Introduction & Conclusion by Tina Olah
You've made it to the end of the dark, torch-lined hallway, ancient bone shards crackling underneath your boots. At the end of the hallway lies a door made of thick wood and covered with scratch marks. A narrow crack along the bottom reveals a soft glimmer beyond. You open it slowly, heart pounding and skin prickling. What could possibly lurk beyond? A long-lost spirit? A sleeping beast you dare not awaken? A powerful sorcerer in his study? No...something far more terrifying and far more wondrous: One (1) magically illuminated sheet of parchment listing a number of scary RPGs to add to your ever-growing backlog. Horrific modern-day quests, elegant gothic journeys, and charming seasonally appropriate fare: all titles which have left their clawmarks on the parchment's contributors. The list calls out to you from the darkness, tempting you with its many spine-tingling wonders. Read on, friends. Read on.
H.P. Lovecraft is a well known name throughout horror literature, and has had a large effect on the genre in just about every medium. No other game truly captures the essence of Lovecraftian horror like Bloodborne, one of FromSoftware's many fantastic titles.
Bloodborne places players in the shoes of a Hunter, traveling through the twisted and poisoned world of Yharnham. Hunters will have to fight their way through werewolves, demented beasts, and eventually go toe-to-toe with cosmic horrors, while the crushing atmosphere never lets up along the way. While it may lack jumpscares and other horror tropes found throughout survival horror games, Bloodborne does an amazing job at thrusting players into a hopeless world. Everything in Yharnham is trying to kill you, and friendly faces are few and far between. By the halfway mark, the world becomes even more distorted and haunted, making players wonder what exactly they're fighting against.
As a fan of the Dark Souls series, which is pretty frightening in its own right, I found that Bloodborne does a fantastic job at encapsulating the true essence of a horror game. Even when I was at my most confident, Bloodborne constantly kept me on my toes. And when I got too cocky, Bloodborne made sure to remind me of how weak I truly was, and, in the end, how hopeless my adventure would be.
A piece of my brain was left in Dracula's castle back in 1999, and I still haven't managed to recover it. For some reason, I still dream about this game on a regular basis, 20 years after I defeated the sinister vampire lord. I have many fond memories of getting lost in the dark, water-filled caverns, finding secret stashes of weapons and items behind walls, and battling a never-ending parade of skeletons. So many skeletons. White skeletons, red skeletons, one giant skull on top of another giant skull, breathing fire in my general direction...*ahem*...I think I've made my point.
Oh...and Alucard. *sigh*...one of my Extremely Important Video Game Crushes. Seeing him in the Netflix Castlevania anime was an absolute joy.
By this point in time I've caught up with many of the newer titles in the series; all excellent games, though none of them quite capture the gothic wonder and immense size of Symphony of the Night. This classic game presents such a wonderfully addictive sense of exploration that my dreams just want to keep reliving the experience over, and over, and over, to infinity. I don't believe I will ever truly leave the castle.
I deeply enjoy spending the entirety of October delving into all manner of horror-themed entertainment. Eventually, I tire of the darkness and need something a bit more lighthearted and cute to brighten up the season. Enter Costume Quest, a wonderful little all-ages title which is not scary in the least, though I don't exaggerate when I say that every last inch of this game is infused with Halloween magic. It's a delightfully spooky adventure reminiscent of Earthbound, featuring approximately 225% more candy and pumpkins.
I had a lot of fun with Costume Quest: earning EXP consists largely of knocking on people's doors and demanding candy, sometimes being greeted by friendly neighbors, other times by disgruntled goblins eager for battle. Various costumes provide you with a number of useful abilities both in and outside of battle. I dare say that this would be a neat feature to have in real life.
The game is very much on the short side (I finished it in under 10 hours), though the Christmas-themed expansion will provide you with a bit of additional fun and some colorful new scenery. If you don't have any big plans for Halloween, Costume Quest is sure to bring some cute and spooky excitement to your evening!
deSPIRIA is one of those obscure games that just feels...haunted. Something of a spiritual successor to developer Dennou-Eizou's survival horror cult hit Hellnight, Dreamcast/Japan-exclusive deSPIRIA melds adventure game with RPG in a nightmare future ravaged by World War III, where Japan is ruled by a shadowy organization simply called CHURCH. Protagonist Allure Valentine is an agent of CHURCH — a psychic assassin, to be precise — with instructions to locate a cure to a debilitating disease while killing off dissidents along the way. You'll shiver, you'll shake, you'll snort worms to power up your medulla oblongata before sending it outside of your skull to shatter your foes' minds. Horrible. A handful of deSPIRIA's team went on to contribute to Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne, and you can see many of that beloved game's ideas start to take shape here.
Stop me if you've heard this one before. A priest, a thief, and a spirit medium walk into a haunted monastery. If this all sounds familiar to you, then congratulations! You've experienced the dark and mysterious world of Koudelka and its vibrant trio of characters.
Released in 1999 for the PlayStation, Koudelka attempted to find the perfect mix between Survival Horror and RPG, and for the most part, it does a pretty good job. The monsters found throughout the monastery invoke a Lovecraftian-esque horror, and thanks to the games high rate of random encounters, you'll be seeing these horrors quite a bit! Combined with an oppressive atmosphere, Koudelka delivers a truly horrifying experience for its players.
I didn't have the chance to play Koudelka when it first released, since I was only seven years old, but even playing it today in 2018, the game still manages to pull off some spine-tingling moments. The two biggest things that stood out to me were the cutscenes and the music, or rather, the lack of music in the game. Koudelka has no music while exploring, saving these tracks exclusively for combat. While some might disagree, I find the lack of music helps to exemplify the atmosphere of the monastery. And the cutscenes, while a bit dated by today's standards, reminded me of the first time I watched my sister play through Resident Evil. It's a bit silly, but those old, janky 3D models still creep me out to this day.
While it's a bit difficult to find a copy currently, I suggest that any true horror aficionado should give this game a shot. It may not be the longest or best game on this list, but Koudelka still delivers a fun and creepy experience for horror and RPG fans alike!
This one even has "mask" in the title. It's a must play on any Halloween game list because so many frightful elements come together to pile on the feelings of dread and discomfort. Not only is there a large collection of masks, but the transformative properties associated with the main ones — mainly Deku, Goron, and Zora — are the stuff of spooky legends. The regularly occurring screams of pain that accompany these transformations and the ever-smiling mask salesman compound this impression. Masks also attack you in one of the most unsettling boss fight sequences in recent memory. Ugh.
The mask concept is also beautifully framed by the tale of Majora/Majora's Mask and the moon. The absolutely horrifying moon draws slowly closer to Link as the game counts down how many days remain, and well, that probably needs no introduction. The world is ending and there is no possible way to accomplish everything needed to save it in a three-day timeframe. No matter what, Link can't do everything, and failure is built in until time repeats and Link aids others little by little. Several of the sidequests also follow this spooky tone, from monstrous mysteries in a music box house, to (alien!) abductions at the ranch. What more could you ask for?
I borrowed this game from a friend on a whim, as it included a must-play demo of Xenogears. I knew beforehand that it was a sequel to Hideaki Sena's original Parasite Eve novel, and somewhat similar to the Resident Evil games; what I did not expect was how much I would fall in love with every aspect of it, particularly the unique blend of Survival Horror and RPG style gameplay.
Parasite Eve features a modern-day storyline combining elements of sci-fi and horror into a short but gripping tale. Each of the game's New York City locations is brimming with a sense of dread; I was very tempted to grab a support plushie when faced with Central Park's lovable and friendly giant worms. *shudders* The American Museum of Natural History and St. Francis Hospital are among other NYC landmarks being given a new and terrifying presentation.
A very unique title for its time; I haven't played anything quite like it since. I strongly believe that it would be a brilliant idea if more survival horror games included the RPG elements present in Parasite Eve, such as levelling up and learning new skills. Actually, nevermind. It would be a terrible idea, as this would cause most of my hard-earned money to promptly vanish. Alas!
Some events in Persona 2: Innocent Sin were so traumatic for the party that having them erased — at the cost of the party's memory of that time — is part of the central premise of the second game. I played some of the later Persona games first, and that lens makes this pair of games pretty disturbing. What could be so bad that a dedicated Persona group that has faced their Shadows (yes, that first shows up here) are willing to forget their bonds and each other? It's really eerie. Then imagine someone hunting you down because of the outcome of those events without you knowing why...until the past is revealed and you have to confront it all again because there was one person who couldn't forget.
Throw in a secret society aesthetic, a modern city setting, and the fact that any old rumor someone feels like spreading has the potential to BECOME REALITY, and you get the feel of these games. It's delightfully unsettling, especially because you can start to see glimmers of some of the lighter elements from later in the series start to form. There are no social links, but you can chat with your fellow party members in a variety of urban shops and restaurants. The Velvet Room has a group of musicians. You can communicate with demons rather than fighting, and you can do this with multiple party members; some of those scenes are downright funny (I appreciate the group's efforts to show the demons some Flamenco dance). It serves to accentuate the underlying horror while defusing it on the surface. It's the type of creepy story that you'll be thinking about long after Halloween.
HP Lovecraft famously wrote "The oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown," and while the author was undoubtedly referring to the deep-seated racism, classism, and xenophobia that permeates his bibliography, we can choose to reclaim and recontextualize this quote within the age old adage "less is more." The most effective horror tales are those that leave one or two things unexplained. Sometimes, this may not even be intentional, but remains no less disturbing.
Akitoshi Kawazu's SaGa games have always had an uncanny feel about them. His trademark inscrutability, coupled with the series' frequent unfinished nature, tend to result in unsolvable mysteries that gouge a permanent scar into the furthest reaches of the cortex. SaGa Frontier is the most notorious example, a title that saw a wealth of content cut, dummied out, or left incomplete — including two entire protagonists with individual story paths — right up to the late stages of its development.
The thing about SaGa Frontier is that much of it was already creepy to begin with. There's Asellus, the normal teenage girl who, after a sudden vehicular accident robs her of her life, finds herself reanimated to serve as the immortal concubine of a vampiric mystic lord. There's Blue and Rouge, twin brothers bred and groomed separately by the Magic Kingdom for the sole purpose of birthing forbidden spellcraft by killing each other.
But then there's the Bio Research Lab, nestled in the outskirts of the quiet suburban town of Shrike. Somber music accompanies this unique location, a gleaming technological facility filled with white lab coated scientists milling about. Interacting with these researchers reveals the Lab's true nature, as each rapturously monologue their devotion to their research, before transforming into a monster to attack. Something is very wrong here; something that never gets resolved, because whatever role the Bio Research Lab was meant to play had to be cut, leaving a strange building of mad scientists sans context. You can rescue a hedgehog (who's also a cop) from being tortured and he'll join your party, and you can challenge a gargantuan, earthquake-creating tortoise (the toughest optional boss in the game) but you never find out why. No characters ever comment on their trip through the Bio Research Lab, but you won't forget.
There's also Koorong. A mistranslation of Kowloon from its Japanese reading, SaGa Frontier includes a phantom of Hong Kong's long-demolished Walled City as a central hub, a hotbed of crime where decades of illegal architectural modifications blot out the sun at street level. Every protagonist will find themselves in Koorong at one point or another, but only the curious venture down its rain-slicked backstreets and into the practice of Dr Nusakan. The clinic is darker than the alleys and as quiet as the grave. A lone patient sits in the reception. A light tap on the shoulder, and his head falls off and rolls across the floor, the skull chattering and cackling at you before head and body both vanish into the ether. A grandfather clock strikes loudly, and a door to the surgery opens. Dr Nusakan is ready to operate, and your character flees in terror... Unless you've picked up a quest for Rune Magic, at which point the good doctor happily joins your party to assist in your hunt for the esoteric arts. However, his lips remain sealed, and exactly what Nusakan practiced in his back-alley clinic is never revealed.
SaGa Frontier may not be a horror game outright, but its obscurities continue to haunt me twenty years later. Whatever explanations may be behind its myriad mysteries, they likely wouldn't be nearly as chilling as the spiral of half-thoughts swirling through my mind.
It was dark and rainy outside when I started playing this game; the mood was perfect for the journey into a demon-infested 1930s Japan. I had not played too many Shin Megami Tensei games before this, the original Persona being the only one I had spent a significant amount of time with. With that in mind, I found Devil Summoner: RK vs TSA to be very welcoming towards newcomers. Battles are fast-paced and action-filled, save points are not placed 5 hours apart (as I frustratingly discovered during one dungeon in the original Persona), and the overall game is quite easy. Shin Megami Tensei "Light," in many ways.
The title follows Kuzunoha Raidou, a member of the Narumi Detective Agency (which deals with some very strange and often supernatural cases). My progress was quite slow at the start; the plot does not really pick up until about halfway through, and the amount of random battles in this game can become absolutely ridiculous. Due to this, I ended up taking a long break about 1/3 of the way through, and did not pick it up again for another few months. Returning to the game was definitely worth it; collecting and combining demons soon became an addictive routine.
Devil Summoner: RK vs TSA is filled with plenty of strangeness, a moody atmosphere, and lovely Japanese scenery. I don't think there are too many other titles (particularly outside of the Shin Megami Tensei franchise) where you can find a combination of talking cats, early 20th century slang, a guest appearance by Rasputin, and naked battles with Yakuza members. Wait, WHAT?!
When most people think of the origins of horror video games, the usual answers are Resident Evil and Silent Hill for the PlayStation 1. But would you believe that the genre actually got its start back on the original Famicom?
Sweet Home, released for the Famicom in 1989, was a survival horror RPG developed by Capcom that practically shaped modern horror games. A five-person team of filmmakers enter a derelict mansion to uncover the hidden secrets of the home's former owner, and things go pretty south from there. Featuring combat similar to the Dragon Quest series, players will have to use their wits and skills if they wish to live till morning.
The game is brutal, to say the least. Permadeath is a serious threat throughout the game, and if one party member is killed, players will lose out on both a playable character and their exclusive item, which is used to solve puzzles found in the mansion. While some of the monsters may seem corny compared to the horrors we see today, they still pose a legitimate threat to unsuspecting players, and the gory spectacles found throughout the mansion still gave me the creeps. Unfortunately, we never got the chance to experience Sweet Home over in the West, and after playing through the game myself, I can understand why. Its mechanics may be dated by today's standards, but every horror fan should play this game, if given the chance. Also, the sight of those haunted dolls will probably give me a few nightmares for the coming months.
If I were to name five RPG series due for a new mainline installment, Shadow Hearts would definitely be up there. I would say that no other traditional RPG has done gothic horror quite as well as the first two games in this dark and wonderful series. Taking place in the same universe as Koudelka, both titles involve lengthy, epic quests throughout early 20th Century Europe and Asia and feature guest appearances by a number of historical figures (including the ever-popular Rasputin — he seems to enjoy showing up in creepy video games).
I have yet to play the third title in the series, From the New World; this is largely because it drops much of the series' horror themes in favor of quirky humor. Gone are the gloriously eerie locales of the first two games in favor of a more lighthearted ambience. This fills me with great sadness! The other reason I haven't played the third title is entirely the fault of having a Giant Pile of Unplayed Games to go through.
Shadow Hearts and Shadow Hearts: Covenant feature very similar gameplay; the battle system and random encounters feel a little archaic by today's standards, though the strange and terrifying creature designs are something to behold. More importantly, the storyline, ambience, and environments are unlike anything I have seen in traditional JRPGs since. While a fourth installment may be outside the realm of possibility, seeing as how the original developer has shut down, I still hold on to the hope that more JRPGs with similar themes, settings and gameplay will come along one day.
There's a lot of wonderful things about Sunless Sea, the captaining cartography roguelite set in Fallen London's eldritch Unterzee, but my favorite thing about it is how each of its ports serve as vehicles for short horror stories by a selection of talented writers. One of the earlier quests you'll pick up is to ferry a pilgrim to the Tomb Colonies, a town where the dead go to...retire. The Tomb Colonists don't die, you see, opting (?) instead to putter and sputter around, taking in the sights and dining in fine restaurants as their skin rots and falls off.
You can sail away from this bustling un-burial mound in a hurry, but you're never far from fear. The isle of Nuncio is where all undeliverable mail mysteriously washes up, yet the friendly postal staff of its Dead Letter Office give the impression that the island is simply a benign curiosity. At least, it seems that way unless you allow that curiosity to lead you into the basement, black as pitch and spiralling ever downwards, to discover who, or what, is pulling mail to the island.
Maybe the horrors beneath the Dead Letter Office are too much for you to bear, and you're looking for another way to make your fortune. How about using your ship to do some shipping? A number of boxes need to be delivered to Station III. Long boxes. Long boxes that resemble...coffins. Ah. Sunless Sea is a nonstop voyage of deathly delights, and we'd expect no less from a title that boasts the tagline "Lose Your Mind, Eat Your Crew." Go on, live a little! The Tomb Colonists certainly do.
As you read the final words, the parchment slowly crumbles into dust, the letters carving themselves into your brain (though not literally, that would be gross). Perhaps you have experienced some of these dark journeys already, or perhaps much of the list is new to you. In either case, your next mission awaits. Will you become one of the few brave souls to have experienced them all? Go forth, dear friends, and don't forget to pack some handy snacks. Perhaps a loaf of garlic bread with cheese; very useful when dealing with vampires. Safe journeys!