Developer(s): Irrational Games, Looking Glass Studios Publisher: Electronic Arts Platform(s) PC Single-player/multiplayer: Single-player
Few games have proven as influential as System Shock 2, its blending of first-person action with RPG elements and a nice helping of horror making it go down as a bonafide cult classic. Games like Prey, Dead Space and BioShock owe a lot to System Shock, the latter the most as its spiritual successor.
Set aboard a spaceship ravaged by a genetic infection, you play as a soldier with amnesia who walks a twisty path to uncover the truth about what went down.
Boasting some of the most distinctive creature designs for its time and a blend of mechanics that still entice today, System Shock 2’s lack of commercial success has meant that not near enough people appreciate it for the masterpiece it is.
Developer: Visceral Games (FKA EA Redwood Shores) Publisher: EA Platform(s) PC, PS3, Xbox 360 Single-player/multiplayer: Single-player
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 Platform(s) PC Single-player/multiplayer: Single-player
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 Platform(s) PC, PS4, PS3, Xbox One, Xbox 360, Switch Single-player/multiplayer: Single-player
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.
Developer: Techland Publisher: WB Games/Techland Platform(s) PC, PS4, Xbox One Single-player/multiplayer: Single-player
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 good horror 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 Platform(s) PC, PS4, Xbox One, Switch Single-player/multiplayer: Single-player
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 Platform(s) PC, PS4, Xbox One Single-player/multiplayer: Single-player
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 Platform(s) PC, Xbox 360 Single-player/multiplayer: Both
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 solid, easy to play 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 your day.
7. Resident Evil 7
Developer: Capcom Publisher: Capcom Platform(s) PC, PS4, Xbox One Single-player/multiplayer: Single-player
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.
You’ll soon discover that includes cutting you in half with a chainsaw, trapping you in Saw-esque games, and subjecting you to 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 Platform(s) Gamecube Single-player/multiplayer: Single-player
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.
Developer: Capcom Publisher: Capcom Platform(s) PC, PS4, Xbox One Single-player/multiplayer: Single-player
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 by remixing its story.
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.
“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.”
Developer: Naughty Dog Publisher: SIE Platform(s) PS4, PS3 Single-player/multiplayer: Both
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 Platform(s) PC, PS2, Xbox Single-player/multiplayer: Single-player
It could be argued that Silent Hill 2 created a pedestal that was impossible for any sequels to climb 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.
Developer: Frictional Games Publisher: Frictional Games Platform(s) PC, PS4, Xbox One, Switch Single-player/multiplayer: Single-player
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 Platform(s) PC, PS4, PS3, Xbox One, Xbox 360, Gamecube, Wii, Switch Single-player/multiplayer: Single-player
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 seek out the masterful 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. A masterful remake for the progenitor of the modern horror genre in gaming as we know it.
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