2015 turned out to be an excellent year for horror games, and the credit can be spread around pretty evenly. Unlike 2014, which boasted some well-hyped but ultimately disappointing games — I’m looking at you, Alien: Isolation and The Evil Within — 2015 has been a year of both consistently entertaining AAA titles and surprising, out-of-nowhere indie games that delivered scares.
We all know Dying Light and Bloodborne are fantastic games, and I’m not going to replicate Adam’s list merely for the sake of affirmation. Clearly, they’re amazing, and I played all of them. With my list, I wanted to highlight some games that may not get the kind of press they might otherwise deserve. I could go on ad infinitum about the number of small and mid-tier horror games released this year. And though games like NOCT and Dead Calm didn’t make the list, they’re still experiences people should check out.
5. Five Nights at Freddy’s 3 & 4
I’m going to cheat a little with the first selection on my list. Since both Five Nights at Freddy’s 3 and Five Nights at Freddy’s 4 technically came out this year, I’m okay with tossing them into a single slot on the list.
I get it: the Five Nights at Freddy’s games are little more than set pieces for jump scares, but I have found myself drawn in, time and time again, by the atmosphere present in them. They are not astonishing technical achievements, nor do they provide a compelling through-narrative, but they’re still fun to torment oneself with for hours on end.
While they all pack the same, basic kind of punch, both FNAF3 and FNAF4 tweaked the formula to include new, slightly unnerving mechanics. If nothing else, creator Scott Cawthon understands the beauty of the sleight of hand that makes for a good scare. The first few times, you don’t quite see the scares coming. By the time you’ve mastered the mechanics, you know they’re coming, which freaks you out even more.
Here’s looking forward to the party-based Freddy’s RPG being released tentatively in 2016.
4. Resident Evil: Revelations 2
For my money, Resident Evil: Revelations 2 is one of the best action horror games I’ve played in a long time. It’s a more refined, focused, and straightforward alternative to last year’s Evil Within, and I couldn’t quite get enough of it.
I’m also a bigger fan of RE6 than most people, and the cooperative experience in RE:R2 is a way better version of what was seen in RE6. However, RE:R2, unlike RE6 forgoes big action set pieces in favor of exploration, minor puzzles, and small-scale horror. There’s still plenty of combat, but they’ve managed to strike a nice balance. Also, the QTEs have largely been replaced.
All comparisons to RE6 aside, Resident Evil: Revelations 2 is a solid combination of action and horror. You’ll probably never be quite as ammo-strapped as you would in an earlier iteration of the series, but there are enough mechanically interesting things to play around with that you might not notice until you’re way into the game. The balance each pair of characters strikes delays the sense of ennui that normally accompanies the prolonged trudge that ancillary RE games tend to feature.
The episodic nature of the game is much less impactful than the entirety of the whole experience when put together. The Resident Evil franchise has been on a weird slide for years, incapable of finding a viable identity, but Resident Evil: Revelations 2 represents what can only be an act of good faith for consumers.
3. Doorways: Holy Mountains of Flesh
The Doorways series has more or less evolved before my eyes over the past two years, going from a clunky walking simulator to a bizarre, atmospheric, puzzle-driven experience that could have been written by a young Clive Barker. Argentine development team Saibot Studios has improved with each successive iteration of their series, from the underwhelming Doorways: Prelude — which played like an Amnesia also-ran — to the significantly better Doorways: Underworld.
Doorways: Holy Mountains of Flesh is the latest installment, and it boasts a design aesthetic and puzzle system that is leaps and bounds ahead of where the series started. It could be a hellish distant cousin to SOMA, since the game consists mainly of traversing a world and locating items to unlock the, haha, doorways that block progression. The story here is not nearly as interesting or in-depth, but the visuals are compelling and the exploration is key to the undeniably horrific experience of playing through this game.
It’s possible to still nitpick the Doorways games for the kinds of issues which have plagued them since the very first one — frustrating puzzles, pixel hunting, and disjointed pacing — but overall, there’s something interesting about what the team is doing, and Holy Mountains of Flesh is the best example of Saibot Studios’ ability to create a moody atmosphere. This game works within the limitations of the world by doing some pretty novel things with the mechanics, lighting, and environments. The puzzles are much more fleshed out, and the controls are much tighter.
Side note: Holy Mountains of Flesh is, as of this writing, incomplete. Chapter 1 is available, but you’ll hit a literal wall as you attempt to enter the second area of the game. Check out the first part, and stay tuned for each successive section as it is released.
2. Fatal Frame: The Maiden of Black Water
It’s almost as though the Wii U were designed specifically to run a game like The Maiden of Black Water. The camera mechanics dovetail perfectly with the Wii U Gamepad, and the devs included plenty of dynamic uses for the camera to keep the game interesting. It is everything a good Fatal Frame game should be: it’s creepy, narratively complex, and nostalgic in a meaningful way. It plays like an old survival horror game with a bevy of creatively incremental gameplay systems.
The upgrade system for the camera is still intact, and the horsepower of the Wii U — well, relative horsepower — scales up the number of enemies that can simultaneously appear on-screen. Which, now that I bring up enemies, I have to say that The Maiden of Black Water, in addition to being a solid horror game, is plenty difficult, as well. It’s everything I’d want out of a Fatal Frame sequel, combined with new mechanics and wonderfully rendered graphics.
On the same hand, the game’s main strength — its platform — is also simultaneously its major flaw. Being on the Wii U, with its sort of dismal install base, far fewer people will end up playing Fatal Frame: The Maiden of Black Water than probably should this year. However, as is often said under the influence of too much egg nog, you can’t choose your family, and so I reckon I’ll have to take the good with the bad here.
My Christmas wish this year is for Tecmo (or whoever owns the license to the old titles) to remaster them to include Wii U functionality. That would breathe life into what could be considered the most consistently great survival horror franchise ever.
1. Until Dawn
No game captured the spirit of the slasher movie this year better than Supermassive Games’ Until Dawn. In fact, I don’t know that any game has ever managed to replicate the feel of a horror movie quite like this one. It played like something from David Cage, but the story far exceeded the narrative punch of something like Beyond: Two Souls or Heavy Rain.
I actively tried to avoid the games Adam covered in his list, but I was so blown away by Dying Light that I couldn’t, in good conscience, exclude it from my own personal top 5 list. The story was well-choreographed in accordance with the various plot lines, the controls (even if they were Quicktime events) were tight and responsive, and how could I discuss this game without mentioning that one of the game’s writers is none other than my own personal hero, Larry Fessenden?
I’ve heard other reviewers relate Until Dawn to TellTale and Quantic Dreams, and I think that’s apt, but for me this game goes so far into all available directions without wrecking the experience that it’s kind of amazing how they were able to pull it off at all. I kept looking for the seams to show, and at a certain point I guess they do, but it’s such a minimal trapping of what is such an otherwise compelling game that it doesn’t quite matter. Until Dawn is amazing.
Until Dawn was heavily covered in the horror press, but its release (and, indeed, quality) managed to surprise the gaming establishment. It reviewed well, but it also seemed that a quiet marketing and advertising presence kept it to the status of cult hit. Let’s hope that we see more games of the quality and design of Until Dawn in 2016 and beyond.
2015: Final Thoughts
2015 has to be one of the best years for horror games in recent memory. It was a year of quality, if not quantity, where a few games stood out, not just as landmarks in the genre, but in the whole of the industry. Until Dawn and Dying Light revitalized AAA horror games with novel takes on story elements and mechanics. The traversal system in Dying Light has to be one of my favorite surprises in a long time, and the story in Until Dawn made television and movies a whole hell of a lot less interesting for the weeks I plowed through it.
Fatal Frame: The Maiden of Black Water took a series in decline and offered new and interesting ways of approaching the game’s central mechanics, re-energizing the fanbase and giving people a reason beyond Mario Maker to buy a Wii U. Ditto for Resident Evil: Revelations 2, which appears to be nudging the decades-old franchise — and one of my favorites — into new but still horror-based directions. The gameplay and visual aesthetics of that game are great.
2015 also saw a wide-ranging set of indie games be released. Everything from SOMA, which for me combined Alien: Isolation and the original BioShock, gave us a new and well-realized world to explore, as did Doorways: Holy Mountains of Flesh, the latter of which represents a game series which has struggled to find an identity but might just be reaching new heights.
I thought it would be the year of asymmetric multiplayer games, but after the quick descent of games like Evolve — which I was certain would be in my top list at the beginning of the year — to Damned and Dead Calm, it wasn’t quite the explosion of a new subgenre I had anticipated. Still, the latter two games offer something in terms of new experiences that you can’t quite get elsewhere, and Depth seems to be doing some cool things with nontraditional multiplayer, so maybe the jury’s still out on those types of games.
And, finally, ere’s to 2016. May it be the year that outdoes even 2015. We have Outlast 2 and the probability of seeing the new Friday the 13th game, at the very least. Fingers crossed, people.