Grizzly games for gruesome kids
Severely dehydrated from its glory days in the 90s, recent releases in the horror game genre have been lacking the same impact as their predecessors. In recent years, however, the emerging indie scene has shown much promise in crafting disturbing atmospheres, entrancing narratives, and complex protagonists.
With that in mind, I’ve compiled a handful of gems that are reinjecting life into the horror genre; titles that are reminiscent of a bygone era, and games with unique plots and settings that make for a truly creepy caper.
World of Horror
Shiokawa, Japan has been experiencing a deluge of strange and deadly events as an incomprehensible being from another dimension approaches. You’ve arrived at the normally sleepy town to investigate and seal away the cosmic horror, preventing the end of the world as we know it.
World of Horror is a Lovecraftian roguelike JRPG that takes heavy influence from the works of famed manga artist Junji Ito. Players choose from one of several characters, each with their own backstories and specialties, and explore a variety of locales as you solve five mysteries, triggering random events and battles as they proceed. The one-bit graphics drawn entirely in MS Paint and a chiptune soundtrack don’t normally lend themselves to the genre, but the deliberate visual and auditory choices create an uncanny valley effect amplified by the strong horror writings of Cassandra Khaw, leaving the player deeply disturbed and unsettled long after the end plays out.
Lobotomy Corporation is a tower defence and resource management horror game inspired by the SCP Foundation, Cabin in the Woods, and Warehouse 13. As a manager for an up-and-coming power company, you’re tasked with supervising employees as they collect energy from strange beings called anomalies kept in padded cells. Anxiety mounts as you manage each unique anomaly, slowly learning about their backstories and specific prerequisites for both energy collection and staying contained through trial and error. Of course, the protagonist isn’t all that he seems either and part of the greater mystery is finding out more about him and his true intentions.
There’s a certain helplessness in this scenario, as containment breaks are inevitable along with the gory havoc they wreak. As more anomalies escape it’s a race to suppress and contain them again as the corpses of your staff pile up. The soundtrack and visuals complement the game’s pitch black nature – the music a perfect reflection of the worsening situation, and the cutesy visuals serving as a striking (and intentional) dissonance that drives home its depravity.
Library of Ruina
The direct sequel to Lobotomy Corporation, Library of Ruina shifts genre gears into a more traditional turn-based RPG. Its softer and more beautiful art style contrasts the terror under its saccharine surface. An ally turned-major-antagonist from the prequel creates an infinitely large library filled with books containing near-endless knowledge. A guest sent an invitation can take any book they wish, if they best the librarians in combat. And losing means they’re permanently transformed into a book, expanding the library even more.
The setting outside the library has a major impact on the story, as the city itself is hell on Earth. Heinously corrupt corporations and organised criminals terrorise residents who are fighting to survive, struggling to find work and earn their right to live. Many of the guests that seek out the library simply want for a better life, yet they too are swallowed up along with the wicked.
She Dreams Elsewhere
Only recently has mental illness and its insidious hold on the bearer been explored with any sort of sensitivity and depth. Similarly, sincere and unapologetic blackness – culture, music, language, and style – has also just started to be properly represented. She Dreams Elsewhere is an incredible RPG that combines both into a compelling and haunting experience. The protagonist is down to earth and immediately relatable, with her anxiety and depression colouring her world and how she interacts with and experiences it.
Far before she’s pulled into the supernatural dungeons, which on their own are dankly atmospheric and complemented by a unique combat system and excellent jazz/hip hop infused OST, the dread of navigating social situations creates a sense of trepidation that’s felt both by the protagonist and the player alike. It drives home how mental illness can make even the most mundane of scenarios more than chilling on their own.
Though daylight horror is something more thoroughly explored in movies and television, it’s a technique seldom used in gaming. Hylic and Hylics 2 utilises this to great effect; eldritch monstrosities freely roam the sunny and well-lit world, crafting an experience drenched in casually disturbing visuals. Blob monsters that make you disintegrate upon a single touch, friendly party members, and NPCs completely indistinguishable from the body horror-filled enemy ranks. The game’s janky sound design is both immersive and panic-inducing, and bizarre unexplained architecture peppers the landscape.
The most distinctive feature of Hylics and its sequel is the claymation art style that contrasts with the bright, yet oppressive desert making up most of the world. Though death is cheap, you find yourself fearing it as you delve deeper into the game, growing every inch closer to its inevitable conclusion.