Taking places in Taiwan during the reign of an oppressive government, Detention isn’t really like the other horror games on this list. Not only does it double act as a thoroughly unsettling horror experience as well as a heartbreaking parable of the region at that time, it’s also considerably lo-fi compared to its peers. You don’t need a detailed 3D monster to jump through a window at you to feel ill at ease.
With a typhoon approaching her school, a young girl must venture her way around its creepy halls to save her friends while fending off the monsters that lurk. Hiding is the obvious ploy, but some of the monsters just want an offering to leave you alone. While it’s probably not the scariest game here, its varied puzzles and fascinating subject matter make Detention one of the most unique.
20. The Forest
Developer: Endnight Games Publisher: Endnight Games
While you may try (and fail) to argue that The Forest isn’t a horror game as its more closely tied to a survival experience than anything, you try descending into the darkness for the first time and then try to stick to your story. Tottering around in The Forest’s underground caverns with barely any light made us never want to go spelunking.
Things aren’t much better on the surface, either. Cannibalistic natives stalk you at seemingly every turn: you may think you’re safe, but they’re probably watching you more than you know. Worse still, trying to defend yourself just brings on even bigger and more hideous abominations, so the best option may in fact just be to run away like a coward. We won’t judge.
“If you’re yet to try the game on PC, its PS4 version is a surprisingly sleek and arguably just as rewarding time-sinker that won’t even make you feel bad for being a terrible parent. Sorry, Timmy, I am one with the trees now.”
One of the most frenetic horror games on this list, Monolith’s F.E.A.R. (First Encounter Assault Recon if you’re feeling particular) is not so much about the hiding and cowering as it is the exploding and murdering. An FPS game with a horror flavour, F.E.A.R.’s brand is one that feels unique and, importantly, scary.
While it may lean on jumpscares too much sometimes, it’s hard to deny the efficiency of a creepy little girl at making pants turn a decidedly darker colour. Alma is always waiting to bring the terror, most infamously right at the top of a ladder. The latter two games in the F.E.A.R. trilogy are also good, but for keeping things (relatively) simple, the original game provides the biggest scares.
18. Dead Rising
Developer: Capcom Publisher: Capcom
Legend says that no list of the best horror games is complete without an entry that allows you to plop a Servbot helmet on top of a zombie. Dead Rising may not offer conventional scares in the sense that the undead aren’t all that threatening, but what it does provide is a constant state of unease with the clock ticking away.
Losing time to do what you need to do around the Willamette Parkview Mall is the real horror of Dead Rising, meaning that you have to constantly be watching the clock. Thanks to a save system that we’ve all now retrospectively agreed is terrible, death in Dead Rising can be a real killer, adding to the stakes. The second game in the franchise, Off the Record in particular, offers similar fun.
17. Condemned: Criminal Origins
Developer: Monolith Productions Publisher: SEGA
Monolith were certainly on a tear with their horror output last generation with Condemned bringing some more traditional scares compared to F.E.A.R. and its constant action. Something of a cult classic, Condemned is a franchise that’s always in demand for another entry by those who know what everyone else is missing out on.
Banned in Germany as a result of its brutality, Condemned is a first-person couch-clencher that doesn’t shy away from showing the depravities of humanity. Playing as Ethan Thomas, you must track down a serial killer while fending off the twisted minds of Metro City. It’s tense, unflinching, and like all good survival horror games, never makes survival feel like an easy feat.
16. The Evil Within 2
Developer: Tango Gameworks Publisher: Bethesda
One of 2017’s most severely underrated games, The Evil Within 2 takes some of the unnecessary baggage and strange mechanics from the original game and streamlines the experience to great effect. While it could be argued that the first game is scarier, there’s nothing like stalking around a demented town as zombie-like creatures stalk their way across its streets.
Aesthetically, The Evil Within 2 is a complete screenshot factory: it nails what would lie in the darkest recesses of a mind and throws up more than a few memorable monsters in the process. While it may be hammy at some points, it’s a far leaner affair than the one that polarised so many in the original game and a more consistent and terrifying descent into darkness as a result. You can even play in first-person, just in case the terror isn’t quite terrifying enough already.
“It may have made some design concessions that could dissuade fans of the original, but The Evil Within 2 is a far more engrossing nightmare that you won’t want to wake up from.”
15. Layers of Fear
Developer: Bloober Team Publisher: Aspyr
Speaking of descents, Layers of Fear shows the disintegration of the psyche perfectly with you playing a painter who is deep in denial. While its gameplay may be somewhat on the basic side, where Layers of Fear really shines is in its constantly shifting world and head-spinning twists. You can enter one room one second and be transported to something far more nefarious the next.
The environments reflect the way the protagonist is spiralling: as the game continues and the mystery unspools, so too does his grasp on reality. An innocuous painting on an easel morphs into something completely hideous over time, which is reflected in the mansion as things continue to not appear as they seem. Not one to play if you’re riding high on drugs, that’s for damn sure.
14. Dead Space
Developer: Visceral Games (FKA EA Redwood Shores) Publisher: EA
While some may argue that the second entry is overall the better game, the original Dead Space delivers the better scares due to just how vulnerable Isaac feels as he traipses his way around a spaceship infested with nightmarish necromorphs. The early goings are particularly tough, equipping you with just a barebones Plasma Cutter to take on abominations in their hordes.
Where Dead Space comes into its own is in how it approaches combat. Shooting limbs off of the spindly bastards who want to eat your neck off is the only way to slow them down, but how do you fend off a rampaging rhino creature. Dead Space is unfortunately as dead as its name would suggest, but nobody will ever be able to forget their first sobering trip aboard the USG Ishimura.
13. S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Call of Pripyat
Developer: GSC Game World Publisher: Deep Silver
It’s strange that Chernobyl as a setting has been so ineffectively explored in movies over the years. Leave it to video games to fill the gap, then. The S.T.A.L.K.E.R. franchise has done more than enough to bring the creep factor up to eleven in one of the most unnerving places on the planet with Call of Pripyat arguably representing the series at its peak.
You play as Agent Alexander Degtyarev, who travels to an irradiated zone to search for missing helicopters and discovers far more than he bargained for in the process. With a sense of depth that is so sorely missing from its modern peers and that all-important scare factor as deformed creatures (appropriately) stalk you, Call of Pripyat is held up as an example of superb game design all these years later for good reason.
Developer: 2K Boston Publisher: 2K Games
You may be thinking to yourself that BioShock doesn’t really deserve a spot on our list as it isn’t certifiably horror. So did we. That is until we went back and played it for the first time in a decade and rediscovered a fear that must have been so unnerving that it was shaken from our memories forever. Rapture is such a beautiful world filled with so much ugliness.
Granted, some of the scares are nullified by how overpowered you eventually become, but there’s no taking away from the first time you innocuously turn around in the doctor’s surgery and find yourself staring into the eyes of a rogue splicer or when you hear the maniacal laughter of an unseen and demented aristocrat just waiting to leap on you. For a truly horrifying experience, try playing it on the hardest difficulty without using a Vita-Chamber.
11. Dying Light
Developer: Techland Publisher: WB Games/Techland
It’s become a bit of a running gag here at CV that Dying Light somehow always manages to find its way onto our lists. That’s not a coincidence, and neither is it due to us being slipped money under the table (although we probably wouldn’t say no to a small loan of a million dollars). No, Dying Light keeps cropping up here because it’s just a damn good video game and one more people should play, especially with its sequel in sight.
While slowly shuffling zombies may have lost some of their fear factor over the years, Dying Light at night is when the game’s at its most terrifying. A thrilling game of cat and mouse between you and the deadly Virals unfolds as you desperately try to find safety. While they’re less of a death sentence the higher the level you are, the first ten or so hours of Dying Light’s nightmares are sure to get the palms sweating.
10. Alien: Isolation
Developer: Creative Assembly Publisher: Sega
Colonial Marines and Isolation are on the complete opposite ends of the spectrum when it comes to how to adapt an iconic license. Isolation nails the feeling of the first Alien movie, pitting you as Ripley’s daughter as a xenomorph diligently stalks you throughout a desolate spaceship. Unless you find a flamethrower, the xenomorph simply spotting you means it’s curtains.
Your cause isn’t helped by the antagonist having an adaptive AI, one that changes its ways and learns from what you do as you continue to escape its claws, swordtail, and weird mouth thing. It’s constantly nerve-racking with you looking over your shoulder every other second — even air ducts don’t grant you a certain respite. Isolation is available on the cheap these days, though if you want to get the most out of it, you have to also pick up the Crew Expendable DLC which perfectly encapsulates the first Alien movie.
Developer: Frictional Games Publisher: Frictional Games
The first entry from Frictional in our rundown of the best horrors but not the last, SOMA is an ugly yet also somehow beautiful descent into the deep blue of the ocean. When you wake up in an isolated underwater base without a memory of how you arrived there, the desire to uncover its captivating story is what will keep you going no matter how many times you encounter something that very much wants you dead.
A pacifist adventure, you’re ill-equipped to deal with the monstrosities that PATHOS-II throws away and must instead solve puzzles to make progress. Above the scares, of which there are many, the main hook of persevering through SOMA is its narrative. Frictional were kind enough to even patch in an update that allowed players to explore at their liberty without any enemies, just in case you’re all at sea (sorry) when it comes to jumpscares.
“An effectively told, impressively presented, and immensely engrossing sci-fi mystery, SOMA proves that it’s very much worth your time.”
8. Left 4 Dead 2
Developer: Valve Publisher: Valve
What more can be said about the simple joy of teaming up with friends or random obsessives online in Left 4 Dead 2? There’s a reason why it’s still going strong long after Valve forgot how to do basic numeracy: it’s because it’s a damn good FPS game, as well as being a surprisingly scary horror game at points.
We are, of course, speaking specifically about the moments featuring The Witch, her cries of pain letting you know that your own pain is incoming. After all these years, the AI director is still a marvel, meaning that no two runs are exactly the same. Once you think you’re safe, here comes the sadomasochistic AI to ruin you day.
7. Resident Evil 7
Developer: Capcom Publisher: Capcom
Polarising as its switch to a first-person perspective might have been, it allowed Resident Evil to become something that it hadn’t been for its last couple of iterations: an out-and-out horror game. By returning the franchise to the conventions that made it so beloved to begin with, Resident Evil 7 re-energised a series that was looking leggy. You don’t forget the first time Jack Baker comes crashing through the wall.
Playing as Lucas, a regular guy on the hunt for his missing wife, you’re transported to the bayou where the sick and twisted Baker family lies in wait for you. With a claustrophobic feel and limited resources, Resident Evil 7 brings the evil back to the Resi name with the Bakers hellbent on maiming and/or killing you anyway they can, including cutting you in half with a chainsaw, subjecting you to Saw-esque games, and subjecting you to the terrible interior decor.
“This is the most impressive return to form I’ve seen in a long time. With heart-pounding scares, clever puzzles, and formidable enemies; Resident Evil 7: Biohazard is one of the best horror titles I’ve ever played.”
6. Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem
Developer: Silicon Knights Publisher: Nintendo
Away from the likes of Super Mario Sunshine and Billy Hatcher (iconic game, by the way), the Gamecube actually had quite the dark side. The rather suitably named Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem was one such game that showed that Nintendo wasn’t just for kids, who probably would have gone insane themselves if they’d played such and twisted and macabre horror game.
Sanity mechanics are nothing new these days, but back in 2002 they were revolutionary. Eternal Darkness’s approach to a dissolving psyche looked to directly mess with the player themselves, going as far as smashing the fourth wall down and gleefully jigging atop the rubble. While it may be a little rough around the edges for modern horror fans, Eternal Darkness is still worth seeking out by anyone who wants to get a bit crazy. One of the best horror games on any Nintendo console ever.
5. Resident Evil 2 (2019)
Developer: Capcom Publisher: Capcom
We had to think long and hard about whether or not we wanted the original Resident Evil 2 or the remake to land a spot on our list. There’s no doubting the legacy and importance of the first go-around, but the remake delivers a faithful twist on the classic while also bringing a few of its own original ideas to the table.
Beautiful to look at (if you dare; the gore can be quite brutally detailed) and handling like a dream, Resident Evil 2 2019 is everything you should look for in a remake. It’s respectful of its origins and also not afraid to take some risks. It remixes an almost untouchable icon to deliver an arguably even better game, as well as coming packed to the gills with content. Just remember to keep an eye on the ceilings.
“Resident Evil 2 is, quite simply, one of the best remakes of all-time. Capcom have nailed their new vision of a classic just like they did back in 2002 by modernising a decades old game to feel like something completely fresh. Whether you want to take a trip down memory lane or are just experiencing the disconcerting decadence of the police station for the first time, Resident Evil 2 is the first essential purchase of 2019.”
4. The Last of Us
Developer: Naughty Dog Publisher: SIE
Whether it’s the heart-pumping escape from the sudden apocalypse or creeping around dilapidated buildings with nothing but a brick and a couple of bullets to keep you sane, The Last of Us is one of the scariest horror games that’s often overlooked as being just that.
The relationship at its core is ultimately the main attraction, but you shouldn’t overlook the sheer terror of an incoming Clicker and the lack of resources with which to fend them off with — Joel’s neck has been ripped out plenty of times in plenty of playthroughs.
These encounters with the Clickers are The Last of Us at its purest in terms of horror, you too scared to make any noise at all as you stalk around corridors, but the regular “zombies” can be equally unnerving, especially when they group up. There’s also a sequence when you’re part submerged as you try to turn the electricity back on that we just really don’t want to talk about.
3. Silent Hill 2
Developer: Konami Publisher: Konami
It could be argued that Silent Hill 2 created a pedestal that was impossible for any sequels to climp up to. A masterclass in setting a mood and keeping the player engaged, Konami’s classic takes you back to the land of eternal fog as James Sunderland, replacing Harry Mason. After receiving a letter from his supposedly dead wife, James falls into a nightmare of his own making.
While it features combat, the gameplay of Silent Hill 2 mostly revolves around solving puzzles and discovering details to uncover the mystery at the heart of the cursed town. Even though its visuals are certainly on the polygonal side, that doesn’t stop them from being just as disturbing, if not more so, than their modern peers — Pyramid Head is just as horrific as he was in 2001. If you want to play Silent Hill 2, you may have to dig out the PlayStation 2 as the HD Collection is absurdly bad.
2. Amnesia: The Dark Descent
Developer: Frictional Games Publisher: Frictional Games
The game that inspired a wave of imitators and Frictional Games’ second entry on our list of the essential horror titles. Amnesia: The Dark Descent changed the game (ahem) for horror by introducing fresh mechanics to coincide with a slow-burning but still captivating story. You and Daniel are in this unending nightmare together, nothing but a lamp in hand and a dream.
With Daniel being almost completely defenceless, running into the creatures of the castle is a no-go, though you can’t depend on darkness, either. Being in it for too long will deplete Daniel’s sanity as he gives in to his fears, so you have to be brave in Amnesia, no matter how difficult it may be. There’s one sequence in The Dark Descent that may just be the scariest in any horror game ever. We won’t spoil it here for the uninitiated, but we will leave you with two words: splish splash. A true horror classic.
1. Resident Evil (GC Remake)
Developer: Capcom Publisher: Capcom
We arrive at the zenith of our countdown with a title that was probably the first of its kind for an entire generation. While efforts like Alone in the Dark and Clock Tower may have arrived on the scene first, the original Resident Evil was the one to really bring horror into the public eye. Countless game and spin-offs later (with even an entirely different franchise being spun off from it), it’s fair to say that Resident Evil’s legacy is not up for debate.
However, two decades can make even the most polished of diamonds look a little rough, which is why you should see out the Gamecube remake, which has since been ported to every subsequent generation.
The Spencer Mansion may still be static, but it’s certainly not dead, its corridors bristling with zombies and even more malformed creatures, as well as iconic puzzles that couldn’t be more charmingly obtuse if they tried. If the Resident Evil 2 remake is handled with half as much love and care as the original game’s update was, it should be just fine.