Survival horror games have seen their fair share of ups and downs over the years. The genre’s golden age was during the late 1990s and early 2000s. A slew of “Resident Evil Clones” cemented survival horror’s place in the hearts of gamers worldwide. But it didn’t last forever. A greater emphasis on action and multiplayer in the late 2000s (with games like Left 4 Dead and Dead Space 2), saw the genre begin to decline.
Fortunately, this too was only a temporary state of affairs. The last few years have seen both new and old survival horror games succeed critically and commercially. Remakes and reboots abound, and the indie sector is churning out new IP at quite a pace.
It’s a good time to be a fan of the genre. Unless of course, you like Silent Hill, in which case my heart goes out to you. It’s a pain I know all too well. Silent Hill Homecoming being the only available game in the series on Steam keeps me up at night.
Seeing as we are currently living through the best survival horror games renaissance in years, it would be remiss of us not to provide you with a rundown of the best titles the genre has to offer. I’m not necessarily going to limit myself to one game per franchise, but I will do my best to keep things varied.
These are the best survival horror games of all time. Feel free to blast my choices in the comments section at the end of this list.
#11 The Evil Within (2014)
This might seem an odd choice, seeing as this game was so divisive upon release. Criticized for the nonsensical story, and dismissed by many as regressive or outdated. While those accusations aren’t necessarily unfounded, I think The Evil Within deserves a place on this list (even if it is at the very bottom) for being a conscious effort on the part of Shinji “Resident Evil” Mikami to make old-school survival horror gameplay and structure relevant again.
Despite the flawed writing, The Evil Within’s gameplay is weighty, claustrophobic, and tense. It borrows heavily from Resident Evil 4 (as you might expect), and pulls off the same grimy, “back-to-the-wall” intensity that made its forebear such a delight. The weapons have the right kick and the over-the-shoulder camera gives every encounter the right sense of panic and chaos.
All of this came at a time when this kind of clunky survival horror gameplay was a rarity. There were plenty of survival horror games releasing that did away with combat entirely to focus on stealth, but games like The Evil Within, the other side of the survival horror coin, were a thing of the past. That’s what makes it such an important game.
It must also be said that while the game’s aesthetic is by no means original, think hospitals, asylums, and chainsaws, it still somehow feels fresh. This is done largely by taking horror cliches and either turning up the ridiculousness to eleven or by subtly subverting them. The enemy designs in particular are wonderfully ghoulish.
#10 Alien: Isolation (2014)
Just edging out The Evil Within we have SEGA’s surprise hit, Alien Isolation, another game from 2014. Everything about this one, prior to release, made me nervous. We were only just getting over Aliens: Colonial Marines for a start. That alone was enough to turn a lot of people off.
Isolation is also technically a licensed game and had an odd choice of developer. Creative Assembly, best known for the Total War series seemed a poor fit for survival horror. It all looked like a recipe for disaster.
But despite all that, Alien Isolation blew me away. The first impressions were excellent. The grungy, low-fi atmosphere perfectly captured the look and feel of the original films. The Sevastopol space station is a truly magnificent piece of design. But what of the horror that lies within? What of the Xenomorph? It is after all, what we are here to see.
Isolation’s handling of its titular monstrosity is by far its strongest aspect. Its AI is truly something to behold. It feels like a genuine entity unto itself, roaming the space station as it pleases. The Alien can and will take you by surprise. Unpredictable is the word. Scripted moments and set pieces are few and far between.
The game is at its best when the Alien is hot on your heels. So it’s a bit of a shame that you have to battle so many androids, which isn’t nearly as exciting.
The game is also a bit overlong, with a number of sightseeing sections that could use some editing. These are little niggles though. Alien Isolation is among the best survival horror games of all time and you own it to yourself to give it a try.
#9 Amnesia: The Dark Descent (2010)
Scary to the point of being genuinely hard to play, there was no way Amnesia: The Dark Descent wasn’t going to feature on this list. It would be a lot higher if the gameplay was a little more fleshed out, but for pure atmosphere, there’s not much that comes close. Castle Brenneburg is one of the most memorable settings of any horror game ever made.
That’s thanks in large part to the sound design. What with you descending into the dark and all, your ears become incredibly important. Was that the sound of a prowling monster? And if so, how far away is it? Can it see you?
The use of darkness is also masterful. You can use it to conceal yourself (the way your eyes adjust is a nice touch) but at the cost of your sanity. Stay in the dark for too long and you may experience vivid hallucinations and other nasty symptoms.
You have no means of fighting off any of the monsters and so the gameplay revolves for the most part around a variety of physics puzzles. It’s not exactly Portal, but they do a good enough job of breaking up all the running and hiding you’ll have to do.
Some may find Amnesia a little dry gameplay-wise, but I think throwing in combat or more action elements would have spoilt the atmosphere, which is what Amnesia is all about.
#8 Dead Space (2008)
Its two sequels may have disappointed hardcore survival horror fans, but there’s no denying that the original Dead Space is a classic. Influenced by Resident Evil and Silent Hill, Dead Space introduced a number of innovations that kept it from feeling like a retread.
It’s a shame that later games in the series moved away from the established formula by emphasizing action and co-op, but that does nothing to diminish the impact of the original.
You play engineer Isaac Clarke who arrives aboard a mining ship, the Ishimura just as it is overrun by the Necromorphs, corpses twisted by an alien infection into hideous monsters. Thus begins a descent into a nightmare.
The story takes a number of twists and turns that keep you guessing until the very end. Isaac suffers more and more from madness and psychosis as the story progresses, calling everything around him into question.
The dismemberment system lends the game a certain depth. Unlike most enemies in video games, a Necromorphs weak spot is not its head. A hail of bullets to the face will do little more than annoy.
The only way to kill them for good is to blast away their limbs. The level of precision required to do this makes the combat much more involved than in many other games. Spray and pray tactics won’t get you very far. The variety of improvised weaponry is also a nice touch.
#7 Condemned: Criminal Origins (2005)
The best survival horror games need to scare me above all else, but there are many ways in which a game can be scary. They can startle, disgust, and unnerve us. And then there are the games that come back to you in the middle of the night. The ones that have you looking over your shoulder as you make your way upstairs to bed.
Few games have ever achieved this the way Condemned: Criminal Origins did for me.
The visceral nature of the combat is what gives the game its appeal. The blows are brutal and your enemies will give no quarter. It’s you or them. Inching your way through dark and twisting corridors, a lead pipe at the ready, while murderers lie in wait, is equal parts terrifying and thrilling. The AI enemies can run away and conceal themselves too, which only adds to the tension.
It does have some vaguely supernatural elements, but the horrors encountered here are of very human origin. A serial killer is on the loose, and the homeless have gone insane. It’s up to detective Ethan Thomas to find the source of the madness and stop the killer.
If you’ve ever wanted a glimpse into the darkness of which man is capable, Condemned will satisfy. But don’t say I didn’t warn you. Games like Dead Space may have more blood and guts on-screen, but it doesn’t hit quite as close to home as it does here.
Condemned is also unique among survival horror games in that it has a strong investigative element. You are, after all, a detective, and so there are a number of crime scenes that must be forensically examined. They may feel a little gimmicky at times, but they break up the flow nicely and keep things varied.
#6 Resident Evil 7: Biohazard (2017)
I sometimes wonder if this game’s subtitle is a deliberate nod to the original Resident Evil, which was released in Japan as Biohazard. It would make sense because, in many ways, Resident Evil 7 feels like a new beginning. The previous two games had shifted decisively away from survival and towards action horror, and the plot had become a tangled mess. A fresh start was desperately needed.
Fortunately, Resident Evil 7’s new camera angle, gameplay style, and characters, were exactly what the doctor ordered. It was just what the series needed, and got Resident Evil back to what it’s all about, Being trapped in a big house (or houses) with a colorful variety of psychopaths and mutant horrors. It was a simplification in many ways, but this was definitely a case of less being more.
The balance between stealth and action is tuned to perfection. Avoiding and outsmarting the various members of the Baker family will have you holding your breath and the boss fights and monster battles will have you out of your seat.
The plucky new protagonist, Ethan Winters is great fun too. He’s brave, spirited, and bounces back remarkably quickly from traumatic injuries (although there may be a good reason for that which I won’t spoil here).
Resident Evil 7 was both a return to form for the franchise and a brilliant survival horror game in its own right. It stays true to the series’ identity while still finding meaningful ways to innovate. Capcom knows how to do horror and RE7 is another feather in their already impressive cap.
#5 Stalker: Shadow of Chernobyl (2007)
The Stalker games may be more of a hybrid shooter than pure survival horror, but I think they do enough to be classed as the latter. Shadow of Chernobyl may be a little bit rough around the edges, but it does so much right that it hardly matters. It can be buggy, and the story is almost impenetrable, but this is a case of atmosphere and immersion trumping technical flaws.
Set in an alternative history post-meltdown Chernobyl exclusion zone, the Stalker games are one part tactical shooter, one part sci-fi thriller, and many many parts survival horror. The time you spend battling bandits and looting corpses on the surface of the open-world may disguise this fact, but the first time you venture underground, the horror will hit you hard. The mutants hiding in the darkness below are enough to make anyone think twice.
The moments where your ammo is running out, and you aren’t sure when you’ll next see the sun, are some of the most intense I’ve had in any game. The difficulty is high and the hand-holding is kept to a minimum, so this is definitely one for the hardcore crowd, but if you can stomach it, you’re in for a treat. Its scope and unforgiving nature make it unlike anything else on this list.
#4 Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem (2002)
Eternal Darkness demonstrates everything that is wrong with gaming. A brilliantly written, undeniably scary, and truly innovative game, that sold fewer than half a million copies worldwide. And despite releasing what is now considered one of the best games of all time, the developers, Silicon Knights went bankrupt and disappeared. You also can’t play it now unless you own a Gamecube (or an emulator). Shame on all of us.
Eternal Darkness must have influenced Amnesia: The Dark Descent (discussed above). The sanity mechanics, while not identical, the broader concept has some obvious similarities, like how looking at the monsters will cause you to go insane. But that’s not the only trick Eternal Darkness has up its sleeve. The combat system features a unique targeting mechanic, whereby you can target specific parts of an enemy’s anatomy, the “runes” allow the player to experiment with magic spells, and there are multiple story paths and endings.
And what a story it is. I’ve played so few games that are so imaginative or this willing to take so many risks with the narrative. Admittedly, I’m a sucker for anything even vaguely Lovecraftian, so I was completely hooked. It’s far too complex to summarize here, but it involves time manipulation, ancient gods, and Canadian firefighters.
Who could possibly resist all that? I should also say that the game’s protagonist, Alexandra Roivas, should get more attention than she does. Nintendo needs to put her in more stuff.
As one of the best survival horror games of all time, Eternal Darkness deserves so much more. It’s a crime that such a masterpiece has been left to languish for so long. We need to see a sequel, a remake, or a re-release as soon as possible. This is a game we cannot afford to forget about.
#3 Resident Evil 2 Remake (2019)
I had a tricky decision to make here. The original Resident Evil 2 is a hugely important game (more so than the remake), but I can’t deny that I had more fun with the 2019 release. It’s just as intricate and just as scary, but the gameplay is on another level.
Borrowing Resident Evil 4’s movement system, and taking cues from Resident Evil 7 regarding tone, the Remake achieves something special. I’d go as far as to say it’s the best remake of any game, period.
This is peak Resident Evil. Blazing action, clever puzzles, and genuine scares. The police station is a joy to explore, gradually opening up to you as you progress. Then, just as you start to get familiar with it, the game unleashes Mr. X. A towering Umbrella Corps “Tyrant” who pursues you mercilessly for the rest of the game.
It’s one of the best curveballs I’ve ever experienced and works perfectly with the game’s maze-like setting to provide an unforgettable horror experience
All of the gore and chaos gets a significant visual upgrade too. The lighting effects in particular are fantastic, the cherry on top of a basket that is already overflowing with the ripest most delicious cherries known to man.
If the RE2 remake becomes the blueprint for other games going forward we can look forward to a number of top-quality titles. The remake of Resident Evil 3 didn’t quite have the same impact, but it’s early days yet. Let’s hope the same lightning strikes twice soon.
#2 Silent Hill 2 (2001)
We are now entering the territory of survival horror royalty. Konami may be a joke in the eyes of gamers everywhere now, but once upon a time they released one of the most intensely psychological survival horror games ever made. Silent Hill 2 is a journey into the disturbed psyche of its protagonist James Sunderland, and it’s a wild ride.
I can’t go into detail without spoilers, but suffice to say that every element of the world and story is a masterfully crafted evocation of the guilt and shame that hound James as he desperately searches for answers about his dead (or maybe not so dead) wife.
The town of Silent Hill is the real star of the show. A seemingly abandoned, otherworldy rural American town that offers the player a glimpse into a mind that has been broken in two. It confronts James with horror after horror right up until the credits roll.
So much of Silent Hill 2 has attained iconic status. The lumbering grotesquery Pyramid Head, the fog that shrouds the town (which was actually introduced to offset hardware limitations by lowering the draw distance), and of course, James Sunderland himself.
There are a few rough edges that hold it back, the voice acting in particular, but for the subtlety and care with which Silent Hill 2 deals with its themes, it takes a silver medal position on this list.
#1 Resident Evil 4 (2005)
Taking the top spot on our list of the best survival horror games of all time we have Resident Evil 4. I know we’ve seen a lot of this series already, but they all deserve to be here. Resident Evil is such an important franchise across so many different genres, which is part of the reason RE4 finds itself above Silent Hill 2. Both games are masterpieces for different reasons, but Resident Evil 4’s legacy is simply unmatched.
The controls are a big part of why Resident Evil 4 is held up as so influential. The offset third-person perspective allowed for much more precise aiming and movement and is still used routinely by games today.
You could accuse RE4 of blowing the starting whistle on survival horror’s move towards action, but anyone who has played the game knows that it finds a perfect middle ground. Sure there is a lot of over-the-top action, but it is still a genuinely scary game. The Regenerators in particular will send a shiver down your spine.
There are a lot of goofy, even comical moments in what is admittedly, a rather juvenile plot, but Capcom somehow manages to balance them against the genuinely disturbing stuff. It could so easily have played out like a bottom-tier splatterfest, but it just works. On his way to rescuing the president’s daughter, Leon S. Kennedy becomes one of the most lovable protagonists of all time. His absurd bravado and dry wit are a joy.
From the Merchant to Ramon Salazar, to El Gigante, not a moment is wasted. Survival horror games don’t get any better than this. All of Capcom’s strengths are on display and none of their weaknesses. For fans of the genre, and heck, gamers in general, this is the definition of a must-play.
How do you rank the best survival horror games of all time? Sound off in the comments.