Survival horror is an extremely popular subgenre of horror games that originally started drawing attention in the 90s and has become incredibly popular over the past decade.
First used to describe the original Resident Evil from 1996, two key elements define a survival horror experience:
- A reduced emphasis on combat or a complete lack thereof
- Some degree of inventory/resource management
As you might expect, many games have implemented some survival horror elements to adjust and improve their overall gameplay formula, but in this article, we’ll be focusing specifically on games that place survival horror first.
So, without further ado, let’s dive right in!
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Release date: March 22, 1996
Well, you could see this one coming from a mile away. After all, this was the first game to be explicitly described as “survival horror,” though there were other games before it that featured survival horror elements.
Pretty much everyone knows about Resident Evil these days, primarily because it has spawned an immensely popular franchise, and most of the sequels overshadowed the original in one way or another. After all, Resident Evil was an experimental title, so it was easy for developers to improve upon it in the later installments, and the original is undeniably clunky by today’s standards.
For some, Resident Evil will feel completely archaic, but while that may be seen as a bad thing by some, others would undoubtedly feel that it provides the game with some unique charm.
This game set the groundwork for all other Resident Evil games that would follow and would inspire many other horror games over the years. It had inventory management at its core, with limited space and limited ammo, all the while featuring tough enemies that could make short work of you if you’re not careful. Moreover, it also had a lot of puzzles, an aspect of the earlier games that would slowly be phased out over the years in favor of a more fast-paced, action-oriented approach.
If you’ve never had the chance to play this classic and you’re a survival horror fan, then it’s high time you gave it a go. If you want to play it in 2020, we suggest the 2002 GameCube remake, as it features updated graphics and gets rid of tanky controls, plus it’s available on Steam and on the current generation of consoles.
Resident Evil 2 (2019)
Release date: January 25, 2019
The 2019 remake of Resident Evil 2 is arguably one of the best remakes ever made, as it was a remake done right. Capcom didn’t only update the graphics, redo the voiceovers, slap a $40 price tag on the game, and call it a day. Instead, Resident Evil 2 was built from scratch and managed to do an excellent job at introducing new mechanics while also keeping many of the old-school elements that made the original so good.
First and foremost, it ditches the fixed camera view in favor of a modern over-the-shoulder view that was popularized by Resident Evil 4. The shooting feels very satisfying, with chunks of flesh flying off of zombies with each shot. However, the player must be very conservative with how they use their ammunition, as there is a limited supply of ammo and gunpower do go around.
That said, the player needs to do their best to be efficient as they navigate the environment, avoiding combat, if possible, all the while solving puzzles and crafting the types of ammo and medicine that they need.
All in all, the game found a great balance between action and survival horror components, and as mentioned in the introduction, it is easily one of the best remakes and one of the best survival horror games ever made.
Of course, the Resident Evil series encompasses many more titles than just these two, but not all of them are as focused and as well-executed. For this list, we decided to present only these two games, but you can see the list of all the Resident Evil games ever made here.
Release date: February 23, 1999
Developer: Team Silent
We can’t talk about 90s horror games without bringing up Silent Hill, another PSOne classic that occupies a spot in the horror hall of fame.
Unlike Resident Evil, Silent Hill focused more on psychological horror rather than on zombies and mutants that the Resident Evil franchise is known for. It features a character-driven story with characters that are more fleshed-out and relatable, with a protagonist who is just an “Average Joe” with no real combat training.
At the end of the day, Silent Hill is best known for its unique enemy design and superb atmosphere. Silent Hill’s signature fog limited what the player could see, thus greatly enhancing the sense of dread that came with exploring the environment. Funny enough, the fog was initially added due to the limited processing power of the original PlayStation’s hardware. While Resident Evil had pre-rendered backgrounds, those of Silent Hill were rendered in real-time, which put increased strain on the hardware.
Finally, much like Resident Evil, Silent Hill has spawned a franchise that would come to include eight main games and several spin-off titles, though most agree that the first three games are the best of the bunch, as the series slowly declined over the years.
Things started looking good for the franchise in 2014 after Silent Hills was announced, and Hideo Kojima was about to breathe some new life into the franchise after the impressive teaser that was P.T., but we all know how that turned out.
Release date: October 13, 2008
Developer: Visceral Games
When it first came out, Dead Space was quite something, and it immediately stood out due to two things: tons of graphic gore and some of the most grotesque enemy designs ever seen by 2008.
It should be obvious that the game draws a lot of inspiration from Resident Evil, as it features a similar control scheme and overall gameplay dynamic. The player acquires several weapons throughout the game, most of which are repurposed industrial tools, and there’s just something very brutal about the fact that you’re dismembering enemies using tools that are designed to cut and break rock.
Speaking of dismemberment, that’s another thing that contributes Dead Space standing out. Where other games would have you commonly aim for the head, in Dead Space, the key is to cut off the enemies’ limbs. Simply relieving an undead Necromorph of its head at times has no effect, and at other times it can make the enemy even more dangerous.
All in all, Dead Space is easily one of the best survival horror games ever generated, as it successfully implements all the vital elements of survival horror while also throwing body horror and cosmic horror into the mix. That said, it is a definite must-play for all horror fans.
Dead Space has received two sequels, Dead Space 2 and Dead Space 3, though we feel that only the first and the second game are worth playing. Dead Space 2 shifts the focus from horror to action but does so without taking away that visceral feel which made the original stand out. Dead Space 3, on the other hand, feels more like a generic TPS with a Dead Space skin slapped on, and most fans agree that it’s pretty much not worth wasting time on unless you want to see how the “trilogy” concludes.
The Evil Within
Release date: October 14, 2014
Developer: Tango Gameworks
Speaking of games inspired by Resident Evil, there’s also The Evil Within, a game created by none other than Resident Evil’s creator, Shinji Mikami.
The Resident Evil similarities are apparent from the get-go, but The Evil Within prioritizes survival horror over action, the opposite of what the later Resident Evil games had done. There are many confined spaces, the enemies are incredibly resilient, and the player is more vulnerable than ever, so running and hiding is the preferable way to escape dangerous situations.
Moreover, it’s worth noting that The Evil Within has some very Silent Hill-esque enemy design and features creatures far more disturbing than Resident Evil ever did. However, it can also be quite over-the-top in many situations throughout the game, so much it gets borderline comical rather than scary.
At the end of the day, the game was met with some mixed reception, but we feel that it is one of those games that you definitely should try for yourself, especially if you’re a fan of Resident Evil. The 2017 sequel, The Evil Within 2, was met with similar criticism as its predecessor, but if you liked the original, you’re bound to appreciate the sequel, too.
Amnesia: The Dark Descent
Release date: September 8, 2010
Developer: Frictional Games
It’s impossible to talk about horror games without mentioning one of the most influential horror titles of the previous decade – Amnesia: The Dark Descent.
When it first came out, Amnesia received a lot of attention for two main reasons. First, it had some of the most original and effective game design that the horror genre had ever seen, and second, it completely excluded any form of combat.
While not everybody took well to the lack of weapons, there’s no denying that leaving the player entirely defenseless greatly amplified the horror experience. Frankly, if the player could take enemies head-on, Amnesia probably wouldn’t have been even half as scary as it was.
The game focuses on exploration, story, and some basic puzzles, all the while the only resource that the player needs to think about is light. Light is crucial to keeping the sanity bar full, and the two main sources of light are the lantern and various environmental lights. These can be lit by lamp oil and tinderboxes, respectively, both of which are found scattered throughout the levels.
Taking everything into consideration, while it may seem a bit technologically unimpressive by today’s standards, Amnesia is a classic that everyone should play. Its survival elements are simple but effective, and its story is one of the best-executed Lovecraftian tales that you’ll see in a video game.
Amnesia had received a sequel titled Amnesia: A Machine For Pigs, and while it is not a bad game per se, it completely scraps the survival elements of the first game in favor of a more narrative-focused “walking sim” approach. No wonder, since it was developed by The Chinese Room, a studio known for making games of this kind, including Dear Esther and Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture.
However, Amnesia: The Dark Descent will be getting a proper sequel in late 2020 in the form of Amnesia: Rebirth, a recently-announced sequel developed by Frictional themselves. We don’t know much about the game at this time, but we’re very anxious to see if Frictional can top the original with this game.
Penumbra: Black Plague
Release date: February 12, 2008
Developer: Frictional Games
Another important game from Frictional that didn’t receive quite as much attention and exposure as Amnesia is Penumbra: Black Plague. It is with Penumbra that the studio started revolutionizing the horror genre years before Amnesia would see the light of day.
While this franchise started with Penumbra: Overture in 2007, most people agree that Black Plague is the better game of the two, for several reasons. Mainly, Black Plague features more diverse environments and is generally more immersive. In contrast, Overture mostly took place in caves and featured enemies that were quite underwhelming and felt more like a nuisance than an actual threat.
In short, Black Plague plays a lot like Amnesia, focusing primarily on exploration, puzzles, and story, with light being the main resource to manage, albeit there is no sanity meter to worry about here because that feature was only added later in Amnesia.
Ultimately, while it may not look as good nor is it as refined as Amnesia: The Dark Descent, this is yet another game that horror fans should give a go. On a final note, Black Plague also received a standalone expansion titled Penumbra: Requiem, but it is a puzzle game rather than a horror survival game, and it provides a conclusion to the story of the previous two games.
Release date: September 22, 2015
Developer: Frictional Games
Next, we have yet another Frictional Games title, the 2015 release known as SOMA. And while it might not be a pure-blooded survival horror experience since it is a more narrative-focused title, we felt like it deserved to be included regardless.
That said, there is no inventory system and no resources to manage, and the enemy encounters that function pretty much like in Amnesia, and Penumbra is the only thing that keeps SOMA from playing like your regular walking sim.
However, with its oppressive underwater atmosphere, memorable environment design, and well-executed plot, SOMA explores some interesting themes and poses questions that are bound to stick with you long after the credits roll.
Ultimately, while hiding and running away from monsters are the only survival elements in the game, we still feel that it deserves a spot on this list as it is one of the few games that manage to use story themes to amplify dread in such an effective manner.
Release date: September 4, 2013
Developer: Red Barrels
Outlast is another one of those classic titles from the early 2010s that was huge when it first came out. While it evidently drew a ton of inspiration from Amnesia, Outlast was a more graphically-advanced game that focused more on chases, stealth, and jumpscares rather than on the story and atmosphere.
Much like Amnesia, the player is defenseless and must explore the environment to find a way to progress. There are no real puzzles, and there is no inventory management, and the only resource to manage is, once again, light. The low-light night vision mode on the protagonist’s camcorder, which uses up batteries when turned on, is the player’s only means of seeing in the dark, and it has become something of a signature for the Outlast series.
At the end of the day, Outlast isn’t precisely a deep game, and it doesn’t have a ton of replay value. Still, much like Amnesia or Penumbra, it is one of those classics that every horror fan should play, as it has some extremely tense and disturbing moments – especially the Whistleblower DLC, which outdoes the base game in several ways.
Outlast also received a sequel in 2017 titled simply Outlast 2, which was met with some mixed reviews and overall wasn’t quite as captivating as the original game, but we feel that it’s worth playing nonetheless. What’s more, an Outlast 3 was also announced, although not much is known about it yet.
Release date: October 7, 2014
Developer: Creative Assembly
A game that pleasantly surprised everyone in 2014 was Alien: Isolation, a game that pretty much ignored all the different Alien media that came out over the years, focusing specifically on capturing the look and feel of the original 1979 film, something that it managed to do marvelously well.
The environments of Alien: Isolation are modeled after a retro-futuristic vision of the far future seen in the first film, something that immediately gives it a very unique and striking visual style. However, what really makes this game stand out is its superb enemy AI.
By “enemy AI,” we are referring specifically to the AI of the alien that stalks the player through most of the campaign. Though the player has several items and weapons that can kill or disable human and android enemies, these just don’t work on the invincible death machine that is the xenomorph.
The monster’s behavior is often unpredictable and very rarely scripted. It will explore the level by navigating the ventilation system and will react to changes in the environment as well as the noise generated by the player. The alien can only be distracted or temporarily scared off, but this can agitate it and make it more aggressive in its pursuit, so engaging it should be a last resort.
So, in between the stealth, the exploration, the superb alien AI, and the scavenging for items and crafting components, you can see why this is easily one of the best horror games ever made. The alien’s unpredictable behavior ensures that you’ll be on your toes even if you’ve played through the game multiple times before, as you can never be sure what it will do and where it will pop up.
Unfortunately, while a sequel was originally planned, it seems that it will remain only a pipe dream, as Sega didn’t want to fund the development of a full-fledged sequel due to the original’s poor sales.
Release date: August 18, 2017
Developer: Acid Wizard Studio
Darkwood is a fairly recent indie game that definitely deserves a spot on this list. It is played from a top-down perspective, but this doesn’t take away from the atmosphere and the tension in the slightest. With its unique art style and haunting soundtrack, Darkwood is one of those games that will immediately pull you in with its top-notch atmosphere.
The gameplay is centered around exploration and simple but well-executed melee and ranged combat. During the day, the player can explore environments that are partially procedurally-generated, searching for fuel, weapons, crafting components, and other useful items. Then, and at night, they must huddle close to the light in their hideout and do their best to survive attacks from things lurking in the dark.
Apart from that, the story is highly evocative and includes a cast of characters straight out of a dark fairy tale, balancing old folktale elements with some overbearing Lovecraftian motifs. All in all, it is a game that many might have overlooked, but one that, in our opinion, could be ranked high with the greats.
Release date: April 28, 2017
Developer: Tarsier Studios
Another game that might be weird to see on this list is Little Nightmares, a puzzle platformer with dark fairytale-like overtones.
There is no inventory system this time around, and the primary focus of the game is, as you might have guessed, exploration, platforming, and puzzle-solving. However, it wouldn’t be a horror game without monsters, and Little Nightmares features several monstrous caricatures that you won’t easily forget about.
Not only that, but Little Nightmares is also great at telling a story through environmental storytelling and subtle hints and clues. It is very open to interpretation, which makes it quite captivating. So, while it might not be your typical horror game, you can rest assured that Little Nightmares will keep you on edge as much as any horror game with a more conventional design.
And that would be our selection of the very best survival horror games released so far. Obviously, there are many other titles out there, so if you feel that we have missed some games that deserve a spot on the list, let us know in the comments and we’ll see about adding them in the future!