying. Play it with the lights off, try to find all of the secrets, and experience Capcom’s latest shift in direction for the series.
- Bloodborne (PS4) — Hard-as-nails hack-n-slash action, but the enemy design and Victorian gothic stylings of the world just about qualify this as a horror game. Prepare to die, a lot.
- INSIDE (PC, PS4, XB1) — It’s a puzzle platformer from the creators of Limbo, and though it’s not a traditional “horror” game there’s something very unsettling happening throughout.
- Firewatch (PC, Mac, PS4, XB1) — Far from horror, but a genuinely tense and atmospheric “walking simulator” that creates tension and keeps you questioning everything. Gone Home may also be worth a look, and that’s not a horror game either.
Do you see your favorite scary games on this list? Are there any others we simply have to play? Why not leave a comment below with your recommendations, both old and new!