Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Beginner's Guide to Horror Games

Horror in video games has roots tracing far back into the 1980's when people were playing Chiller in the arcades or running from Leatherface in that Texas Chainsaw Massacre game for Atari. It's a wonderful genre that adds an extra layer of tension, and when done right can be as scary as any horror movie because of the extra immersion. Whether you're just curious about horror games and don't know where to start, or you played Resident Evil 2 back in high school and you want to see what's available now, hopefully this guide will be a helpful resource to get you back into the world of terror!

For the sake of clarity this guide will split horror gaming into two distinct types: "action horror" and "survival horror". I like to think of this as the difference between Alien and Aliens. In Alien, nobody had any real means of defending themselves other than hiding and their wits. Aliens had terrifying monsters, but there were also a bunch of highly trained commandos running around with massive guns. Also, this guide is by no means meant to be an exhaustive historical list of horror gaming. It's a guide to help highlight some key games in the genre for new or recently returning players. That said, lets dive in!

Action Horror

Action horror titles have been around since nearly the dawn of gaming and are a natural extension of the western horror movie. Heroes fighting monsters is a staple of game design, and action horror took things to an extreme with scarier creatures and more gore. So where should you start blasting hellish beasts?

Splatterhouse: A genre classic. The Splatterhouse series is iconic among action horror titles. Rick donning the terror mask to save Jen created one of the goriest titles of its time, and was the type of thing that fueled parental groups to get ratings on games. Splatterhouse and its sequels are simple, side-scrolling button mashers with plenty of over-the-top, gooey, monster murdering action. Light on story, heavy on guts, the best way for you to grab these is the 2010 Splatterhouse reboot on Xbox 360 or PS3. It contains every title in the series, most importantly the uncensored original arcade version.

Left4Dead: Along with its sequel Left4Dead2, there really is no better zombie shooter than L4D. It has memorable characters, terrifying "fast zombies", and some of the best cooperative gameplay of any horror title in decades. On top of that, if you buy the PC version you get access to community mods and great multiplayer where you get to play as the monsters versus survivors! This one is a no-brainer, and its easy to find. You can get it for a song on Xbox 360 or PC (PC version is absolutely recommended if at all possible).

DOOM 3: When ID Software released the 3rd entry in the DOOM series, it took on a much darker and more horrific tone. A real narrative, jump scares, and more pentagrams than a Slayer concert make this a terrifically frightening shooter. Another one that is relatively easy to find, DOOM 3:BFG EDITION should be your goal, featuring updated graphics, and pretty much every game in the franchise along with it.

Dead Island: This is our first foray dipping our toes into the "survival horror" pool as we cross over from "action horror". Dead Island is a bit of an odd duck. It's a rough-around-the-edges, self contained, zombie MMO. There's plenty of action and character development, along with the hallmark item collection and combing in classic survival horror games. Along the same lines as Left4Dead there is also plenty of undead smashing co-op action here. Dead Island makes up for a lack of polish with its pure ghoul killing fun factor. This game and its sequel (a glorified expansion pack) Dead Island: Riptide are easy to find on any modern platform for next to nothing. Grab the "Game of The Year" editions if possible for the most content per dollar.

How To Survive: Continuing our undead island tour, our next stop is How to Survive. This indie horror gem is basically a glorified twin stick shooter combined with survival horror elements. It's got a great tongue-in-cheek style of humor, along with some interesting mechanics like needing to create fires at night to ward off the nocturnal ghouls stalking you on the archipelago. This one has a higher difficulty curve, so I'd say you should hold off on it until you've tackled a few of the games earlier on the list. A fairly recent release; it's easily downloadable on current consoles or Steam.

Dead Space: Simply put, one of THE BEST modern horror games available. The original Dead Space is a terrifying journey into macabre science fiction. A wonderful blend of survival and action horror, you'll control engineer Isaac Clarke as he explores a deep space mining rig infested by an evil alien presence. Bring an extra pair of underwear, because even with the guns you find, there are an amazing amount of shocking and horrific scenes in this game. It makes DOOM 3 look like an episode of Sesame Street. You can play the sequels if you'd like, but they're less "amazing horror experience akin to Event Horizon and Alien" and more "uninspired generic shooter that ruined a potentially great horror franchise". I'm not bitter. You can pick up Dead Space for next to nothing on modern consoles, Steam, or Origin.

Survival Horror

Ah yes, survival horror. Considered by many to be the purest horror gaming sub genre, it revolves around the protagonist having limited resources and relying more on wits and evading death than confronting challenges directly. You'll do a lot of running and hiding, which isn't always easy if "tank controls" are involved. This will get you started on the path to becoming a master of unlocking.

Lone Survivor: Jasper Byrne's indie horror hit Lone Survivor is a great place to begin with survival horror if you've never touched the genre. It's got all the elements of the classics; limited resources, item combining, and evasion tactics. Plus, it's a deceptively simple game. It is easy to pick up and only takes a few hours to complete, but has a lot of esoteric secrets and multiple endings for replay value. Grab this on PS3 or on PC via Steam to get started.

Slender: Slender Man is sort of like the Candy Man of the internet. He's an urban legend that eventually got his own video game. Slender is another great indie survival horror title. The premise is simple. Go collect eight pages from a journal in a rather creepy locale. The more pages you pick up, the closer Slender Man gets. Make sure you sit in an extra cushioned chair while playing, because you're going to be jumping out of your seat quite a bit. Grab it for free on your PC, and if you're ok with modding games there are plenty of community additions to this title to extend its playability.

Silent Hill: A franchise that helped define a genre. Konami's answer to Resident Evil is considered by many to be a a better set of survival horror games than the series that created the archetype. Start with the original, then move on to Silent Hill 2 which is often cited as the pinnacle of the genre. It's really tough to recommend Silent Hill HD Collection even though it's an easy way to grab these on PS3, since it really messed up a lot of what made the initial versions excellent, and doesn't even include the original game! Downloading them via PSN is probably your best bet. Either way, get ready to shit a brick the first time you run into Pyramid Head.

Amnesia - The Dark Descent: Now we're getting into the hardcore survival games. Amnesia - The Dark Descent will thrust you into a gothic nightmare where running and staying in the light will be your only defenses against the horrors you'll face. As a bonus, you also get to contend with your own deteriorating sanity. FUN! This is a PC only title, so grab it on Steam whenever it goes on sale. It tells a great story and you won't be disappointed.

Fatal Frame: Have you noticed the running theme of "creepy white fonts on a black background" yet? That was all the rage in horror game logos back in the day. Fatal Frame was Tecmo's horse in the survival horror race. It spawned massive numbers of sequels and offshoots that unfortunately never released outside of Japan. You'll take on gh-gh-gh-GHOSTS with nothing but your trusty Camera Obscura, and a willingness to run for your life. Jerks on the internet like to price gouge for Fatal Frame. It's tough to find on the Wii, although that is a really fun way to play it using motion controls. Your best bet is probably the PSN download on PS3 which I believe is under $5. That will let you help Miku find her missing brother without putting too much of a dent in your wallet.

Outlast: Skipping ahead to 2013 and modern "black on white" logos, we have Outlast. This game is absolutely horrifying. You can read my review here, and if you're still interested you can venture forth and help Miles uncover the sinister secrets of the Mount Massive Asylum. This is a game you need to play in the dark with headphones on for full effect. Make sure you've gone to the bathroom in advance of beginning it, to avoid any accidents. Probably the most frightening game I've played in the past 5 years, and one you won't soon forget. Along with Amnesia this title proves survival horror games can still scare you as much as any great horror film.

Resident Evil: Our last stop is Capcom's 800 pound gorilla. Even if you've never played a survival horror game you've probably at least heard of RE simply because the franchise is ubiquitous. Games, movies, action figures, tee shirts at Hot Topic, Resident Evil has pretty much done it all. There is a lot of lore, and far too many sequels and offshoots to list here. You can check out our Resident Evil retrospective for an in-depth analysis, but as a start into the series I'm going to say you should grab Resident Evil Archives: Resident Evil (way to avoid redundancy Capcom) on the Nintendo Wii. It's a port of the beloved Gamecube reissue and a fantastic update of the original story. Once you've spent time with that there are myriad options on pretty much every console available to continue your battle against the evil Umbrella Corporation.

This concludes our "Beginner's Guide to Horror Games". Again, this is by no means a complete catalog, and we'll periodically update it as new and great horror games arrive. Feel free to add your thoughts and suggestions into the comments below if you think we missed any "must play" horror titles that people need to try!

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