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Survival horror is one of the genres the industry can’t shake. For me it conjures up a memory of watching an older cousin playing Resident Evil on the PC. I remember falling in love with the franchise right there and then, it was the beginning of me getting into all things horror in general—especially movies—but there was nothing that quite beat that thrill of playing as Jill Valentine or Chris Redfield, battling your way through the Spencer Mansion, and that very first encounter with a zombie.
Things have moved on a lot since then, both in gameplay terms and graphically, but the core concepts remain the same in these games. Survive the many perils thrown your way using limited resources, all the while clutching the controller and not being able to move from the edge of your seat. I’ve compiled a list of my favourite survival horror games here, now there’s one choice on there I had to mull over, I couldn’t decide on whether it should be classed as survival horror in the traditional sense, but it fit the criteria I set for myself, and it’s also one of the best games ever created.
5. 'Condemned: Criminal Origins' (2005, Xbox 360)
Developed by Monolith studios, Condemned was one of the first games on the Xbox 360; it was also, for me, one of the most memorable (side note: I no longer have an Xbox 360, it got the RRoD and I had to take it out back and shoot it) games for Microsoft’s console. You play as an SCU investigator named Ethan Thomas, framed for murder and looking for answers. The plot doesn’t get much more interesting than that. What struck me about Condemned was how the atmosphere practically oozed from the box before you even put the disk in the system. Each level, usually some kind of condemned building (hey, I see what they did there!), revolved around you battling to the end through crazy homeless people. It’s absurd on every level but something about the game just clicked.
Condemned was played very straight; there were forensic mini games, sure, but the main takeaway from the game was the level and enemy design, everything in this game was designed to terrify. Combat was fraught and you often felt vulnerable. There was a visceral sense to the melee combat, with ammo being scarce, a handy wooden plank was often your best bet. Condemned was pure creepy in every way and turned out to be one of the more memorable survival horror games of the generation. It was received fairly well by critics and spawned a sequel; my money would be firmly on Microsoft resurrecting this franchise on the Xbox One at some point.
4. 'Resident Evil' (2002, Gamecube)
Resident Evil was the one that arguably started it all, spawning a lot of pretenders to the throne but never quite being unseated in some people’s eyes. It was a great game but suffered from horrible controls and terrible, terrible, terrible voice acting and scripting. I was mulling over putting the original Playstation version on here, but my mind always immediately goes to the 2002 Gamecube remake now. Nintendo was trying to win over some of the more hardcore gamers with this release (where have we heard that since…?), showing the little purple ‘cube could have more ‘edgy’ games. So Capcom threw them a bone (and likely, a lot of money was thrown back) and remade its classic game. What followed was surprisingly an improvement on the original in almost every way.
Graphically, the games are as different as night and day. Clever use of pre-rendered backgrounds gave the game a look that was way ahead of its time, and the character models where pristine. New enemies were put in place, including the frankly terrifying Crimson Heads, zombies that come back to life should you not burn the corpse. There was also the amazingly creepy sub plot involving Lisa Trevor, surely one of the most memorable enemies in the franchise. The basic plot was left unchanged (members of the S.T.A.R.S team crash in a helicopter near a seemingly abandoned mansion, crazy shit ensues, people die, dogs jump through windows) but Capcom tweaked various bits enough to keep it feeling like a fresh new experience. They gave the script an overhaul; gone were the cheesy lines of dialogue (I’m looking at you, Barry) and hammy voice acting. It’s still something I want to play to this day over and over, but sadly (Well…), I no longer own a GameCube.
3. 'Silent Hill 2' (2001, PS2)
I was debating with myself between putting the original Silent Hill on here, or the sequel. I opted for the latter because it has stuck in my mind so much over the years. Silent Hill 2 puts you in the shoes of James Sunderland, and whilst not a direct sequel to Silent Hill, the titular town does tie the two together. Lead to the town by a mysterious letter from his dead wife, James is in Silent Hill to figure out just what is going on. Along the way you’ll encounter some of the most horrific creatures ever put in a video game, along with one of the most layered narratives in the medium’s history.
The absolute stand out of Silent Hill 2 is the atmosphere. The town itself is enveloped in perma-fog; this did two things. Firstly, it obscured the game's limited graphics (PS2, y’all), and secondly, and most importantly, it put you on edge. Not one of you who has played this will forget walking down that street, swirling with fog, hearing your radio crackle and seeing a mysterious shape moving out of the fog. Chilling. Silent Hill 2 also brought one of video gamings most memorable villains, Pyramid Head, now somewhat of a symbol for the franchise. P-Head (that’s his rap name) was a representation of James’ inner guilt, manifested in the form of a hulking man with a giant pyramid made of steel on his head, carrying around a cleaver far too big to wield normally. A lot of the enemies were overly sexualised, such as the nurses, and the mannequins made of women's legs. The creature designs in Silent Hill 2 still to this day standout as the benchmark for creepy enemy design.
One thing that also elevated Silent Hill 2 above some of its brethren is in sound design, particularly the use of the static on the radio to indicate an enemy was near. The score, by acclaimed composer Akira Yamaoka, also stands out as being some of the best video game music ever created, providing memorable string-filled tunes that set the creepy tone for the game perfectly. I could listen to the game’s soundtrack all day, and no other game music has ever evoked as many vivid feelings as that in Silent Hill 2.
2. 'Resident Evil 2' (1998, Playstation)
Playing Resident Evil 2 for me will always be one of my fondest gaming memories. I distinctly remember getting the demo free with a magazine and playing it over and over. The demo went from the very opening of the game, right through to your first encounter with the Racoon City Police Department HQ. The graphics at the time were great, the gameplay, whilst similar to Resident Evil, was inspiring and the tension that racked up was unparalleled.
Unlike its predecessor, Resident Evil 2 threw you straight in with the zombies, but like the original, it also let you choose your character. Choosing between Leon and Claire was more than an aesthetic choice; both had unique stories, unique gameplay elements, and different NPCs to interact with. Their stories did weave together at times, and the feeling at the time of choosing to leave a certain item in one campaign, only to see it still their in the next was great, we were being given choice on how to play!
I could go on and on about my love for this game and never run out of hyperbole. This game is crying out for a remake. There’s nothing I’d love to see more than Resident Evil 2 redone with the modern gameplay mechanics of, say, Resident Evil 6, which in itself, with Leon’s campaign, did come close to this, but didn’t quite pull off the same nerve wracking encounters as those seen in Resident Evil 2. Lickers, anyone?
1. 'The Last of Us' (2013, Playstation 3)
So, my number one survival horror game? The Last of Us. This game makes my brain go into a happy coma whenever I think about it. What The Last Of Us has over every game in this list is in the ‘survival’ part of Survival Horror.
Every part of this game is a struggle, from making sure you have enough health packs to survive, scavenging materials, and making sure either you have some ammo in your gun, or that your baseball bat isn’t going to break on the first hit. I can’t count the number of times I did just that, and then ran out of ammo and was forced to just run and hide, maybe improvising with a shiv or hoping that the nearest clicker will just scuttle away.
The story in this game is unrivalled as far as I’m concerned and the partnership with young Ellie just heightens the tension. Though some people claim that she is more of a distraction than anything else, I found myself constantly WANTING to defend her, to help her, and to stop harm from coming to her.
The Last Of Us boasts awesome creature design which is just as disturbing as anything found in Silent Hill (though maybe not quite as bonkers) and the tension that comes along with entering a room and realising there’s a clicker in with you is unreal. The Last Of Us is my favourite Survival Horror game because it combines both elements of the genre perfectly whilst not unbalancing gameplay, the story is riveting and for me, it is the greatest game of its generation.