Survival horror is a subgenre of video games inspired by horror fiction that focuses on survival of the character as the game tries to frighten players with either horror graphics or scary ambiance. It’s a genre that’s dipped in and out of fashion, but never truly disappeared. Even today we have games like Resident Evil 7 being hits, Fatal Frame 5 finally getting a Western port in late 2015, and everyone trying to shape their horror games after the massively successful Silent Hills playable trailer (PT), and that was just a demo for all intents and purposes. There are the more divisive entries into the genre, such as The Evil Within and the upcoming sequel, but seeing it still alive and thriving is a good sign for things to come.
As we lead up to Halloween, there are some insanely good survival horror games and franchises from years ago that should certainly not be lost to time. If you’re looking for a horror-themed game to play this month, diving into the sea of survival horror games from earlier days is a great place to start. Here are some titles, mostly from the PS2 days but some from even earlier, that you may not have encountered before but are definitely worth your time. These games hold up even today, sometimes the controls are awkward and the spooks are a little weak due to the graphical limitations of the day, but they all have core elements that are fantastic and a chilling and entertaining story to tell.
Square’s survival horror game was published back in 1998 for the PS1, and spawned 2 sequels that ended up deviating a fair bit from the original in tone and mechanics. It’s an incredibly interesting series that follows NYPD officer Aya Brea attempting to stop a world-destruction oriented monster. The game implements RPG elements and has a plausable real time battle system, an interesting choice that actually feels very fluid with the pacing. Aya fights her way through New York as corrupted and mutated versions of natural life assault her, with some great monster designs that form a constant threat.
The game is very linear, you’ll be taken down the direct story path and encounter everything the game has to offer along the way, so it doesn’t lend itself to replayability so well. However the first playthrough is a thrill ride as you watch the city crumbling around you. Parasite Eve also probably has the most uses of the word “mitochondria” of any video game as things gets scientific as much as they gets disturbing
Siren, also known as Forbidden Siren, is a stealth/survival horror game mixed with a terrifying story and some of the more menacing enemies in horror. The game was released in 2003 (2004 in the West) for the PS2 and was developed by SCE Japan Studio and the aptly named Project Siren. The game takes place in a village in Japan named Hanuda, where an interrupted ritual and an unfortunately timed earthquake drags the village onto a precarious ledge between time and space. An ominous religious background supports the main enemies of the game, an undead army named Shibito that seem to be unkillable.
The mountainside village and dark woods make for a foreboding setting to the game, and the darkness acts as your ally as you avoid detection at all costs. The focus on stealth really helps the survival horror feel, the player character is never powerful and thus the threats are always real. There are secrets to be found around the areas you roam through, and well laid out stretches of town to work around. These secrets actually impact the game as it goes on, forming secondary objectives in later ‘stages.’ Routing is just as important as knowing what items to get and sneaking through areas. Trying to run and hide if you’re forced to fire a gun or make big noise is a great mechanic to keep the player on their toes. There’s also the interesting mechanic of ‘sightjacking,’ an ability which the characters you play as all possess. This further aids the routing and careful play, as the player can see through the eyes of nearby Shibito or human characters and work out just where may be safe.
There are 3 entries into this series as well; the original, Forbidden Siren 2, and Siren: Blood Curse for the PS3. All of the games nail that terrifying feeling of powerlessness and highlight the stealth aspects of the game. Though they all form a stellar story, they have a sharp learning curve and some areas can be incredibly difficult, making for multiple restarts. Still worth looking into the first game, or the more recent Blood Curse.
On the topic of stealth, the Clock Tower series has a similar approach, going even further as the player character has no real way to fight against the powerful evils that torment her. Even from the first game on the SNES the series has had a tense atmosphere that keeps the player on their toes, and some fantastic art and environments. The SNES game was only officially released in Japan, but there are plenty of fan translations available and the game is definitely worth tracking down. The puzzles can be obtuse and tedious playing today, but the fantastic atmosphere and sound design solidifies the game as part of the roots of modern horror games.
The game, and series, pays homage to many different pieces of horror media. Hifumi Kono was a big fan of Dario Argento, and the first game has many shades of Phenomena (1985), down to Jennifer Simpson (the player character) sharing a strong resemblance and name with Jennifer Corvino from Phenomena. The game feels like an old horror movie, with deep occult elements, all taking place in and around the central location of an orphanage in the woods.
The series goes on to deviate from Jennifer’s story, centered around the core gameplay and atmosphere elements. Only the first sequel follows Jennifer again, a direct and immediate sequel with the return of Scissor Man. The naming conventions get a bit strange as the original game didn’t reach outside of Japan, so the second game (Clock Tower 2 in Japan) is known simply as Clock Tower in the West, and the third in the series (a spin-off in Japan known as Clock Tower: Ghost Head) was released as Clock Tower II: The Struggle Within in the West. Clock Tower 3 (in both regions) shifted more towards what the future held for the series, focusing still on the hiding and running aspects but having moments of strength for the player to fight back. This leads into…
Seen as the spiritual successor to the series, similar in tone to Clock Tower 3 but going even further than the other games into creating a disturbing atmosphere. Fiona, the main character, finds herself waking up without clothes or belongings in a very strange place, inside a cage. And somehow her situation gets worse from here. Fiona is the target of a significant amount of sexual objectification and there are frequent voyeuristic presentations of scenes, whilst the game puts the player in her place and heightens the disturbing and terrifying atmosphere all around.
Haunting Ground (2005) also features a dog companion named Hewie (who you may remember as “that dog” from Resident Evil 4) who helps Fiona along her journey. The Fiona/Hewie dynamic is great, as they cling to each other in a desperate time and help each other out. Over time this only heightens the tense nature of the game as the player begins to worry about Hewie as well as their own character. Another mechanic of the game is ‘Panic Mode,’ in which the player can’t open the menu, Fiona runs on her own and stumbles in a panicked state, while visibility goes down, another aspect that makes every encounter more terrifying.
Character designs are on point, from Fiona and Hewie, to the hulking brute, Debilitas. Fiona’s sexuality, along with the mechanics of the game and her position of distress, allow the player to identify and connect with her struggle. Sexuality and subjectivity are used incredibly well to heighten tension and create the unsettling atmosphere the game has.
Clock Tower creator Hifumi Kono himself recently kickstarted and released a new spiritual successor to the series in NightCry. There were quite a few issues, with bugs and general problems present especially on release, and the graphics were designed for tablets so it didn’t impress as a PC game, however the core of tense gameplay and the feeling of a constant threat were still present.
Illbleed is a Dreamcast survival horror game released back in 2001, with a unique take on survival horror combined with a distinct B-movie horror/comedy feel. The game works differently from most survival horrors, focusing on trap detection and an interesting mechanic around death. If a character dies through a level, they can be revived outside it and the level must be continued with another character. Each of the levels are prefaced by an amazing intro that paints the levels as individual stories or movies, with a distinct Twilight Zone feel to them.
There are four senses the game utilizes; sight, hearing, smell, and, strangely enough, a sort of sixth sense. These senses ping on a heart monitor style UI element when something scary or supernatural is going on near your character, and the objective is to avoid or disarm traps, as well as to keep your character calm. Everything is hyper stylized and looks great, from the menus to the map, and whilst the HUD takes up more screen real estate than necessary it doesn’t feel too imposing.
All of the little touches bring this game together beautifully, such as when your character dies, and it’s Game Over, the money you’ve won from the attractions is brought up in a cheque to be donated to a charity, and if you don’t manage to rescue Randy’s (one of main character Eriko’s friends) brain, you can still unlock the character, but as Brainless Randy, reflected in his zombie-like noises and lack of any ‘adrenaline’ used to find traps. Illbleed has surprises at every turn, and the mixture of unique game mechanics and perfectly stylized atmosphere make this one definitely worth coming back to.
Co-op is an extremely difficult thing to do effectively in horror because it always ends up with goofy consequences like players whacking each other or just jumping in place as all the tension dissipates. This sort of play is still present in Obscure, but fits in nicely with the teen horror setting and the often humorous dialogue. Released in 2004 in Europe, Obscure follows a group of teens battling against infected students, strange creatures, and other mutations. One of the most interesting elements of the Obscure series is the ability to continue past the deaths of several player characters.
There are a total of 6 characters you and either the computer or a co-op partner can control throughout the game, and each one of them can die and the game can still be completed. Whilst each character has skills and abilities, such as some being stronger and able to easily move heavy objects, the other characters are still able to overcome these tasks in some way, even if it takes a lot more time to do so. Of the 6 characters, only one is a guaranteed death, but the others can die through the course of the game as well. The gameplay is similar to other survival horror action games such as Resident Evil and Silent Hill, with puzzles to solve and enemies to kill. There’s also a basic crafting element, such as taping a flashlight to a gun.
A sequel, Obscure: The Aftermath, was released in 2007 and took place two years after the first game, this time in college rather than high school. Three characters from the first game are playable in the second, with a cast of new characters also available. The second improved on the mechanics of the first overall, feeling a lot better to play, but playing through the whole story is an enjoyable experience. The games are also now on Steam, which makes them a lot more accessible than other survival horror games of this era.
Rule of Rose
Creepy kids, creepy orphanage, creepy airship, all with a good dose of abuse raining down from all angles. Rule of Rose is a rather rare PS2 game published in 2006 that has shades of both Haunting Ground and Silent Hill. The player takes the role of Jennifer, a woman visiting her old orphanage home, and quickly comes across her dog pal for the rest of the game a la Haunting Ground. The dog, simply named Brown, helps Jennifer fight and find items, being especially useful to sniff out story critical items later on.
The combat of Rule of Rose is, unfortunately, necessary in some sections. Similar to Silent Hill the slightly awkward nature of combat combined with the rarity of decent weapons disincentivizes the player from engaging in many fights, which is a positive, and Jennifer seems incredibly bad at actually hitting things, which feels accurate, thus combining to make some fights feel rather tedious and difficult through mechanics. Where the game really shines is in the characters, the metaphor, the surreal nature of it all, and in the brilliant atmosphere. Jennifer is an adult, a big girl, and yet these children have a certain way of belittling her and bullying her that makes her feel powerless.
There’s a deep layer of abuse and cruelty in the game, drawing from old Grimm fairy tales and some visual design elements from Silent Hill. Psychological horror is the focus of Rule of Rose, as opposed to the action or even the puzzles, Jennifer is beaten and ridiculed as the player explores the dark nature that hides within the scorned children of the orphanage. The gameplay is painful at times, and combat is something you never look forward to, but it’s well worth suffering through to follow Jennifer through the incredibly dark story.
Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem
Ahh, the big ‘sanity system’ survival horror game, utilizing some great visual effects and terrifying screens (the demo end screen effect is one of the more cruel). There was also an unsuccessful Kickstarter project a few years back for a spiritual successor to the game followed by the plan to continue development despite that. The settings, characters, and language used all combine into an extremely satisfyingly made, HP Lovecraft-inspired universe.
The gameplay is similar to that good old Silent Hill/Resident Evil formula, with set camera angles and the same style of combat. On top of this however are those sanity effects, ranging from enemies taking no damage to the player character shrinking steadily over time until they’re tiny beneath the now massive Lovecraftian monsters, to the aforementioned demo end screen. Suddenly after entering a door the player could encounter a screen one would normally find at the end of a demo, terrifying players into thinking they didn’t buy a legit copy. These are all based on having a low sanity bar, one of the three ‘resource’ bars in the game, the others being health and magic.
Ranging from ancient Persia, to Cambodia, to France, to modern day Rhode Island of all places, the otherworldly horrors follow the player through the ages and across the seas as they explore the history of the Tome of Eternal Darkness. A particular highlight of the game is the great writing, inspired by Lovecraft himself and using perfect words for describing the unnatural monsters. From “effluvial grime”, to talk of rats eating eyes, to “pillars of flesh,” not to mention the gods themselves, such as Mantorok, being a giant mass of maws and eyes and flesh pinned to the floor beneath a Cambodian temple, wasting away in a dark cavern for hundreds of years, spending his time plotting and scheming and manipulating with complete disregard for human life in order to get a chance for revenge against the other gods. And that’s effectively your buddy, the game gets fairly hardcore.
Survival horror has been around for a lot of years, and there have been so many amazing games that have come out in the genre. Some with on-point humor, some with the most terrifying and visceral horrors ever imagined, but all of them focusing on creating the atmosphere that they want, and building their world around it. There are many more quality entries into the genre, but these are some of the gems that shine the brightest.