Controller fear! Fresh must-plays for the horror gamer

H.P. Lovecraft's Witch House, courtesy October Coast
H.P. Lovecraft's Witch House, courtesy October Coast /

The horror gamer is similar to but unlike the horror movie or series fan. It’s not like you can just put palms to eyes whenever you need to make a QTE decision or shoot the rampaging monster coming at you.

The experience of sustained terror gameplay can be miles distant from watching a jumpscare, yet similar enough that the twitch reaction and the frisson both stem from the same enjoyable fount.

Having said that, here are five recent picks from late 2022 and so far in 2023 that range from the traditional horror thrills to slow burn mysteries that any horror gamer would be remiss not to at least check out.

All the games listed below are currently available on next gen platforms, PC, or Steam.

Justice Smith, here seen in the Detective Pikachu movie, is a horror gamer himself who likes to play Dante's Inferno. He stars in the videogame The Quarry from Supermassive Games.
Justice Smith, here seen in the Detective Pikachu movie, is a horror gamer himself who likes to play Dante’s Inferno. He stars in the videogame The Quarry from Supermassive Games. /

Horror gamer must-plays from the past two years

SIGNALIS – Lovecraft in space for the retro horror gamer

This came out of nowhere in late 2022 from Humble Games and Playism yet quickly rose in popularity for its Lovecraftian tale of uncovering a mystery while surviving zombies in space.

Considering it was created by just two people from the Rose-Engine Studio in Germany, the story of the technician Elster, an android Replika searching for her lost partner on a mysteriously monster-filled ship, is played out through a third-person shooter from a top-down perspective with puzzle elements.

The gameplay is intense, well-paced, and yet cerebral. The fact that Elster seems to be going mad while exploring the ship, hoarding resources and ammo while battling murderous zombie androids, conjures a range of well-checked homages from David Lynch, the survival elements of Resident Evil franchise, Kubrickian and Lovecraftian themes, as well as some Silent Hill nightmare sequence motifs.

I’m not really much into retro style top-down RPG adventure games but the sinister atmosphere of terror and gloom just sucked me right in.

At one point it quote-checked a Lovecraft short story: “Great holes secretly are digged where Earth’s pores ought to suffice, and things have learnt to walk that ought to crawl.” That was it for me. I was in it for the long haul.

THE QUARRY – Hyperreal horror gamer delight starring Hollywood actors

If you’ve ever played 2016’s Until Dawn, where Hollywood stars Hayden Panettiere and Rami Malek were mo-capped into a tale of surviving a nightmarish vacation out at a cabin in the woods, then you’ll be familiar with the general concept of The Quarry.

Supermassive is the same studio behind both games and while this one, released in early 2022, racks the same general themes and gameplay, the folks behind it have endeavored to make some big improvements. The results are both very good and somewhat meh.

The story is about how nine camp counselors at Hackett’s Quarry in upstate New York get stuck in the woods at the end of the summer. Since they have the camp all to themselves for one more night, sans screaming kids or bratty tweens, they figure they’d throw themselves a party despite the mysterious horror stalking them from just beyond the tree line. Yeah, it’s one of those genre staples that were popular in the 70s and 80s but that’s half the fun.

This is a choice-based RPG that mixes in some quick-time-events and puzzle-solving to advance the very cinematic story, where your most casual choices often affect the outcome in a Butterfly Effect way.

And I do mean cinematic, since some of the mo-capped stars playing the characters here include notable Hollywood actors David Arquette, Siobhan Williams, Skyler Gisondo, Halston Sage, Justice Smith, Lance Henriksen, Ted Raimi, and Ariel Winter. Any fan of the genre will also recognize and get a kick from the layered references to horror tropes playing out in the narrative and the gameplay—I mean David even has some pitch-perfect Scream-type performance evocations here.

Mostly though, despite the deep re-playability of it all with trying to find out how things end up contrarily if you make different choices and different characters, this is a better movie than a game. Meaning, I wanted to watch it more than actually play it.

Considering the development team said they wrote more than 1,000 pages and 186 possible endings, at least they included a mode where I could watch my story play out sans the interruption of gameplay choices.

Sure it should be more movie than game but the fact that this hyperreal project looks gorgeous and has optional filters for indie horror, ‘80s horror, and classic horror was something worth mine or any horror gamer’s play through.

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DIABLO IV – For the horror gamer who loves the grind

What can I say about Blizzard Entertainment’s juggernaut franchise? It’s extremely well-made like any Triple A game should be, there’s a reason the thing has a massive fan base, and I must confess that there’s just some secret sauce there that makes it subtly yet absolutely addictive.

Diablo IV plays out a template story about how Inarius and Lilith, on the run from the unending war between heaven and hell, have created and come to live in Sanctuary. But a deep rift has separated the lovers and now they wage a new war as enemies where the outcome might be good for the winner, but it’s just bad for everyone else since a lifetime of darkness and misery awaits all mortal folks.

As far as I can tell, the gameplay is almost the same just a better heck of a good time. The top down adventure RPG with its combat intensity, deep grind gameplay, and gorgeously immersive world still feels like it’s the top tier fast food of gaming.

One critic even compared it to highly addictive cheeseburgers. Anybody who’s played this for a few days now since its worldwide release last June 6 knows exactly what it means to binge on this heavenly piece of gaming burger.

There’s a deep suspicion that, maybe just around the corner, lies the cathartic gamer denouement I am looking for. Over the next battle standing over the fallen bodes of my enemies, my Necromancer could just achieve the transcendence or plot turn I want.

That’s a grind I’m not willing to take but for the horror gamer who wants to conquer the dark, it’s a risk that may be worth taking.

PENTIMENT – Seriously fun whodunit for the horror gamer who likes to read

Pentiment means “a reappearance in a painting of an original drawn or painted element which was painted over by the artist.”

This got on my radar late last year simply because it had an “Overwhelmingly Positive” rating on Steam.

Boy, was I surprised with its depth and entertainment value, considering developer Obsidian Entertainment billed it as Renaissance point-and-click story-driven adventure.

In reality it’s an interactive 2D visual novel, like if Umberto Eco’s novel Name of the Rose with its crime and mystery-solving core got mashed into the gameplay of indie greats Oxenfree and Night in the Woods.

Save for a few high-intensity scenes there is no gritty action, no special abilities, nor leveling up. Set in a small town in Germany’s Bavarian Alps at the crossroads of the 16th century we are instead thrust into the shoes and mind of master artist Andreas Maler. The man with the least adventuring skills must help the townsfolk and the monks of the abbey solve the bloody murder of a visiting nobleman.

In place of voice acting are thousands of lines of text you must read through. Fortunately helped along by excellent ambient environmental sound design. With an art style reminiscent of the illuminated manuscripts and printed woodcuts, I most enjoyed the education about the socio-cultural milieu and the occult versus religious views of the period. Makes for a kick-ass soup of a historical religious drama with noir leanings.

The choices you make as Andreas and the very smart writing make it a joy to play and encourage multiple replays as well. There are some very dark themes that are revealed through the 14 hours of story gameplay, running through several generations of the town of Tassing.

Still, the revelation of the breadth of the conspiracy and the genuine surprise I had when it was revealed just whodunit made this one of the most engaging slow burn games for the year so far.

Highly recommended for old school horror gamers who don’t mind reading through tons of text and have the patience to let this masterpiece unfold at its own pace. Ten-ten would art again!

DEAD SPACE – The revival horror gamer’s thrilling nostalgia death trip

Never thought a remake from the original 2008 could conjure some fresh yet still eerily familiar feelings of dread and disgust than 15 years later. That said, climbing aboard the cursed, monster-filled vessel USG Ishimura once again felt like a most terrible homecoming.

And I mean that in a good way. While there are the usual tech improvements to this third person adventure shooter, like the gorgeous visual upgrade, the improved gloom and doom atmospheric audio, plus inevitable improvements to the gameplay, what impressed me the most was how all these elements finally gelled together.

While the 2008 original wasn’t anything to scoff at, and was responsible for many nightmares about grabby giant tentacles in space coming out of vents, this new Dead Space, released in January this year, feels like a brand new game rather than a money-grab retread of the old one.

Sure, the biggest change on the surface is that Isaac Clarke, our marooned heroic engineer, can now talk and has reams of dialogue to banter with his shipmates and other NPCs. But the re-polished and refreshed death maze of the desolate spaceship you’ll need to explore is now a better gestalt of a horrific sci-fi playground and a story that’s right out of some cosmic horror gone Event Horizon at the best moments.

There sure are plenty of those utterly best moments that make you go Wow! I’m glad I can still cut down the odious Necromorphs by cutting down their limbs with a variety of high-tech mining tools, but it just seems that the plethora of unpredictable, tense moments and jump scares are better articulated and paced now.

Maybe it’s just my faulty nostalgia but developer Motive Studio sure seemed like they knocked the refinements out of the ball park with this one?

So much so that they’re offering up a different take, comparable to those clever and beautiful cut-ane-paste DJ remixes for songs. The experience has been heightened for me and the whole vibe has welcomed me to some hellish macabre game I both relish and fear.

Horror gamers, if you can get your hands on this one despite the game only being available on the next gen platforms and PC, then you owe it to yourself to slaughter some Necromorphs.

All the games listed are currently available on next gen consoles, PC, or Steam.