The video game medium has evolved and advanced at great speed over the past few decades – playing something like Dark Souls, The Last of Us, or Grand Theft Auto 5 would have been the stuff of a madman’s dreams just twenty years ago.
The advancement of not only technology but also creative visions as to what can be achieved with the medium has affected all genres, horror included. We’ve come a hell of a long way since the days of Friday the 13th on the Commodore 64 and Ghost House on the Sega Master System, with developers becoming able to create horror games that can genuinely unsettle, disturb, frighten, or simply effectively jump-scare the player via the use of intelligent writing, clever game design and gameplay mechanics, and the increased immersion that can come with improved visuals and audio.
It’s with this in mind that I decided to create a list of thirteen horror games released since the year 2000 – horror games that I’ve played and would recommend to others. I decided to include a number of slightly lesser-known games on the list because I wanted to highlight some titles which might not be on the radar of many horror fans and which I think deserve more attention, hence why more obvious titles such as Resident Evil 4 and Hannah Montana: The Movie didn’t make this list.
I’ve also left out a number of horror titles which, although acclaimed, I’ve yet to personally play despite wanting to – Amnesia: The Dark Descent on PC, and Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem on GameCube, for example. But I don’t own a GameCube and my PC is a tired old laptop held together with nothing but tape and threats, so there you go.
Finally, some of the games on this list aren’t “pure” horror titles in that their intention isn’t to absolutely terrify the player and leave them a soiled, gibbering wreck. Instead, the games in question have applied a horror theme to a different fundamental focus, whether that focus is shoot-‘em-up action or a spooky, family-friendly adventure. These games obviously aren’t ideal for someone seeking a genuinely frightening horror experience, but all the same they remain high-quality titles well worth checking out.
So let the horrors commence. Like an altar boy at a Catholic priest convention, you should be afraid. Be very afraid.
1. Condemned 2: Bloodshot (2008 – PS3 / Xbox 360)
Although the current console generation has seen the action genre forcibly crammed into the horror genre at many turns by greedy developers and publishers seeking that Call of Duty dollar – see Capcom’s Resident Evil 6, which replaced fear with explosions, atmosphere with explosions, and explosions with bigger explosions – the two genres can work well together, as proven by Condemned 2: Bloodshot, which effectively combines elements of horror with frequent melee-focused combat.
Bloodshot casts the player as Ethan Thomas, who was also the protagonist in original game Condemned: Criminal Origins. Ethan is a weary, alcoholic cop suffering from hallucinations in a city where mass psychosis and violence have become rampant. Although later in the game the actual plot devolves into a convoluted yarn of supernatural abilities and ancient cults, this is made up for with brutal and tense melee combat, a range of atmospheric locations, and some great horror moments, including a brilliant sequence involving a rabid bear who is more interested in devouring your organs than your picnic basket.
Further depth is added with the player’s ability to forensically investigate crime scenes for clues, making statements based on what pieces of evidence you can find and analyse at a scene. Making correct, Columbo-like deductions leads to a better ranking, which then rewards the player with upgrades. (Although no Peter Falk skin, sadly). And there are a number of other nice gameplay touches such as environmental kills and Ethan’s aim with a firearm being unsteady unless he drinks alcohol.
Condemned 2: Bloodshot will always be a memorable game for me personally as along with Metal Gear Solid 4 and Stranglehold, it was one of the three titles I bought with my PlayStation 3 console, and it’s a real shame there hasn’t been a third title in the series, especially given how strongly the ending of Bloodshot hints at this. Still, even if you have no access to the first game and even though there’s no sign of a third, Condemned 2 is an excellent title that blends action and horror to good effect.
2. Dead Nation (2010 – PS3, PS Vita)
A complex, layered story. Rich characterisation. Intelligent, psychological horror.
Dead Nation has none of these things.
What it does have, however, is countless zombies for you to shoot, incinerate, electrocute, dismember, and blow up in numerous fun and messy ways. Set at a time after an undead outbreak has almost wiped out humanity, this top-down action game sees you – and a friend, if playing in co-op multiplayer, which is highly recommended – navigating the streets, parks, hospitals, and graveyards of a zombie-filled city in a bid to survive and potentially find a cure for the undead virus.
But as I said, story and characterisation take a back seat to gameplay in Dead Nation, and that’s no bad thing when the gameplay is this entertaining. The game contains varied locations and several types of zombie, as well as a wide selection of weapons such as a rifle, a submachine gun, and grenades, alongside more exotic dealers of death like the Blade Cannon and the Shocker. Weapons can be purchased and upgraded, adding a level of depth and choice to the combat – a good thing, since you will kill many, many zombies throughout the course of the game.
Although an action-heavy experience, Dead Nation certainly isn’t without atmosphere, as evidenced in its visuals by its dark, debris-strewn locations and detailed zombies; and in its audio by its foreboding soundtrack and fitting sound effects. The game also impresses technically with the large number of zombies who can occupy the screen simultaneously, leading to some frantic backpedalling by the player and a whole heap of undead carnage.
Featuring an interesting metagame that tracks on a global leaderboard the number of zombies killed in-game by the players of various real-world countries, and a fantastic local co-op mode that really enhances the experience, Dead Nation may not unsettle or disturb you, but it provides more gory, explosive entertainment than a drunk grenade-juggler in a slaughterhouse.
3. Dead Space (2008 – PS3 / Xbox 360 / PC)
Although the above two games offer impressive combinations of horror and action, the Dead Space series has become an example of how that combination isn’t always necessary or very effective. While increasing action elements began creeping in with the second game, the recent Dead Space 3 relied even more heavily on over-the-top action and set-pieces and even introduced a co-op mode, a feature that although used to great effect in Dead Nation, certainly didn’t honour or improve upon the horror roots of the Dead Space series. (Like Capcom, publisher Electronic Arts obviously working to the now-disproven “game – horror + explosions = increased profit” formula).
So Dead Space 2 and 3 are the Aliens to the original game’s Alien, then. Because although the original Dead Space contains plenty of action, it’s also a more tense, claustrophobic, and isolated experience than its two sequels, not to mention a fantastic mash-up of science fiction and horror, featuring a dark and interesting story that takes place in a well-realised, authentic-feeling game world.
The Alien comparison can be made again in terms of the game’s visual design. The future of Dead Space may contain advanced space travel and technology, but it’s far from a sterile, unrecognisable place. Instead, the game presents realistic, weathered locations and an industrial, nuts-and-bolts design, with rotating emergency lights illuminating grimy metal walls and catwalks, broken pipes venting steam or dripping water, and other grounded details that help create an immersive, believable setting.
The setting in which the majority of the game takes place is the USG Ishimura, a starship whose crew members have mutated into horrific monstrosities called necromorphs, and it’s both an excellent choice of location and a brilliantly designed one, effectively conveying the dread and isolation that comes with being trapped on a monster- and corpse-filled vessel surrounded by the cold, vast emptiness of space.
Alongside more visceral elements such as the gore-soaked combat and wide range of weapons and upgrades, and brilliant features such as anti-gravity areas and the use of holographic displays for gameplay purposes, this bleak atmosphere remains one of Dead Space’s strongest points throughout.
In space, no one can hear you scream. But they might hear you shit yourself.
4. Ghosthunter (2003 – PS2)
No, this isn’t one of those awful TV shows where a “paranormal expert” – read “fraud” – leads a group of gullible idiots through a dark house while “communing with spirits” – read “lying” – and the producers try desperately to make everything appear more sinister than it actually is.
Every year, some high-quality video games end up being overlooked by many for one reason or another, going on to pass into history without much fanfare, and PlayStation 2 exclusive Ghosthunter is such a game. Although it received a mostly positive critical reception at the time of its release, it never seemed to make much of a long-lasting mark upon the gaming community in general.
It’s a shame, because Ghosthunter is an entertaining supernatural action-adventure that impresses in a number of areas: strong voice work from actors such as Michael Gambon and the ever-reliable Rob Paulsen (“Gee, Brain, what do you want to do tonight?”); excellent graphics that really bring to life the game’s characters and sinister environments; and an effective mixture of separate elements such as horror, drama, and comedy.
The game casts you as Lazarus Jones, a cop who gains the ability to see ghosts and who must prevent the plans of an evil spirit while simultaneously rescuing his partner. It’s not Shakespeare, but the story and script are lively and move at a good pace, and importantly they do a great job of funnelling you through a host of varied levels filled with ghosts and monsters, the visual design of the levels and enemies being one of the game’s biggest strengths.
Other points of interest include the ability to play as a ghost with her own set of powers; a particular moment of almost fourth-wall-breaking when the game deceives the player into thinking their game is over; and an appearance by a character named Colonel Fortesque, who is clearly a descendant of skeletal knight Sir Daniel Fortesque, star of the MediEvil series, SCE Cambridge Studio being the developer of that series and of Ghosthunter.
While the fundamental gameplay of Ghosthunter is pretty straightforward for the majority of the game, the story and characterisation, high-quality graphics and audio, and excellent level and enemy design more than compensate for its shortcomings, making it a game that deserves better than to be simply laid to rest and forgotten.
5. The Last of Us (2013 – PS3)
Since its release in June of this year, Naughty Dog’s PlayStation 3 exclusive The Last of Us has received more praise than Jesus, and it’s not difficult to see why. The post-apocalyptic action-adventure has stunning graphics, both in terms of detail and design; a haunting, melancholy soundtrack; a mature story and excellent script; tense, visceral combat; and performances by co-stars Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson that in my opinion rank amongst the best ever seen in a video game.
Although The Last of Us is usually regarded as more of an action-adventure game than a horror one, elements of the latter are very much present in the game. As in a number of effective horror games, the enemies are a very real threat that should never be taken lightly, whether you’re dealing with other human survivors or the horribly mutated clickers or bloaters, who can kill you with a single hit. Also, supplies are scarce, and so intelligent resource management is vitally important to your progress and survival.
Outside of gameplay, the horror of The Last of Us also comes through in more subtle, psychological ways in its story, design, and atmosphere. The world presented by the game is a bleak, melancholy place almost totally devoid of anything in the way of hope or happiness, these being overridden not only by despair and death but also the primal, base nature of a person’s will to survive at any cost – a theme that is fundamentally close-to-home to all of us, and one that is explored to chilling effect in the game. This and other themes often give the horror of The Last of Us a very human face, which can be more unsettling than any monstrosity conjured up by the imagination.
Not that the game shies away from moments of more conventional – but still very effective – horror and fear, however, as found in scenes such as a frantic escape from a dark, sprawling basement, where the shouts, cries, and rushing footsteps of your infected pursuers echo around the halls and rooms as they hurriedly hunt you down.
Crank up the difficulty to Survivor and the game not only makes supplies much more scarce but it also disables the player’s x-ray-style ability to detect unseen enemies, meaning you really don’t know what’s around the next corner (tip: it’s not ice cream). While it may not have been marketed as such, that doesn’t stop The Last of Us from being one of the best horror games of this console generation.
6. Manhunt (2003 – PS2 / Xbox / PC )
The first weapon you pick up in Manhunt isn’t an assault rifle, a shotgun, or a pistol. It’s not a grenade or a sword or even a knife.
It’s a plastic bag. A simple, everyday item – and one you use to suffocate your first victim. It’s an immediate and clear sign of the approach that Manhunt takes to its violence: killing in Manhunt isn’t some explosive, detached, Rambo-style experience – instead, it’s up-close, bloody, and extremely brutal. The game wants you to realise right from the start that this is going to be a very dark ride.
Rockstar, a developer never afraid to take chances in pursuing an artistic vision, couldn’t have made this any clearer with stealth-based horror Manhunt, considering the game’s approach to violence, its bleak atmosphere, and its lack of any kind of hero. Whether it’s by shopping bag, hammer, glass shard, baseball bat, or even a sickle, the core philosophy of the game remains the same throughout: kill or be killed.
Like many other impressive horror games, Manhunt excels in both its more immediate, visceral elements and in its less tangible ones. Story-wise, the game casts you as a death row inmate forced to star in a snuff film being made by twisted director Lionel Starkweather, whose CCTV cameras capture your murderous acts as you kill to survive on the streets of Carcer City, a run-down industrial town. The stealth-focused gameplay forces you to be patient and strike from the shadows, and the various weapon-themed executions you can carry out certainly make an impact. Later on, the game also places you in an incredibly intense game of cat-and-mouse with a nightmarish, chainsaw-wielding antagonist – a brilliant, stand-out scene.
But just as effective in conveying horror is the game’s atmosphere. Carcer City is a desolate, forgotten place and an ideal setting, while the members of its various murderous gangs – all out for your blood – are devoid of compassion or mercy. And as you progress, Starkweather (played by Brian Cox) regularly whispers murderous encouragement in your ear via a headset. A nice feature is that if you use a microphone/headset while playing the game, Starkweather’s voice comes through your earpiece and you can use the microphone to make sounds to distract enemies in-game.
All of these elements, combined with a dark, oppressive soundtrack, give Manhunt an atmosphere that is incredibly cold, unapologetically bleak, and utterly unsentimental. Although typically of Rockstar, even here there are a few moments of very black humour.
Rockstar had a grim vision with Manhunt, and it’s to their credit that they realised it with such a hard-hitting game that isn’t afraid to explore some very dark areas – something that is important to the general growth of video games as an art form. Manhunt is a brilliant, challenging, and creatively brave horror experience, and one that I’d recommend to any gamer with even a passing interest in the genre. Bags are supplied.
To be concluded in Part 2
Alex De-Gruchy is a writer and editor of both fiction and non-fiction, his work covering mediums such as comic books, prose, and video games. His upcoming projects include a graphic novel from Markosia Enterprises, a comic series from Monkeybrain, and the video game Crystal Arena. Look on his works, ye Mighty, and despair! @AlexDeGruchy