Being a survival horror fan isn’t easy. We’ve scoured dark hallways, come face-to-face with countless monstrosities, and pressed on even as our hearts raced. Each new title threatens to push us closer to that proverbial edge, to a point where we have to tap out for tamer, more lighthearted gameplay.
Even more difficult than being a survival horror fan is choosing which games are the best in the genre. With a library of entries that defined and redefined what it’s like to be terrified in a digital world, having to select only a few is more nerve-wracking than Mr. X’s rhythmic, pounding footsteps.
Yet here we are, poised and ready to deliver on what many are sure to agree are the games that help explain why we love survival horror games. To avoid a repetitive list comprised of just one or two series, we’ve pinpointed the best of that franchise.
15. Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth (2005)
Developer: Headfirst Productions Publisher: Bethesda Softworks / 2K Games
There may be an unwritten rule that says any horror list must include one Lovecraftian entry. For ours, it’s Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth. Players fill the role of private investigator Jack Walters as he responds to a missing person case in the eerie town of Innsmouth. Did we forget to mention that’s after he’s forced to leave the police force in response to witnessing two aliens emerging from a portal and immediately losing his mind?
The real horrors of Dark Corners of the Earth are the xenophobic residents of Innsmouth, who have it in for Walters the moment he enters the town. Deadly sea creatures aside, you never feel at ease from the moment you arrive at the coastal town. Locals are clearly plotting something, and in one very tense segment that completely changes the game, you find out what that is.
14. Nightmare Creatures (1997)
Developer: Kalisto Entertainment Publisher: Activision
Kalisto Entertainment went belly up in 2002, but thankfully that was five years after its team of developers gave us the gothic horrors of Nightmare Creatures. Playing as either Ignatius Blackward or Nadia Franciscus, you’re tasked with hunting down the sinister occultist Adam Crowley before he turns all denizens of London into a horde of nightmare creatures.
The only really scary thing about Nightmare Creatures was its often punishing difficulty level, but the dark setting and creature design fit right at home in the survival horror genre. The game thrived on atmosphere, from the blood-soaked streets of 19th-century London to the monster-filled sewers beneath. Even with clunky gameplay, Nightmare Creatures is a classic worth returning to.
13. Alien: Isolation (2014)
Developer: Creative Assembly Publisher: Sega
Just when fans of Ridley Scott’s Alien thought there was no hope for even a decent game in the franchise, Creative Assembly steps in with a bonafide horror title that puts the pacing and horror of the first movie in the forefront.
Alien: Isolation builds off Scott’s creation with Amanda Ripley, the daughter of Ellen Ripley. In Isolation, Amanda is a capable engineer that gets trapped aboard the Sevastopol station with a tenacious xenomorph. Unable to kill the fully-grown alien, Ripley must sneak her way through the rickety station, battling deadly androids and unhinged survivors along the way.
Creative Assembly took cues from the movies by making the alien capable of using the station’s many vents to pop up literally almost anywhere. Make too much noise and the slick black figure will be on you in minutes, ready to plunge its inner jaw into your forehead. From the blip of the motion tracker to the rumbling in the ceilings, Isolation has plenty to make gamers shaky.
12. Dino Crisis (1999)
Developer: Capcom Publisher: Capcom
Dino Crisis may have used many elements from the Resident Evil series, but it’s a terrifying horror title that deserves to stand separate from Capcom’s zombie-romp.
In fact, the original Dino Crisis is, at times, even scarier than the two Resident Evil games that preceded it. Velociraptors may not be rotting corpses, but their persistence and ability to crash through doors, leaving you with little choice but to expend precious ammo on them, gave gamers quite the jump. Even the lumbering tyrannosaur, a dinosaur many of us have treasured since adolescence, found ways to be scary.
Though many movies have tried, Dino Crisis is the first across any medium to successfully root dinosaurs in horror (though Jurassic Park came really close).
11. Alone in the Dark (1992)
Developer: Infogrames Publisher: Infogrames
While the original Resident Evil is often considered the game that defined survival horror, Alone in the Dark came about four years earlier and quietly paved the way for games like Capcom’s unending franchise. The 1992 title was the first 3D survival horror game to release, but that’s not what earned it a spot on a “best of” list.
Though “first” in no way means “good,” Alone in the Dark was a critical success. It was one of the first games to utilize atmosphere to create fear and dread, though its clunky visuals may be more laughable today. When played upon release, it was easy to get sucked into the forbidding Derceto mansion.
10. Clock Tower (1996)
Developer: Human Entertainment Publisher: Human Entertainment
If you were a young gamer in the mid-90s, chances are you had nightmares of Scissorman. It’s always fascinating to think how a slow-paced point-and-click adventure could once create fear, but Human Entertainment did exactly that drawing upon the style of famed Italian horror director, Dario Argento.
As Jennifer Simpson, players must navigate the Clock Tower mansion while being stalked by the murderous Scissorman. With no weapons, Jennifer can only survive by hiding whenever the scissor-wielding fiend is near. He’s not the only terror young Jennifer has to face as Clock Tower is filled with other murderous beings that, to avoid spoilers, will remain nameless.
Through a lack of ambient music, Human Entertainment builds anticipation for those key jump-scare moments.
9. Dead Space (2008)
Developer: Visceral Games Publisher: Electronic Arts
Before Electronic Arts became a meme in the horror community, they were publishing games like Dead Space, a horror title that became the Resident Evil of the early 2000s. As voiceless protagonist Isaac Clarke, gamers respond to the distress signal of the planet-cracker starship USG Ishimura. Clarke initially finds the expected nothingness until a pivotal moment when all hell breaks loose.
Necromorphs were unlike anything gamers had seen when Dead Space launched. A grotesque enemy that could only be killed via dismemberment was a relatively new concept that made steady aim essential to survival. Combine the creaks, groans, and hisses of the Ishimura with Necromorphs bursting out of vents and you have yourself a recipe for a classic survival horror game.
8. SOMA (2015)
Developer: Frictional Games Publisher: Frictional Games
The concept of being trapped in an underwater facility with no hope of escape is enough of a horror scenario. Frictional Games ups the ante with an assortment of deadly humanoid machines, some of which make truly unsettling noises.
SOMA is all about solving puzzles and doing so stealthily. As Simon Jarrett, players are equipped with nothing but their wits as they explore the derelict station, dodging savage entities that stalk the sunken halls. As if only being able to run from enemies wasn’t bad enough, Frictional Games toys with you quite a bit with pure psychological horror. Screen distortion warns of incoming enemies and further increases the fear factor of being chased.
7. Outlast (2013)
Developer: Red Barrels Publisher: Red Barrels
Though it had been done before, many would likely credit Outlast for popularizing the concept of strictly stealth gameplay in survival horror. Investigative journalist Miles Upshur, much like the players controlling him, had no idea what was in store for him at the ominous Mount Massive Asylum. Armed with just a video camera, Miles entered a hellish labyrinth filled with unstable patients, cannibals, and towering brutes for the story of the century.
Players may not have to worry about ammo, but when they run out of batteries, they say goodbye to their precious night vision. One can imagine the feelings of unease while navigating a pitch-black psychiatric hospital filled with loons that have all sorts of plans for human remains.
Outlast is relentless, forcing players to look over their shoulders every second to see what wretches may be lumbering their way. When you find a comfortable hiding spot, it’s a chore to pull yourself away for you know something is lurking nearby, waiting to do God-knows-what to you.
6. System Shock 2 (1999)
Developer: Irrational Games / Looking Glass Studios Publisher: Electronic Arts
Before we had BioShock, there was System Shock.
While System Shock innovated first-person shooters, its sequel was a treat for survival horror fans. The true horror of System Shock 2 can be chalked up to the sound and level design. Everything seems so dark and empty, but somewhere you can hear the steady breathing of a hybrid stalking you. It’s in these moments that you know your doom is imminent.
It’s a game that can get in your head and strike without warning. Though it may not appear to be an outright horror title at first, especially with its heavy focus on role-playing gameplay, System Shock 2 surprises in the best ways. With headphones on and the volume turned up, it’s easy to get sucked into the atmosphere, but be wary of the game’s love of sudden loud noises.
5. Amnesia: The Dark Descent (2010)
Developer: Frictional Games Publisher: Frictional Games
When people say “it’s survival-focused, much like Outlast,” what they’re really doing is crediting Amnesia: The Dark Descent. Following the success of Frictional Games’ Penumbra series, Amnesia kicks things up a notch with the protagonist, Daniel’s, fear of the dark. Stay in a dark spot for too long, and it will contribute to his declining sanity.
While the tension is built around stealth gameplay, Amnesia also introduces auditory and visual hallucinations to get under the player’s skin. It creates a perfect storm of horror by forcing gamers to try and avoid the terrorizing Gatherers while keeping the defenseless Daniel from losing his mind.
4. Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem (2002)
Developer: Silicon Knights Publisher: Nintendo
Not only was Eternal Darkness distributed by Nintendo, but it was also an exclusive on the GameCube, a console intended for family fun and to continue the Super Mario legacy. That didn’t stop Silicon Knights from throwing everything it had into this quirky title, which features some of the best psychological horror in the genre.
The core gameplay fits well under the action-adventure umbrella, but the game’s sanity meter ingrained it into the history of survival horror. When a character goes insane, so, too, does the player. Some of the changes are so subtle as to make players question what they’re seeing while others break the fourth wall and are intended to downright mess with whoever’s behind the controller.
It may not leave hearts pounding, but not knowing what’s real is a unique horror that isn’t typically used (effectively) in gaming.
3. Fatal Frame II: Crimson Butterfly (2003)
Developer: Tecmo Publisher: Tecmo
In the abandoned Minakami Village, Mio and Mayu Amakura confront restless ghosts of the past in what is still one of the scariest (and best) survival horror games to date. Swap out firearms for the mysterious Camera Obscura and embark on a slow-burn ghost-busting adventure as Mio as she searches for her sister and unravels the dark reality behind the Crimson Sacrifice Ritual.
Tecmo created the perfect atmosphere for its Japanese ghost story and filled it with truly horrifying enemies and memorable jump scares. There’s just something about battling ghosts through a camera lens that makes the experience even scarier.
If you cowered at the bent-neck lady of The Haunting of Hill House, just wait until you encounter the broken-neck woman of Fatal Frame II.
2. Silent Hill 2 (2001)
Developer: Konami Publisher: Konami
Sometimes it seems that video games are the one place where the adage “nothing beats the original” doesn’t apply. There is no denying the greatness of Konami’s first entry in the Silent Hill series, but its follow-up is far and away the better experience.
Silent Hill 2 follows James Sunderland as he’s drawn to Silent Hill by a letter from his deceased wife. What follows is a game that chips away at the player’s psyche with twisted monsters, incredible atmosphere, and a tragic but phenomenal story.
Silent Hill 2 receives extra credit for bringing Pyramid Head into existence and featuring one of the most unsettling scenes in the entire series. A symbol of guilt and sexual frustration, Pyramid Head is a horrifying and sadistic creation that nobody wants stalking them. Not even in a digital world.
1. Resident Evil 2 (1998)
Developer: Capcom Publisher: Capcom
Believe it or not, we’re not talking about the critically acclaimed 2019 remake. As undeniably good as it was, there is no topping the original. Sure, Resident Evil 2 (1998) may not hold up well by today’s standards, but it was a revolutionary survival horror title that took the success of the original and built upon it tenfold.
By introducing iconic characters like Leon S. Kennedy and Claire Redfield and opening up the world beyond Arklay Mountains, Resident Evil 2 solidified the course of the series more so than any other entry. The sequel feels as if it is part of a bigger universe thanks to the museum-turned-police department that served as the primary setting and expanded list of mutated horrors.
Stalking the halls of the RCPD are memorable B.O.W.S. like the licker, the mutated form of William Birkin, and the relentless Mr. X. Together with an incredible story and well-done atmosphere (for 1998), Resident Evil 2 became an unforgettable survival horror classic.