There’s nothing that can make you feel alive quite like a great horror game. Sure, FPS games can provide some high-speed, furious action and open world games may take your breath away when you gaze upon a new horizon, but there’s nothing close to the feeling from playing the best horror games to remind you of your mortality, whether that’s through creeping tension or some loud and proud jump scares.
Just like their movie counterparts, horror games tend to attract a more niche audience but one that’s still pretty sizeable. There’s a reason why so many of them litter Steam: any chance players can get to feel their hearts fall out of their backsides and they will take it. It’s led to a lot of half-baked games in recent years to try and entice YouTubers, meaning that there’s a pretty poor ratio of essential scares to jumpscare fodder.
It also doesn’t help that the biggest publishers don’t really see them as profitable. Well, profitable enough to appease their shareholders, at least. Trying to fill out the bottom line led EA to plague Dead Space 3 with microtransactions and abandon the scares for more action. Really, it’s only Capcom who are even trying to release big budget horror games these days with the Resident Evil franchise still going strong, though they did try to make Resident Evil 6 more of an action game than a horror.
That’s where the indie developers come in. Horror games have always been more of a niche than, say, FIFA, which is why there are so many low-scale devs catering to those who typically aren’t catered to at all.
Frictional Games have remained independent and just as good at eliciting scares as the day they wowed everyone with Amnesia, but there are also names like Bloober Team and RedCandleGames showcasing just how good horror can still be when done with some restraint.
To remind the industry of what good can come from spending money on producing stuff people actually want, we’ve compiled a list of the best horrors that are sure to scare you rotten. To make things a little spicier, we’ve tried to limit the amount of games from a single franchise, otherwise this would just be packed with Resident Evil and half of the Silent Hill series.
This is a living list, so if a new horror game comes out — like Devotion or Scorn (please be good) — in 2019 and beyond and impresses, we’ll add it.
The Best Horror Games
36. Cold Fear
Developer: Darkworks Publisher: Ubisoft
Consider this our vanity pick for this list. While memories of Cold Fear are no doubt faded for many, they shine brightly in ours, even if we know that our nostalgia will be shattered if we go back and play it now. Father Time is a cruel master.
The first horror game to be directly influenced by Resident Evil 4’s over-the-shoulder perspective, Cold Fear borrows heavily from Capcom’s franchise, though its unique setting — a ship all out at sea — marks it out as still feeling like enough of its own game. With the ship constantly rocking, you must steady your aim and also your nerves to survive.
35. Slender: The Arrival
Developer: Blue Isle Studios Publisher: Blue Isle Studios
Everyone is sick to the back teeth of Slender Man with Hollywood grinding away just about any fear of him remaining thanks to the disastrous adaptation from 2018. Slender is also guilty of inspiring many half-assed imitators, though you don’t tend to imitate something that isn’t fantastic.
Heavily reliant on jumpscares, Slender: The Arrival also has a creeping tension throughout thanks to excellent audio design. A sequence in an underground bunker with a hooded assailant and also Slender himself to content with is pure torture on the nerves. The game loses its effectiveness somewhat after that, but it’s still a deeply unsettling experience.
Developer: Rockstar North Publisher: Rockstar North
One of the most controversial games ever made, and for good reason. Manhunt went for shock value when it released in the PlayStation 2 era and it certainly made the headlines it craved. Finding itself banned from release in certain countries, the Texas Chain Saw Massacre of video games is a horror game where the real monster is the “hero”.
You play as James Earl Cash, who’s “sentenced” to a sick game of life or death in Carcer City. Sneaking your way around its gang-infested areas, you must survive any way you see fit, including suffocation by plastic bag — and that’s one of the game’s most PG moments. Dark as they come, Manhunt is a visceral game that ruined the youths of many, though it might not quite have the same effect these days.
Developer: Bloober Team Publisher: Aspyr
A cyperpunk horror game, Observer (stylised as >observer_) is the most recent effort from the mind-warpers over at Bloober Team, who are also responsible for the equally chilling Layers of Fear. Set in the near future, you play as the titular Observer as he “jacks” into the minds of criminal suspects.
Like a twisted version of Minority Report, Observer doesn’t flinch away from taking you to the darkest recesses of the human mind. Featuring a surprisingly committed performance from Rutger Hauer and the unforgettable visuals that Bloober are becoming notorious for, Observer is a game you should plug in to if you haven’t yet.
32. Dead By Daylight
Developer: Behaviour Digital Inc. Publisher: Behaviour Digital Inc.
We had to choose between including this or Friday the 13th: The Game, but with the latter’s current stick spot regarding licensing, we went with the multiplayer horror game with some stability. Dead By Daylight may also arguably be the better of the two anyway, thanks to its wider cast of murderers.
Teamwork is key in Dead By Daylight as you work to power generators to escape a massive but also somehow claustrophobic map. On the flipside, you can play as a killer and hunt other players down and even hang them on hooks for a sacrifice. If that isn’t the most metal sounding game ever, we don’t know what it is.
31. Siren: Blood Curse
Developer: Sony Worldwide Studios Publisher: SIE
Probably the most “abstract” entry on this list, Siren: Blood Curse is a PS3 title that didn’t get much of a look-in in the West. It might be down to it treading a fine line between the bizarre and innovative thanks to the Sight-Jack System, which allows you to see from the perspective of your attackers.
Those attackers take the form of deranged villagers who have become the victims of a curse with you playing as a cast of hapless TV crew members. It’s a tough experience and one that may annoy with its trial and error approach, but Siren: Blood Curse’s oppressive mood and constant twists will keep you hooked.
30. Fatal Frame II: Crimson Butterfly
Developer: Tecmo Publisher: Tecmo
Another horror game that’s not what you would call conventional, Fatal Frame II has become a cult classic and often agreed upon as the best in the franchise. A slightly more accessible game than its predecessor, it tasks you with taking photographs of ghosts, which should be enough to sell you all on its own.
While the passage of time has dulled the effectiveness of some of its scares, Fatal Frame II still constantly fosters a sense of unease and an almost unwillingness to look through the camera to see which nightmares await you next.
29. The Suffering
Developer: Surreal Software Publisher: Midway Games
Not quite so much an out-an-out horror with scares a minute, The Suffering favours action by tasking you with killing some of the most deformed and unforgettable creatures ever depicted in a video game. It’s been almost a decade and a half and the needle eye guys still creep into our nightmares.
You play as Torque: a criminal locked up in Abbot State Penitentiary when all manner of supernatural madness is unleashed. With a healthy supply of weaponry and Torque able to call upon his inner demons for a more powerful form, The Suffering is more of a body horror and one that still holds up well to this day.
28. The Thing
Developer: Computer Artworks Publisher: Black Label Games/Konami
The definition of a cult classic, The Thing is one of the most beloved movie adaptations for a reason: it picks up exactly where John Carpenter left off with you encountering the Things and all the paranoia that they bring among your squadmates.
The Thing should really be looked back on as a majorly innovative and pioneering horror game. Featuring multiple perspectives, utilising the fear of your squad to change the way they perform, and also your friends possibly being infected with the Thing, it’s a testing and stressful horror that we wouldn’t mind being remade.
27. Silent Hill 3
Developer: Team Silent/Konami Publisher: Konami
It was always going to be hard for Konami to follow Silent Hill 2 and the third entry in the series doesn’t take a huge amount of risks to deviate from what was previously so successful. It’s still completely malevolent and full of imagery that would likely make even the guys at Troma wince.
You play as Heather Mason, the daughter of the protagonist from the first game, as she becomes embroiled in the machinations of a cult. Silent Hill 3 leans into its aesthetic more than its prequels with a constant monochrome sheen to the game, giving it a gritty style that somehow makes it that bit more gruesome.
26. Resident Evil 4
Developer: Capcom Publisher: Capcom
You may baulk at Resident Evil 4 being so low (or even this high, depending on how you feel about its change in direction) on our list. With it favouring action over the survival elements of the first three games, it’s more of a tense affair than the straightforward bed-wetting we’ve been accustomed to from the Resident Evil franchise, though they can put the Regeneradors back wherever they came from, thanks.
You play as Leon, who is sent on a mission to a village in Spain to recover the president’s daughter. It’s clearly not going to be easy as picking her up in a Ford Focus and driving off into the sunset — that becomes pretty clear when the first villager sprouts tentacles out of the neckhole you just created with your shotgun.
25. Until Dawn
Developer: Supermassive Games Publisher: SIE
A horror game so successful that Sony commissioned Supermassive to take on more projects than they could feasibly handle, Until Dawn takes the tried and tested formula of old slashers and gives it a shot of 21st century cynicism right in the arm. If you loved Scream, there’s a good chance you’ll also appreciate Until Dawn.
One of the most “hands-off” entries on this list, Until Dawn focuses on crafting a customisable narrative and making tough decisions more than it does gameplay. There’s still real tension to be had, though, even if you aren’t directly in control of everything. If one of the game’s many obnoxious characters dies, that’s it: they’re gone for good. With stakes like those as well as some gorgeous visuals, it’s no wonder that Until Dawn is one of the PS4’s best exclusives.
Developer: Acid Wizard Studio Publisher: Acid Wizard Studio
It takes something really special to make a top-down game feel terrifying, especially when you can’t see all the little details of the things that go bump in the night. Thanks to a hauntingly muted aesthetic and some truly twisted design, Darkwood manages to create more scares than other games with many more times the budget.
A survival game with an open approach to how you play, Darkwood features a suitably dark and mysterious storyline that twists depending on how you approach other survivors. At day, you must scavenge all you can before the night comes, which, well, is not for the faint of heart. Thanks to some deeply unnerving audio and a mostly “show don’t tell” ethos, Darkwood is a lo-fi horror that’s high on giving you a heart attack.
A little girl in a yellow jacket aboard a ship full of warped passengers. That’s the long and short of it with Little Nightmares, and while the experience itself is a short one, it’s a journey that you won’t be able to shake for far longer.
Mechanically a puzzle platformer, Little Nightmares pits you as Six as she seeks to evade the clutches of barely human creatures, whose designs are memorable enough to keep pushing you on to see what’s next. Aardman meets Tim Burton as aberrations chase you down, you feeling utterly helpless to defend yourself before the true nature of the ship is revealed in grotesque fashion.
“It’s utterly distinctive, gripping, and darker than it lets on, but it’s over much too soon, whether that’s a fault of the pacing or myself just becoming too immersed in the squalor. Even if it is going to grab you by the throat for just a few hours, Little Nightmares is one game you won’t want to shake free from.”
Developer: Playdead Publisher: Playdead
Speaking of defenceless children, Playdead have certainly carved out a niche for themselves with INSIDE and the earlier LIMBO. While Limbo itself is a tense and challenging affair, INSIDE’s fuller world and more robust visuals bring its horrors to life. It’s not a jumpscare factory, rather that the game has a pervasive sense of dread that never really dissipates.
Much like Little Nightmares, itself arguably inspired by Playdead’s output, INSIDE tasks you with completing some less-than-obvious puzzles to escape capture and to unfurl its slow but steady world building. However, INSIDE differentiates itself by allowing the player to take control of the “drones” who are victims of inhuman experiments. It’s a seriously grim game, evidenced by the first time you watch a young boy being forcefully drowned.