Resident Evil 7 has been grabbing headlines recently (and rightfully so) for not only being a fantastic return to form for a struggling franchise, but also for being one of the best triple-A horror games in years. For the last few years, the survival horror torch has mostly been carried by indie developers, with efforts from their big budget counterparts mostly falling within the action genre with a smidge of horror being thrown in for flavour.
To see the torch now being passed onto Capcom due to their wonderful efforts with RE7 is wonderful to see as both a lover of survival horror games and a long time fan of the franchise. However, as great a job as they did with the atmosphere and general gameplay, Resident Evil 7 has a lot of competition in the scare department. Despite the lull of survival horror previous to its revival by indies, there is still a strong legacy of horror games all competing for the title of “scariest game ever” and, of course, some of the more recent efforts are in the running as well. If you're looking for a game to get stuck into after finally escaping the Baker household, then take a look at these fifteen games that are way scarier, or at least on par, with Resident Evil 7.
15 Lone Survivor
This game is proof that in horror games, sound design is everything. The graphics of this game are well executed in their style, but the side-scrolling pixel aesthetic is not going to be for everyone and do limit the game somewhat in how effective it can be. But, that's not to say Lone Survivor isn't visually interesting, or that it doesn't execute the dark and mysterious world well. It's just, for some, pixel graphics do immediately make the game less scary.
However, the sound design elevates the game to a new level. This game is essentially a love letter from developer Jasper Byrne to Silent Hill, and it uses several ideas from that franchise with excellence. But as later games in the Silent Hill games have learned, you can't just copy ideas from the classics and get a good game. Thankfully, the gameplay works together with the aesthetic and excellent sound design to create a game that is good in its own right and creates an interesting story that in a way is a mirror to that of Silent Hill. In those games, you're usually working your way inwards towards insanity, whereas Lone Survivor puts you at the centre of it, progressing outwards as you try to survive and discover exactly what happened to this world.
Hear me out on this one. This game is definitely going to look out of place on this list, but it has very much earned its place. Bloodborne may not be strictly a horror game, but amongst a sea of action filled triple A “horror” games, it is way more survival horror than any of them. Bloodborne exemplifies in every part of it's being what I consider to be the core of survival horror games; that steady, creeping dread as you enter into areas unknown and the anxiety that sits in your stomach as you turn a corner and wonder what horrors await you beyond it.
This is further compounded by From Software's truly unique and masterful enemy design, as even seeing what awaits you does little to get rid of that fear. Horrible, Lovecraftian monstrosities prowl the streets, moving in unnatural, unsettling ways. From very human monsters like Father Gascoigne to the sickening mound of flesh and eyes that is Mother Brain, Bloodborne has a range of enemies that have their own uniquely terrifying presence.
Mentioning Bloodborne without giving credit to the environments themselves would be a crime, as the wonderfully oppressive and beautiful Gothic aesthetic also lends itself to a survival horror leaning. The world itself is something diseased, bleak and filled with tension, which when combined with the horrors both hidden and seen, makes sure that the player never ever feels safe.
When you first set foot in the mysterious world of Rapture, Irrational Games immediately set the tone for what's to follow. Rapture is equal parts beautiful, mysterious, and dangerous. The mood is tense, perfectly set by the uneven lighting and well-executed music. The splicers themselves are unnerving at first, as they are undeniably humans driven mad by Rapture, but BioShock really comes into its own with the atmosphere. While you do become more powerful as the game progresses, and the tone does jump the shark in the end boss, it mostly stays consistent in tone throughout.
The best example of BioShock's unnerving, tense experience is the section with Dr. Steinman. From the minute you see the blood on the floor declaring “STEINMAN KILLS,” coupled with the Picasso-esque faces on the walls, you immediately get a feeling of dread. This only deepens as you listen to the audio logs in this area and listen to one particularly harrowing one that is Dr. Steinman cutting into a woman's face who had come in for a simple nose job.
Again this is another title that isn't strictly a horror game, but it definitely has a strong horror thread running through it. Thankfully, it also has one of the most memorable worlds and interesting antagonists (I mean Andrew Ryan, not you know who) in recent memory.
12 SCP Containment Breach
To say that SCP Containment Breach lacks the bells and whistles of RE7 would be a massive understatement. The graphics are basic at best, but then again the game is completely free. However, the rough look of the game doesn't stop it from being effective. The base concept of the game is essentially the concept of the infamous Dr. Who episode "Blink," where you must maintain direct eye contact with your enemy.
In the game, there is both automatic and manual blinking, and you must manage how long you can keep your eyes open as a resource. You turn a corner, thinking that it's safe to manually blink now, but – was that a door opening behind you? The game forcing you to stare at the monster is a complete mirror to some of our later entries, but it's a very effective mechanic. Picture backing away slowly from the monster down a long corridor as well realised, eerie music plays and the meter for your eyes drains more and more.
You realise that you have blink soon and soon panic takes over as you don't know if you will make it through the next door before you do that and risk a rather messy end. Despite the basic graphics, the sound design and atmosphere is unnerving and executed with aplomb, and if nothing else, SCP Containment Breach shows you don't need a big budget to scare the pants off of people. Just one piece of advice – skip the intro.
11 Slenderman's Shadow
Anyone who is even vaguely into horror games, or watching them on YouTube, needs no introduction to the free indie game Slender. Slenderman's Shadow expanded on the basic idea of Slender and improved on it somewhat, with different maps and ideas brought to the table. It still had the basic mechanic of finding 12 (or however many) items that are scattered around the map while dodging the unnerving and lethal Slenderman.
In contrast to SCP, the key to survival is not looking at the Slenderman for too long, as he will gradually drive your character crazy and kill you. However, Slenderman will often teleport directly in front of you, behind you, or in between you and the last clue that you need before you can escape.
While once again this game is not sporting triple-A graphics, the visuals are still well realised, but again the real gem is the sound design. The sound is almost like a heartbeat and will increase in speed and tension as you get more and more items and Slenderman gets more aggressive in his attempts to catch you. The atmosphere created is oppressive and filled with dread, as you turn that corner ever so slowly, wondering if the Slenderman is there waiting for you.
Outlast sets any long standing horror fan on an immediately familiar path, as you play a journalist set on investigating an insane asylum where inhumane experiments are allegedly being conducted. Surprising to no one ever, things are suitably blood-soaked when you arrive and there isn't a soul in sight. Outlast is an Amnesia style of horror game where running is your only option, so the game immediately sets you on edge by showing you that the inmates are running the asylum, and they're out for blood.
Armed only with your wits and your night vision camera, you explore the halls of the asylum wondering just what awaits you beyond each door, once again suitably filled with tension by excellent sound design. The main downside of Outlast is that it's a bit too excited to get started, and so it fails with the all-important build up of the truly excellent psychological horrors. That's the main reason this isn't higher up on this list because Red Barrels did a wonderful job marrying aesthetic, map design, sound and story to create a dark and twisted world that you both love and hate to explore. Despite its failings, it's still one of the best horror games in recent memory, and its use of darkness and sound is truly masterful.
SOMA is the slightly less famous offering from Frictional Games, the guys we have to thank for the resurgence of truly scary horror games. SOMA has us playing as Simon, a man who goes in for some kind of brain scan and wakes up in a strange underwater facility that is almost completely void of human life. The story is SOMA's strongest element, as it deals with things like what it means to be human, consciousness and some other really interesting topics. That's not to say that isn't scary, though, as you go through Pathos II you come across vicious robots who will hunt you down relentlessly.
One of the scariest moments is later in the game when you're in a maze-like room with one of these robots who can't see but has exceptional hearing. You have to make your way through the room silently as you turn each corner, hoping it's not right between you and the switch you need to progress. The world of Pathos II is one that you are hungry to discover more about as you scramble for any voice logs or clues telling you about what happened to this place. Combined with a story that is both disturbing and deeply thought provoking, SOMA is not only a great horror game, but also one of the best sci-fi games ever made.
8 P.T. / Silent Hills
This one is tinged with a little sadness, as, of course, the full game will never see the light of day. While other games like Layers of Fear and the upcoming Allison Road are carrying the torch for P.T., they don't quite match the majesty of the now defunct Silent Hills. P.T may be short in length, but it's still a masterclass in everything horror.
Drenched in the strange surreality that made the classic Silent Hill games what they were, you essentially walk down the same hallway over and over, interacting with objects, and trying to figure out how to progress and survive. The atmosphere is bizarre and oppressive, and the puzzles are just obtuse enough to be interesting without being overly frustrating.
Even though it's like a teaser for a buffet you will never get to eat, P.T. still shows us brilliantly what could have been. What could have been is a game deep with mystery and surreality and a wonderfully executed atmosphere, that makes wandering down the same hallway a truly tense experience. We can only hope that the games inspired by Hideo Kojima's masterwork can give us the full experience that is promised here so strongly.
7 System Shock 2
While this one doesn't wear its years particularly well, it's still a classic PC game for a reason. You are aboard the Von Braun, a ship where something horrible has happened and is now filled with strange humanoid creatures. However, they aren't the main thrust of this survival horror RPG's scare tactics, that honour is given the truly terrifying AI SHODAN. She torments and tricks you endlessly as you try to survive the already scary halls of the Von Braun, elevating the game to truly frightening status.
The game is also relentlessly difficult, as you manage extremely limited resources in the usuals such as health and ammo. However, you also have to be very careful where you put your upgrade points. A few wrong choices and you will find yourself quite up against it. The ship is suitably maze-like, which when combined with the limited resources, SHODAN's trickery and the tense atmosphere of the game, it makes each decision one to truly ponder as it could end with your doom. Despite the very aged graphics, this is still a game worth playing, as it inspired games like Bioshock and it many ways beats them at their own game despite being so old.
6 Silent Hill 1
We've had love letters to Silent Hill, now it's time for the real thing. Silent Hill 1 is, if nothing else, a shining example of how to take a technological limitation and use it to your advantage. At the time, the graphics of this game basically meant that the view distance had to be extremely limited due to the power of the PS1. This led to the birth of the infamous rolling fog of Silent Hill which covers the entire town and limiting your view to a small circle around the main character Harry Mason.
Running through that fog along empty streets, listening to the faint crackle of the radio grow louder as enemies draw near is an experience that has yet to be topped. You dread every single enemy encounter as you try to fight off twisted, eldritch horrors with a plank of wood with a nail sticking out of it, and every time you hear the siren signaling the return of the nightmare world you get a pit of dread in your stomach.
The hospital section of this game is the most nightmarish, as you run past bodies on gurneys and rust and blood covered hallways, dodging the doctors and nurses with strange parasites on their backs. While the story is not the strongest in the Silent Hill series, it is still suitably weird and goes nicely with the nightmare world and the surreal puzzles and obstacles you must face as you try to find your daughter and escape this hell-scape.
5 Condemned: Criminal Origins
Condemned is a game that has yet to be matched in one critical area: the weighty, realistic melee combat. While the game is not what I would call “realistic,” it does have a certain grim realism to combat and environments. You are an FBI agent hunting down a serial killer in a series of condemned buildings and discover that the local homeless seem to have gone mad. Armed only with what you scan scrounge up from your surroundings, you make your way through dank, labyrinthine environments that seek to confuse you as you follow the trail of the killer and try to solve a strange conspiracy.
The game is thick with tension and mystery, and each time you fight you have to consider every move as you manage your stamina, time your attacks, blocks and, of course, try not to take much damage due to the limited health packs in the game.
Although the story can be described only as barmy, this game is still an absolute horror classic for its excellence in the genre and it's truly unique combat that finally lends realism to melee combat.
4 Alien: Isolation
After the previous licensed game in this franchise was an absolute disaster, we were all a little nervous about this one. Thankfully, Creative Assembly has forever redeemed Alien in the eyes of gamers. Alien: Isolation definitely takes cues from the masters of psychological horror, and ever so slowly builds up the point when you finally see the Xenomorph. Unlike a lot of triple-A horror games, Alien: Isolation knows how to take its time. In the build up, we see Sevastopol shown as a place wrought with danger before the character even knows about the added problem of the Xenomorph. Like the series before it, it plays on the claustrophobia of being trapped on board the ship with humans out for themselves, malfunctioning androids and of course – the Alien itself.
Crawling through vents to go around the aforementioned androids is tense, as you know that the Alien could very well climb into the vent to say hello. Even using the famous motion detector is risk-reward, as the game gleefully tells you that enemies can hear the beeping of the motion tracker. Alien: Isolation is an incredibly tense experience that finally gives this franchise the game it deserves.
3 Fatal Frame 2: Crimson Butterfly
The PS2 gave us so many classic games and this is definitely one of them. Fatal Frame 2 has you start out as a pair of twins in a place known as the “lost village.” The place is dilapidated, abandoned, and oh-so-creepy. It doesn't take long to discover that this village may not have any people, but it's definitely not short on ghosts – and they're far from benevolent. Eventually, you find the Camera Obscura, your only weapon against the ghosts. The terror this game makes you feel is something that remains to this day as you back slowly down a hallway, timing your shots as a pair of ghosts straight from Ring ask you over and over “Whyyy do you kiiiill?”
Even with upgrades to your camera, each encounter is stomach twisting and terrifying, as you face the spirits of the people who once lived in this town. Of course, there are also spirits that are immune to the camera's effects, showing that the game is not afraid to turn up the already high scare factor straight up to eleven. Filled with the usual array of puzzles to solve and a mystery to unravel, Fatal Frame 2 is a must play for any fan of horror games.
2 Amnesia: The Dark Descent
If we have any game to thank for the revival of survival horror, it is absolutely this game. It came armed with true suspense, masterfully executed suspenseful psychological horror and showed everyone how it's done. Like Alien, this game also knows how to take its time. It isn't afraid to have you wondering empty halls for half an hour, picking up threads of the story and listening to the creepy atmosphere slowly build itself. Once this game kicks into high gear, it's clear why this took YouTubers and gamers by storm, with its unrelenting chase scenes and masterfully done environment and sound design.
In a similar vein to Slenderman's Shadow, you mustn't look at the enemies too long as your character will go slowly insane. Your only respite is to hide, but you also mustn't remain in the darkness too long as that will also be rough on your sanity meter. Filled with truly memorable, intense sequences (looking at you, water monster) Amnesia: The Dark Descent is an indie classic that will forever be timeless and will always be remembered for waking the horror genre from its slumber.
1 Silent Hill 2
You all knew this was coming. As good as Silent Hill 1 is, this entry took that formula and elevated it from “great” to “outstanding,” and most of that strength comes from the story. Of course, it also benefits from having much better graphics, which of course helps the surreality and nightmarish quality of the environments. The monsters are even more twisted and weird, as you face beings that are all legs, hunched over nurses and of course the infamous Pyramid Head.
The music here is a masterwork, with Akira Yamaoka creating an eerie and disturbing soundtrack that goes along with the world and story perfectly. The weird and ethereal music punctuates your journey through the fog with brilliance, going hand in hand with the dark and unsettling story. Every monster and boss is an allegory for a part of the main character, James Sunderland. From themes of sexual frustration to guilt, they're all represented in truly unique Silent Hill fashion.
As mentioned, the story this time is stronger as it leaves all the “cult” business of the original in the dust. Focusing almost entirely on the story of James and the very few people he meets, Silent Hill 2 spins a tale just as thought provoking and sinister as the surroundings. No matter how many times I play this game, it still invokes intrigue, and, of course, still scares the pants off of me.