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Wednesday, December 23, 2020

Bloody Disgusting’s Neil Bolt Selects the 10 Best Horror Video Games of 2020!

Horror games hit a bit closer to home this year. One of the biggest releases on the horror game calendar concerned a woman surviving through the chaos of a viral outbreak and came out around the time the real world was trying to survive through the chaos of an actual viral outbreak. Another was set in a post-viral apocalyptic world and surprisingly, the remaining dregs of humanity didn’t get along very well. Hey, at least, in reality, we didn’t have to contend with walking bioweapons or murderous religious fanatics on top of everything else, right?

I hope he washed that hand…

2020 was undeniably a shitshow for so many reasons, but games provided a welcome escape from it all, even when they did remind you a little too much of what was happening outside your door. Sure, there were divisive games, broken games, and downright disappointing games, but there were plenty of gems to be unearthed.

So, from blockbuster terrors to indie scares, I’ve selected my personal picks for the year’s best horror (and yes, horror-adjacent) games. But first, the honorable mentions…

Maneater: Flawed and fiddly, this man-eating shark ‘sim’ was still a lot of fun. 

Resident Evil 3 Remake: In many ways, a stunning letdown due to what it omits, but it was also a highly entertaining slice of action horror for the most part. The opening half-hour alone is an exercise in relentless terror as Nemesis just keeps popping up every damn way you go.

Demon’s Souls: I love Demon’s Souls, and the remake is pretty damn good, but it’s also exactly the same game I finished multiple times a decade ago.

SpookWare: A short, sweet, and nutty horror take on WarioWare. It’s delightfully daft, and I played it repeatedly this year as a palette cleanser.

Mortal Kombat 11: Aftermath: Ok, so it’s just a story expansion for last year’s MK11, but it’s a substantial update that adds more deliciously hammy melodrama to the world of mystical blood-soaked brawling.

And now, onto my favorites of 2020. Understandably they’re probably not yours, but that’s what the comments are for, right? Here’s my own personal Top 10 of 2020!

Carrion (Phobia Game Studio)

Who wouldn’t want to play a game where you are essentially The Blob cosplaying as The Thing? That’s basically what Carrion provided. I, like most of you I’m sure, have a deep affection for both those films, and that made Carrion a must-play game for me. Thankfully, it more than lived up to expectations.

You’re a writhing mass of carnivorous meat with a penchant for snacking on the people occupying an underground facility. While you do have to avoid being fried or shot up by trigger happy security, you are largely the aggressor in Carrion.

The bitey meatbag slithers around in air ducts, tunnels, and the like, waiting to tear apart the next unlucky human that is foolish enough to wander in its general direction. Motivation is simple in Carrion. The blob hungers and it wants to be free.

Both Carrion and Maneater let you be the human-chomping monster this year, but Carrion arguably pulls it off better.

Carrion is available on pretty much everything.

Zombie Army 4: Dead War (Rebellion)

Another from the pleasingly-simple concept pile. Shoot Nazi undead in the head, and watch their ripe brains explode out of their skull. With X-Ray vision, and in slow motion.

Rebellion’s latest entry in its Sniper Elite spinoff series leans into an 80s Euro-horror vibe to compliment its skull-shattering headshots. Zombie Army 4 has atmosphere in spades, and so much gore! It also has biomechanical tanks and zombie sharks if that’s not enough. Playing in co-op is where it shines brightest, with you and a few friends fending off swarms of Nazi zombies like you’re in the video game adaptation of some classic siege-based horror movie. It scratched some personal itches in that regard.

I enjoyed the previous games, but Zombie Army 4 is easily the best of the lot because it finally feels like its own thing, rather than just a spinoff. Rebellion has a decent history with the horror genre, so it’s comforting to see the company continue to embrace that.

Zombie Army 4: Dead War is available on PS4, Xbox One, and PC.

Paradise Killer (Kaizen Game Works)

An open-world detective game is already an enticing prospect, but Paradise Killer throws in brutal murder, demon-worshipping cults, alternate dimensions, and a sun-kissed isle of brutalist architecture and smooth City Pop tunes. No other game this year has buried its way into my brain quite as deep as this one did.

The island where Paradise Killer takes place is tucked away in a pocket dimension. It’s designed to be a utopia, but when things get a bit out of hand, the demon-worshipping council normally reboots the whole place with a ritual sacrifice of its ‘lesser’ inhabitants and starts over with a handful of the same old faces. On the latest attempted reboot, however, someone murders the entire council, and outcast detective Lady Love Dies is brought in to solve the case and ensure the next reboot goes a bit smoother.

Paradise Killer allows the player to solve the main case at their leisure, and lay the blame on anyone they choose. It’s much more interesting to delve into the case though, especially as you get to interact with the game’s weird and wonderful cast of characters. With a goat-headed supermodel and a rather rude naked blue demon among that cast, it’s certainly never dull.

The fact you can find evidence in any order, and easily miss it too, means that it’s very easy to convince yourself of literally anyone’s guilt and build a convincing case against them. Getting to know these oddballs and eccentrics means you have a greater understanding of them, and a better chance of getting your man/woman/demon.

An infectious soundtrack, a compelling mystery soaked in the occult, and a surprisingly deep and flexible level of sleuthing make Paradise Killer one of the year’s best. Perhaps the biggest compliment I can pay it is that it’s like a Dreamcast game that never was; a blissful fever dream made real.

Paradise Killer is available on PC and Nintendo Switch.

Murder House (Puppet Combo)

After appearing on last year’s list with The Glass Staircase, Puppet Combo has continued to put out highly entertaining games inspired by old-school survival horror. Murder House, a spiritual successor to Puppet Combo’s own Babysitter Bloodbath, is no exception.

A local news team is investigating an abandoned house that is purported to be haunted. They break in hoping to find their juicy story, only to be met with a different one in the form of a rabbit suit-wearing serial killer known as the Easter Ripper. What follows is, naturally, a bit grim and bloody.

What Puppet Combo’s games do well is remind you that effective horror games can still be made using the same tools the classics implemented so well. Tank controls, for instance, make Murder House‘s chases exactly the kind of waking nightmare they should be, that panicked dream feel of being almost too sluggish in your movement when faced with a murderous bastard.

Murder House evokes more than just the spirit of classic survival horror, it channels 80’s B-Movie slashers, complete with a grainy VHS visual style. It taps a nostalgic vein, but not to the detriment of the game itself, which is a tense, violent struggle to survive. 

Murder House is available on PC.

Hunt Showdown (Crytek)

Although Hunt Showdown released in Early Access before, it finally got a full release this year, and this underappreciated multiplayer horror gem deserves more recognition.

Teams of player-controlled hunters head into the swamps of the South to track down monsters, whilst dealing with the undead that shambles about the place. This involves searching for clues to the bounty’s location, beating other hunters to the prize, and then escaping with the loot. Of course, it rarely remains that simple.

What really makes Hunt Showdown tick is its sound design. You can tell how far away another player is by how loud the sound of their gunfire is, and knocking into tin cans is enough to alert anything in the vicinity to your whereabouts. A seemingly smooth mission can go all kinds of bad in an instant simply because you accidentally scared a murder of crows and gave away your position.

This mixture of PvE and PvP throws up intense, unpredictable flashpoints, where player and monster clash, predictably in lethal, grim fashion. The deliberately slow and laborious weapon reloads add to the feeling that one wrong move will be the end of you.

Crytek has made some missteps over the years, but Hunt Showdown is not one of them. In fact, it’s arguably its greatest game to date. A unique spin on the multiplayer shooter.

Hunt Showdown is available on PS4, Xbox One, and PC.

World of Horror (Panstasz)

I was in two minds about including World of Horror, since it’s still in Early Access, but it’s had such a big impact on me this year, and provides plenty of play hours even in its embryonic state.

A throwback to text-based RPGs with a 1-bit visual style and tone that’s reminiscent of Junji Ito’s graphic novels, World of Horror allows you to play through a procedurally-generated selection of scenarios wrapped around the framework of several interconnected creepy tales. It’s simple, but effective.

The idea is to investigate each, surviving them both physically and mentally (apparently, dealing with unspeakable horrors and stab-happy killers tend to have a detrimental effect on your health, who knew?). You get an idea of what might come up, but the procedural-generation means that you can never be sure of what disturbing thing is round the next corner. You do at least learn what you might need to fend off the trouble that comes your way. You just better pray you get a hold of it before some cosmic nightmare permanently fries your brain.

World of Horror conveys a sense of unease remarkably well given its self-imposed limitations. It draws you into its mysteries and horrors in much the same way it does its characters. I look forward to seeing it grow into something greater still.

World of Horror is available on PC.

The Last of Us Part II (Naughty Dog)

Naughty Dog’s sequel to the highly-revered The Last of Us arrived with the heavy weight of expectations, and it’s more than fair to say it didn’t meet them for a lot of people. After all, how do you top something as celebrated and successful as The Last of Us?

The answer Naughty Dog came up with was to deliver something familiar mechanically-speaking, but quite different in terms of storytelling (which is where the most division between players seems to arise). For some, this didn’t work. But for me it did.

No, it doesn’t all work. It’s definitely a few hours too long, and it makes some bristling choices on where to go with its story, but it has some top tier horror set pieces (the Rat King!) and a richer interpretation of its post-apocalyptic world that made it a very involving journey through two warring perspectives.

Gears Tactics (Splash Damage/The Coalition)

Ever since the modern XCOM games waltzed into my life and swept me off my feet (what can I say? I’m easily seduced by strategic battles against alien invaders) I’ve waited for another game that captured its essence in a new way. Gears of War spinoff Gears Tactics is, somewhat surprisingly, that game.

A prequel to the mainline Gears games, Tactics puts your squad of soldiers up against the Locust and their increasingly monstrous forces in a turn-based fracas. Gears’ cover-based shooting translates remarkably well to this format, and in true Gears tradition, it’s a gory old war, with enemies bursting into meaty chunks when hit with high-powered rounds.

It does one better than XCOM when it comes to its boss fights. Fighting the likes of a Brumak in this new way retains all the tension of the mainline games use of them and amplifies just how helpless it feels to tackle a hulking behemoth with a few soldiers.

While the Xbox Series X/S had a somewhat lackluster selection of what you could call launch exclusives, Gears Tactics sticks out as the outlier. It’s one of the best games Microsoft has put out for some time, in my opinion.

Gears Tactics is available on Xbox One, Series X/S, and PC.

Wasteland 3 (inXile Entertainment)

Wasteland continues to be the Fallout series if it hadn’t gone down the route it did for Fallout 3, and while that would be refreshing enough on its own, it certainly helps Wasteland 3 that it’s a pretty damn good game too.

Taking your squad of Rangers out into the post-apocalyptic wastes isn’t just about plowing through the brutal politics and avoiding radiation-based death, it’s also an opportunity to encounter mutants, psychos, rampaging robots, and of course, giant cyber death scorpions along the way.

In pretty much every way Wasteland 2 might have fallen short, Wasteland 3 seeks to fix and improve. It’s easier to get to grips with, but still very much the deep and captivating world of apocalyptic maniacs, murderers, and monsters it needs to be. There’s a cornucopia of eccentric groups to meet, and hostile regions to explore as you clean up the irradiated wastes one dirtbag at a time.

Perhaps my favorite group of eccentrics is a clan that wears costumes based on Universal Monsters, and play a slow, dreamy mix of The Monster Mash on a loop in their HQ. When the apocalypse comes, I know what crew I’m joining.

Wasteland 3 is available on PS4, Xbox One, and PC.

Horror Game of the Year: Amnesia Rebirth (Frictional Games)

Frictional Games arguably set the tone for the past decade of horror gaming with Amnesia: The Dark Descent, so it was a big deal for the Scandinavian developer to return to that world ten years later. 

What a return it is. Amnesia: Rebirth takes everything that worked about its predecessor, and either reworks it or amplifies it. Fascinatingly, it’s the more aggravating aspects of that game and Frictional’s more recent title SOMA that are used as a catalyst to positively shape the structure of Rebirth. The monster encounters especially are changed in a really interesting manner both on a technical and narrative level. 

Rebirth also makes the balance of light and dark work differently to The Dark Descent. Bright open spaces in the Algerian desert exist alongside the inky darkness of cave systems and catacombs. The bright, searing sun does as much to intimidate as it does to comfort you.

As the game’s heroine descends deeper into the murky world of cosmic horrors beneath the shifting sands, the story becomes clearer and more devastating. Monster appearances become increasingly frequent, but there are more grounded things at play that will stay on your mind far longer.

Amnesia: Rebirth shows the many pretenders to Fictional’s crown just how it should be done. It’s a game that understands horror can be more than just monsters, gore, and scares. You need to have that dread feeling entering a darkened area, you have to feel your skin crawl when the quiet is broken by a guttural snarl, and you need to be made to think about the devastatingly horrific consequence of your actions. Amnesia: Rebirth is by no means flawless, but as a pure horror experience, it’s close.

Amnesia: Rebirth is available on PS4 and PC.


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