The Video Game Critic's
Top 13 Most Terrifying Video Games
of All Time
Playing Haunted House (Atari 2600, 1982) helped me realize video games could deliver chills and thrills. Resident Evil (Playstation, 1996) took video game horror to the next level, delivering suspense and jump-scares on par with a major motion picture. Since then I have played games that have tested the LIMITS of human endurance. In this creepy review special I present to you the 13 most terrifying games I've ever experienced. If you're looking for something that will send chills down your spine and have your nerves on a hair trigger, give one of these a try this Halloween season. Just don't say I didn't warn you...
Until Dawn (Sony, 2015)
Originally posted 2015/9/25
Playstation 4 / Grade: A-
Not since Night Trap (Sega CD, 1992) has there been a game I'd describe as an interactive horror movie, but Until Dawn certainly qualifies. The premise revolves around a group of teenagers that return to a ski lodge one year after a tragedy took place. Until Dawn borrows liberally from every horror movie and video game including Evil Dead, The Shining, Resident Evil, Silent Hill, Alan Wake, Saw, Scream, Heavy Rain, and I Know What you Did Last Summer. The results are spectacular.
The game looks like a million bucks, featuring remarkably lifelike characters with a full range of facial expressions. My friends actually recognized the real actors who were digitized for the game! The atmosphere is moody as all hell thanks to excellent cinematography and clever camerawork. Disturbing sound effects and a brooding musical score keep you on the edge of your seat.
You control each of the characters at some point, typically wandering around to investigate flashing objects. When the action heats up you must respond to rapid button prompts, and it's pretty intense. Periodically you're required to make a decision which might involve deciding a course of action (safe route or shortcut) or determining how to relate to other characters. I love the idea of a branching storyline but it's not always clear your actions are having much impact, especially when your choices are limited to "shut up" or "dismissive".
Until Dawn definitely strings you along but it's refreshing not having to conserve ammo, scrounge for health, or restart from the same spot over and over. I like how the game takes full advantage of the PS4 controller. You'll slide your finger across the touch screen to light a match or browse a smartphone. You'll need to keep the controller perfectly still during certain scenes to avoid detection.
Much like Alan Wake (Xbox 360, 2010) the game is broken into chapters, each beginning with a recap of the story so far. Yes, there are plenty of horror cliches (all of them I think) in the form of cheap scares, raunchy jokes, and people investigating noises when they should be running in the other direction. But I knew the game was something special when I found myself face to face with a psychologist questioning me about my own actions in the game! Whoa. Bonus videos include a Blair Witch-style "documentary". If you're the kind of person who allows themselves to be afraid and enjoys the feeling, Until Dawn will tap into your deepest fears.
Rating: Mature (blood and gore, intense violence, sexual themes, strong language)
Illbleed (AIA, 2000)
Originally posted 2001/10/7
Dreamcast / Grade: B
Over the past few years there's been a steady flow of survival horror games, most of which mimic the Resident Evil formula. But Illbleed is a different animal altogether, with truly innovative gameplay and unabashed B-movie storylines. Each of the six stages plays like a low budget horror flick with titles like "The Home Run of Death" and "Revenge of the Worm Queen".
The graphics are only average but the audio really steals the show, with blood-chilling sound effects and remarkably intense music. Illbleed has enough atmosphere to give you nightmares, but the learning curve is pretty steep. While aggressive play is rewarded in most survival games, it won't get you far here. No, you need to progress cautiously in order to detect traps and maintain your health. Staying healthy means moderating your pulse, bleeding, and stamina.
As you slowly explore, an on-screen "horror monitor" helps you detect traps or items. It may sound tedious, but Illbleed is anything but. The game feeds on your sense of paranoia. The tension mounts as you turn each corner or enter a new room. The monster battles are pretty intense and the gore is so over the top that every hit produces a fountain of blood.
The battles reveal the main weakness of the game, which is poor control. The "dodge" move is less than responsive, and sometimes you walk while trying to run. Problems like these aren't as apparent when you're sneaking around but they can lead to some serious frustration when things really heat up. Still, I found myself coming back long after I thought I was through. Illbleed is original, disturbing, and occasionally terrifying. It's a remarkable Dreamcast original that's worth checking out.
Dead Space (Electronic Arts, 2008)
Originally posted 2009/10/25
Playstation 3 / Grade: A-
Dead Space puts you in the role of a guy investigating a disabled mining ship, only to discover it's been overrun by an "alien scourge". The environments are clearly inspired by the Alien movies, with dark corridors, air locks, medical labs, and decontamination chambers. You encounter grotesque aliens with long limbs, and their twisted appearance reminded me of the creeps in Silent Hill (PS1, 1999). The atmosphere is utterly terrifying, especially when the audio envelops the player with ominous music, jarring sounds, and blood-curling screeches.
Despite its derivative nature Dead Space has ample surprises up its sleeve. You view your character from the back, and his suit makes him look like a high-tech knight. His life gauge is a blue light running down his spinal cord - very imaginative! Aiming your crosshairs directs your flashlight, and there are inventive weapons tailor-made for dismembering aliens. Ripping the beasts apart saves ammo, and the game actively encourages this by limiting its availability. Once your foes are reduced to crawling torsos you can stomp on them to finish them off.
Another unique element is the ability to employ "stasis" to temporarily slow enemies and fast-moving doors. When upgrading weapons, you select electric circuit "paths" to determine how each weapon will evolve. There's no radar to pinpoint enemy locations but that just adds to the intensity. You'll know when creatures are around, because they are loud. Your mission details can be pretty convoluted but it doesn't really matter because pressing the right joystick (R3) causes a bright line to appear on the floor, showing you where to go.
The first-rate production values boast photo-realistic graphics, a silky-smooth frame-rate, and a polished user interface. The storyline is seamlessly conveyed through radio calls and holographic video images. Save points are frequent and intelligently placed. Dead Space is an ambitious effort - but sometimes it feels too ambitious. The "zero gravity" areas absolutely suck. While freely floating through a chamber is original in concept, the clumsy controls and bewildering camera turns it into ordeal.
In general, Dead Space's controls are complicated as hell, with many critical functions mapped to combinations of shoulder and face buttons (L1 and X to reload, for example). Dead Space isn't perfect but it's one of the most intense shooters you'll ever play, especially with the lights out.
Rating: Mature (blood and gore, intense violence, strong language)
Silent Hill 2 (Konami, 2001)
Originally posted 2004/10/16
Playstation 2 / Grade: B+
In this chilling sequel to the Playstation classic you are a man stuck in a foggy, deserted town, searching for your lost wife while fending off a host of gruesome ghouls. With the exception of improved fog and shadowing, the grainy graphics are not a major step up from the original game and the gameplay is virtually identical. Fortunately, Silent Hill 2 successfully recreates the same intense, spine-tingling atmosphere that gave me nightmares the first time around.
Mainly set in an apartment complex, you'll hold your breath as you explore each new room. Most are pitch dark and your weak flashlight provides precious little visibility, adding to the tension and uncertainty. A suspenseful but confusing storyline is conveyed via high-quality, frightening cut-scenes. The camera angles are dramatic but often disorienting, forcing you to constantly refer to the map. Thankfully the map automatically marks locked doors and other items of interest.
As in the first game, Silent Hill 2's audio is effectively unnerving and occasionally alarming. Control is decent but tends to feel sluggish while bludgeoning creatures. The worst aspect of the game is the fact that it's very easy to get stuck and not know what to do next. Otherwise Silent Hill 2 is a remarkably creepy game that manages to live up to the lofty standards set by the original.
Rating: Mature (blood and gore, violence)
Resident Evil 4 (Capcom, 2005)
Originally posted 2005/3/10
GameCube / Grade: A+
No game is perfect but Resident Evil 4 (RE4) comes about as close as you can get. While playing it I was actually thinking "this is the best video game ever". A masterpiece of great length and substance, RE4 is such a huge leap for the series it doesn't even feel like a Resident Evil game. Cleverly conceived with originality to burn, the game is madly addictive and supremely satisfying.
What makes RE4 so compelling? Well the rural mountainside conjures up films like Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Blair Witch, and Night of the Living Dead. The desolate forest is practically a character in and of itself. Although your movements are limited to a predetermined path you'd never know by the natural-looking surroundings. The dilapidated old house you stumble upon looks authentic and foreboding. Later you explore an old church on a hill surrounded by a graveyard, and it just doesn't get much more Halloween than that.
Your adventure begins on a dark cloudy day and only gets scarier as night falls and a thunderstorm rages. RE4's audio track adds to the sense of urgency with harrowing sound effects that seamlessly meld with a haunting musical score. The gameplay offers brisk pacing, reasonable difficulty, and extraordinary variety. Don't rest during the cut-scenes, because "quick action events" prompt you to hit buttons at critical moments to escape injury. The game keeps you on guard but you never feel hopelessly stuck. Even when you die you continue close to where you left off.
Your mission is to rescue the President's daughter from a cult, and you'll spend a large portion of the game escorting her to safety. Instead of conventional zombies RE4 opts for chanting monks and brainwashed townsfolk armed with pitchforks, torches, and axes. The violence is unflinching. When a farm woman freaks out after being shot in the face, it's actually quite disturbing. But nothing strikes more fear in this game than the sound of a chainsaw.
RE4's control scheme may seem awkward at first due to the lack of a strafe button, but the limited mobility just adds to the challenge. The over-the-shoulder view is a nice compromise between a first-person shooter and third-person adventure, and the jumping is practically automatic. Your firepower is so astounding that a shotgun can blow several attackers across a room with a single blast. The game incorporates a surprising amount of sniping action, so before you enter a new area you'll want to weed out as many enemies as you can from a distance.
Unlike previous RE games item management is not tedious at all, and a mysterious cloaked figure appears every so often to buy and sell goods. A testament to RE4's greatness is how many memorable moments are packed into this single game, including a battle with a giant "troll" monster, a wild encounter on a ski lift, a crazy mine cart ride, and a row-boat sequence as thrilling as the movie Jaws.
It should be noted that the game is definitely intended for mature audiences due to excessive violence and gore, along with some profanity. While it never takes itself too seriously there are some genuinely intense moments and gruesome images. Resident Evil 4 is one for the ages. The bar for survival horror has now been set very, very high.
Rating: Mature (blood and gore, intense violence)
Fatal Frame III: The Tormented (Tecmo, 2005)
Originally posted 2016/10/25
Playstation 2 / Grade: C
If you've watched films like The Ring or The Grudge, you know the Japanese have developed a penchant for spine-tingling horror. Fatal Frame III conveys an uneasy, ominous atmosphere that pays off with big scares. With grim environments, unsettling noises, and tension you can cut with the knife, this game is meant to be played in the dark. You assume the role of an attractive young Japanese woman. Each night she dreams of returning to a snowy, haunted old manor.
Fatal Frame III employs various cinematic techniques to good effect. Dream sequences are presented like aged footage with odd camera angles and fleeting glimpses of disturbing sights. Unfortunately this dramatic camera has a tendency to throw off your sense of direction, causing you to inadvertently lurch back and forth. That's not ideal when some twisted, malevolent spirit is bearing down on you. To fend off ghosts you snap pictures of them, and the longer you keep them in your viewfinder the more damage you inflict. This presents a terrifying risk/reward dynamic as you frantically search around for them.
The puzzles have a Resident Evil flavor with keyholes of various shapes and slide-the-block contraptions. The scenery is rendered in muted tones and the wooden walls have an aged, grimy look. Controller vibration is used to indicate supernatural presence and it will put you on edge. You save your progress at blue lamps. The game slowly fleshes out a mystery as you alternate between days at your house and nights at the haunted manor.
The problem with Fatal Frame III is that you trek through the same rooms over and over. As new sections open up the expansive mansion becomes overwhelming. It's difficult to make progress when so many doors are sealed by "some strong power". Fatal Frame III: The Tormented is a creepy adventure that lives up its name. Unfortunately, that tormented soul is you!
Rating: Mature (blood, violence)
Resident Evil (Capcom, 2002)
Originally posted 2002/5/18
GameCube / Grade: A-
The granddaddy of survival horror has returned to reclaim its crown! The original Resident Evil (PS1, 1996) was (arguably) the first genuinely frightening video game. Trapped in a house full of zombies, traps, and puzzles, you had to brace yourself for each new room. Several sequels expanded the scope of the original but rarely matched its level of hair-raising thrills. In light of that, remaking the first Resident Evil makes a lot of sense.
Even those who played through it the first time around shouldn't hesitate to pick this up. With dramatically improved graphics, new room layouts, relocated monsters, and better puzzles, it's practically a new game. For horror movie buffs it's kind of like the difference between Evil Dead I and II. The cheesy live-action scenes from the first game have been replaced with some jaw-dropping CGI work. The mansion interior is spectacularly detailed and magnificently gothic. Lightning flashes and shadows from trees reflect on the walls, and new areas include a decrepit old graveyard.
The scenery is pre-rendered which is both good and bad. On the positive side, pre-positioned camera angles allow for some downright creepy cinematography. For example, at the end of one long hallway you may see the faint image of a mysterious figure. On the other hand you can't adjust your view and that's occasionally frustrating. The music effectively builds tension and improved voice acting makes the awkward dialog sound halfway credible. Shrill screams and ominous groans will send tingles down your spine.
While the graphics and audio are stellar, you still have to deal with a rather clumsy control scheme that really hasn't changed much since 1996. The targeting system makes it easy to locate monsters but aiming at close range can be maddeningly difficult. As with past Resident Evil games you'll need to juggle a lot of items, and your carrying capacity is very limited. It seems like whenever I find a new item I need I don't have any place to put it!
One clever new gameplay element is the "defensive weapon", which let you subdue enemies after they've gotten a hold of you. Just don't confuse the defensive dagger with the knife like I did. Also new is the ability of certain monsters to follow you from room to room, removing what little sense of security you had. The monsters don't go down easily, so remember: they aren't dead until the music stops! Resident Evil is an all-time classic and you're sure to be terrified by this slick, updated two-disk edition.
Rating: Mature (Blood and Gore, Violence)
Resident Evil 7: Biohazard (Capcom, 2017)
Originally posted 2017/5/7
Playstation 4 / Grade: C+
The first hour of Resident Evil 7 is hard to stomach. Searching for your long lost girlfriend in a remote Louisiana bayou, you find yourself trapped in a derelict house where you are held prisoner and brutally tortured by a demented family. Upon escaping you find yourself hunted by the individual family members. Sound like fun? More like disturbing. The new first-person perspective puts you right smack in your own personal nightmare.
RE7 is clearly influenced by a laundry list of horror flicks including Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Blair Witch Project, and Evil Dead 2. The fact that everything looks so realistic truly immerses you in a world of decay and squalor, with all sorts of makeshift rooms and passageways. It's like being in a virtual haunted house, with lighting so effective even your own shadow will make you jump. The surround sound audio effects are equally unsettling, and they scared the hell out of my cat.
RE7 oozes with atmosphere, particularly in its dark, marshy outdoor areas. One drawback to its cinematic approach is that the action feels contrived. It's a pretty helpless feeling as you're being swarmed by insects and stalked by family members impervious to attack. They usually come barging in when you least expect it, much like Nemesis in Resident Evil 3: Nemesis (PS1, 1999). It was almost a relief when I encountered a slime monster I could actually kill.
The game gradually reverts to more classic Resident Evil conventions, reprising well-worn cliches like turning cranks, locating a lost generator fuse, and collecting keys of various shapes. I like how pressing the touchpad brings up the map. When you feel stuck you're probably just one item away from unlocking a new area.
RE7 falters badly in terms of an inventory system, which somehow manages to be inferior to the one in the original Resident Evil (PS1, 1996)! The items are so tiny you can't make them out, and the interface for manipulating them is clumsy and confusing. During one boss encounter I couldn't grab a chainsaw because my inventory was full (a common occurrence). Why can't I drop my shotgun? Why can't I combine my bullets with the handgun? The action doesn't pause while accessing your inventory, so I was getting slaughtered while juggling items.
Likewise the antiquated save system encourages you to constantly backtrack to the nearest tape recorder. You'd expect fast loading from a game with a mandatory install, yet this has got the longest load times I've ever experienced in my entire life! Resident Evil 7 is not for the faint of heart. It may be the scariest Resident Evil, but it's also the most painful. Bump up the grade by a letter around Halloween.
Rating: Mature (blood and gore, intense violence, strong language)
Condemned (Sega, 2005)
Originally posted 2006/10/28
Xbox 360 / Grade: B+
Despite being terribly detrimental to my blood pressure, I found myself drawn into Condemned. In this dark first-person thriller you are a wrongly-accused cop fleeing the law while in pursuit of the actual killer. The atmosphere maintains an ultra-high level of intensity as you creep through abandoned buildings, collect evidence, and bash the skulls of crazed wandering drugs addicts who just love to sneak up on you. The dark alleys, grungy abandoned buildings, and dank subway corridors look amazing. Don't let anybody tell you that graphics don't matter, because these "next generation" visuals make you feel "in the game" like never before.
Condemned's understated soundtrack is sparse but effective. Every creak is jolting and every shadow is alarming. The game plays like a video game adaptation of the classic movie Seven. I must confess I was initially apprehensive about the whole "evidence collecting" aspect. I feared it would be slow and tedious but fortunately that's not the case. The game prompts you to use the appropriate device to scan the immediate area, which always reveals some kind of glowing clue.
The action is complemented by a compelling storyline and brief cut-scenes that blend in seamlessly. Condemned is relentlessly scary. After one prolonged stage in the dark I was practically begging for daylight. As for weapons you'll wield whatever you can get your hands on, including pipes, fire axes, sledgehammers, and sawed-off shotguns. The game even informs you how a newly discovered weapon compares to the one you're currently holding in terms of damage, range, etc. On the downside, the maze-like environments grow tiresome, and sometimes you can't tell where attacks are coming from (especially bullets). Despite these minor issues Condemned packs a wallop and will frighten you like few games can.
Rating: Mature (blood and gore, intense violence, strong language)
Clock Tower (Ascii, 1997)
Originally posted 2002/10/20
Playstation / Grade: B-
This cult classic is truly one of the most horrifying video games ever made. Playing Clock Tower is like watching an intense slasher film with one heart-stopping sequence after the next. The villain is a short, ugly, limping monstrosity armed with a huge pair of scissors - that's right - SCISSORS. You can always tell he's coming by the clanking sounds, accompanied by some rather alarming music.
You control multiple characters in Clock Tower and spend a lot of time going from place to place, talking to people and gathering clues. Scrolling through the bad text dialogue is admittedly tiresome, and I really wish they had real audio for that. Clock Tower feels more like a PC adventure than a console game. An arrow cursor is used to move and examine items, and the PS mouse is also supported. Using the digital pad to move the cursor is clumsy at best.
The real action occurs in the frightening encounters with Scissorman. Typically you'll find yourself locked in a building or house with him, and you'll have to find a way to escape. Your heart will race as you dash from room to room, frantically searching for some way to subdue this slow but relentless fiend. There's even a "panic button" you can use to make a last-ditch effort to escape his clutches! Like any bad horror movie, the characters will do dumb things like go back inside a house after escaping. Likewise, the dialogue is predictable and often idiotic. Harris: "We'll all be going home soon." Helen: "Okay, well, no need to lock up then."
The graphics do the job, but the people look rough and the animation is lacking. Still, Scissorman looks quite intimidating and some of the gore is shocking. As chilling as Clock Tower is, its gameplay can be frustrating. Sometimes you'll discover something useful like mace, but inexplicably won't be able to pick it up! At other times the actions you need to take to keep Scissorman at bay seem to defy logic. But in terms of pure horror, Clock Tower stands tall in the genre.
Rating: Mature (violence, blood, and gore)
Fatal Frame (Tecmo, 2001)
Originally posted 2002/10/14
Playstation 2 / Grade: B+
Unlike most survival horror games which tend to focus on blowing heads off zombies, Fatal Frame takes a more traditional approach. The game actually features an authentic haunted house with real ghosts! Sorry, you won't find any giant alligators or insane lab experiments gone awry. I made a point to play this game alone with the lights out, and let me tell you, Fatal Frame effectively scared the living hell out of me.
You control an Asian lady searching for her brother in an old, decrepit Japanese mansion. The rooms are pitch black, strewn with antiques and odd contraptions in various stages of decay. Like any good horror movie Fatal Frame employs odd camera angles, minimal lighting, and jarring sound effects to maximize the paranoia level.
The transparent apparitions are truly frightening to behold. Your only defense is a special camera that lets you neutralize the ghouls by snapping pictures of them. Looking through the viewfinder gives you a grainy, first-person perspective of things, giving the game a "Blair Witch Project" vibe. Did I mention this game claims to be "based on a true story"?!
"Shooting" a ghost is a pretty intense exercise as they slowly approach while you frantically snap away. Your camera can also be used to reveal clues not visible to the naked eye. Fatal Frame's storyline is conveyed by audio tapes you find lying around the mansion. Listening to these tapes is far more interesting than reading the text of other survival horror games. Beyond its incredible scare factor, Fatal Frame follows a fairly standard formula of collecting items and solving puzzles.
The controls take some getting used to, thanks to stiff movements and constantly changing camera angles. Being disoriented is stressful when a ghost is bearing down on you. There could be more save points too. Once after an hour of play I found myself frantically searching for a save spot. Now that's scary! Fatal Frame is an ideal Halloween game. Its innovative camera attack and unsettling visuals make for an unforgettable gaming experience.
Rating: Teen (blood, gore, violence)
Silent Hill (Konami, 2000)
Originally posted 2004/10/11
Playstation / Grade: A
Silent Hill begins by flashing a disclaimer about the game's graphic violence and disturbing scenes. It's no joke, because this game will make your blood run cold. If Resident Evil is the Night of the Living Dead of video games, then Silent Hill is the Exorcist! The opening cutscene depicts a car crash followed by a father's desperate search for his daughter in a nearby deserted town. With moody lighting and spooky audio, Silent Hill creates the most intense atmosphere I've ever experienced in any video game.
You view your character from the back (like Tomb Raider) and the camera swings around to capture the most dramatic viewing angles. The creatures you encounter are weird and unsettling, and the line between fantasy and reality is constantly blurred as you navigate a surreal, ever-changing world. For much of the game you explore pitch-dark rooms with the help of a flashlight, and your limited visibility ratchets up the tension.
But the scariest aspect of Silent Hill is its eerie white noise sound effects that increase in volume as danger approaches. The tension can reach unbearable proportions, making it difficult to play the game alone or with the lights out. I thought I was going to cry at one point! There are plenty of "find the key" puzzles but they tend to be more thought-provoking than frustrating. I found myself slowly sucked into the game despite my growing anxiety. Silent Hill may just be the best horror video game ever made.
Rating: Mature (violence, blood, gore)
Alien Isolation (Sega, 2014)
Originally posted 2015/4/9
Playstation 4 / Grade: B+
The original Alien movie became a cinematic masterpiece for the way it conveyed the sheer terror of being stalked by a horrific creature. Alien Isolation tries to tap into that feeling and nails it. If you don't think Alien Isolation is scary you're not doing it right. Play this in the dark with no one else around, preferably with surround sound. I normally enjoy scary games but Isolation pushed me way out of my comfort zone. The intro and load screens feature grainy, VHS-quality footage of space ships, and the effect is as creepy as it is nostalgic.
You play as Amanda Ripley, the daughter of Sigourney Weaver's character in the films. As I roamed the deserted space freighter I was in awe of the circa-1979 space architecture. The monochrome computer screens and mechanical contraptions make today's touch screens seem mundane. The corridors are remarkably eerie due to erratic lighting and steam from pressure valves. The pulse-pounding music is punctuated by sudden, jolting noises.
You're equipped with a handy movement tracker that "spins up" through your controller's speaker, and it sounds remarkable. This device not only alerts you to life forms but also keeps you headed the right direction. When you hear the alien's approaching footsteps, be prepared to duck into a nearby locker. This game is seriously nerve wracking! Your blood will run cold at the sight of the creature's clammy skin and slithery movements. The first time I was able to observe it from a safe place I was awestruck. You can't kill it so you must be resourceful, collecting items to create survival equipment like medical kits, flares, and noisemakers. I tend to be jaded when it comes to crafting and stealth, but these elements are a natural fit.
As much as I admire Alien Isolation, a few flaws compromise the fun factor. Objectives can be confusing and I don't recall having to restore so much power and find so many key cards since Resident Evil 1! But my biggest beef is with the manual save system. You can make a ton of progress, watch a cut-scene, finish a mission, earn a trophy, sit through a load screen, and then die only to have to do it all over again! At the very least it could auto-save during cut-scenes, especially since many dump you into emergency situations. Still, Alien Isolation is one heart-stopping adventure that needs to be experienced first-hand. It may not be the best scary game I've ever played but it is no doubt the most terrifying.
Rating: Mature (blood, strong language, violence)