5. Condemned : Criminal Origins (Monolith, 2005)
Released as a launch game for the Xbox 360, Condemned sort of got lost behind behind Perfect Dark Zero and Call of Duty 2, but those who picked this up found a fun and engaging horror game. While the game takes place in first person, it has very little shooting in it, with most of combat being melee focused. You play as Detective Ethan Thomas on his hunt for the elusive “Serial Killer X”. Along the way, you run into plenty of resistance in the form of vagrants who have all been infected with a mysterious affliction that causes them to become uncontrollably violent. Ethan being a detective, at many points in the game you must solve puzzles using a variety of forensic tools. Like many great horror games, it’s not necessarily outright scares, but a well realized atmosphere that Condemned does right. The interesting story combined with the atmosphere and visceral melee combat are why this game is so great.
4. F.E.A.R.: First Encounter Assault Recon (Monolith, 2005)
The other half of Monolith’s outstanding 2005 horror offering, F.E.A.R. is a first person shooter set during an attack by a psychic powered terrorist controlling a clone army. You play as the unnamed “point man” of First Encounter Assault Recon. While probably the most action focused of all the games on this list, F.E.A.R. certainly has its fair share of scares and atmospheric moments. The game basically has two types of levels. You’ve got your standard action stages, where you’ll utilize the games tight combat to shoot enemies and use your slow motion abilities. When you’re not in combat scenarios, you’re in one of the more atmospheric levels. In these stages, there is little or no combat, and you’ll be making your way through abandoned offices and warehouses. It is here that the game really ramps up the atmosphere and creepiness, especially when you encounter Alma, the ghostly little girl who shows up to scare the crap out of you, and then disappears. F.E.A.R. is a great blend of excellent action and well realized horror elements, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.
3. Resident Evil 4 (Capcom, 2005)
In my mind, there are three different types of Resident Evil fans, and two of those types will be pleased with Resident Evil 4′s inclusion on this list. There’s the first type, people who cherish the classic style Resident Evil games (you know, the ones with tank controls and fixed camera angles on static backgrounds) and hate Resident Evil 4 and all the ones that came after it. These people claim that the improved controls and better action of Resident 4 hurt the the horror and is therefore a worse game. In my opinion, these people are crazy. Bad controls should not be a core design philosophy for any game, and if you think that’s the only was to achieve real survival horror, you’re mistaken. The second type of Resident Evil fans are the ones that love RE4 and the games after it, but hate anything before it. The final type of fan are simply people who like the story, atmosphere, lore, and characters of Resident Evil, and appreciate the improvements made in Resident Evil 4. If for some reason you don’t know what these improvements are, I am referring to the third person shooting and free movement, which was light years better than the slow moving, poorly controlling RE games on the PS1. I will admit that RE4 doesn’t quite have the level of pure horror, but that isn’t because the game now actually controls good, it was a choice made in favor atmosphere and presentation.
2. Amnesia: The Dark Descent (Frictional Games, 2010)
Amnesia: The Dark Descent is the very definition of survival horror, with an emphasis on survival. So many games that bill themselves as survival horror games are not truly about surviving, but about defeating enemies. More often than not, combat is the bane of the horror genre. You’ve got games like the classic Resident Evil games with awkward, slow moving, poorly controlling combat that is simply not fun to play. While the combat may not be good, there is an argument to be made that it adds to the tension (though I still stand by my stance that bad combat is never a good design decision). Then you’ve got other games like F.E.A.R. that have outstanding combat, but you never really feel vulnerable; it’s not about surviving but about killing. Frictional Games, the developers of Amnesia: The Dark Descent basically decided that if combat is always problematic for a true survival horror experience, then their game simply wouldn’t have any. Amnesia is all about survival. You must make your way through a castle and simply survive. Since there is no combat, stealth is key to avoid being killed. In addition to the stealth gameplay, there are puzzles as well. The game utilizes an impressive lighting system, which ties into the main character’s mental health, which degrades if you spend too much in the dark. If you are looking for a pure survival horror experience, look no further than Amnesia: The Dark Descent.
1. Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem (Silicon Knights, 2002)
Believe it or not, before they can became the butt of jokes involving the poorly received Too Human and X-Men Destiny, Denis Dyack’s NeoGAF antics, and the lawsuit with Epic Games, Silcon Knights was an awesome developer responsible for great games such as Blood Omen: Legacy of Kain and the number 1 spot on this list; Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem. I’ve talked about Eternal Darkness before, but it’s worth reiterating how good this game is. At a time when most horror games had static backgrounds and tank controls, Eternal Darkness was a revelation. While this game did share some things in common with those types of game, you had full range of motion in Eternal Darkness. In addition, combat was aided by being able to lock onto enemies with both melee weapons and firearms. You could even target enemies’ specific body parts, adding a layer of strategy to the combat. In addition to melee weapons and firearms, you also had access to magic spells. While the improvements to combat and control instantly put Eternal Darkness ahead of its peers, it was the story and psychological elements that truly made the game a classic. The game’s story centers around a book, the Tome of Eternal Darkness, and you follow several thousand years of its history, playing as different characters along the way as the main character reads the book in the present day. Each character has their own story, but all are equally susceptible to losing their minds once they start witnessing the supernatural elements that always seem to be present around the tome. Characters will start to hallucinate things in the game world, but where this mechanic really shines is when it gets you, the player, to question what is real and what isn’t. When the game makes you think you accidentally changed the channel and you go to grab for the remote, it’s got you. When it brings up the title screen, and for the briefest moment you fret about losing progress before you realize what’s happening, it’s got you. There are so many of these types of moments, but they’re done so well that you actually question your own reality, even if only briefly. The sanity effects are the best example in the history of gaming of a game using the strengths inherent to the medium to create an unmatched psychological horror experience, which is the reason Eternal Darkness gets number 1.