Dyllon Graham highlights his personal top five horror game releases of the last year.
Looking in the rearview at gaming, the last year was a weird one all around. As Google Stadia thrived and then shutdown its internal game development studio in February 2021, NFTs began piercing the veil into gaming and Cyberpunk 2077 (2020) continuously failed to deliver on promises made pre-launch. In the midst of these depressing maelstroms, there were phenomenal high points too. Indie games like Valheim, Death’s Door and Kena: Bridge of Spirits stepped forward to further blur the line between AAA and indie-developed games. The Halo franchise finally returned with Halo: Infinite and horror games had one of the most exciting and innovative years to date.
I wanted to take a moment to praise and celebrate my favorite horror games over the last year. To get ahead of any shock and awe that may come from reading this list, no, I haven’t played every horror game released in the last year. Several horror-themed games I did play, simply didn’t hit for me or make the list either! Below, I'm highlighting the five horror gaming experience I enjoyed most over the course of 2021.
Resident Evil: Village
After the critical reception and fan acclaim of Resident Evil: Biohazard (2017), Capcom knew they had successfully reinvigorated the Resident Evil franchise. In Resident Evil: Village, we continue our journey as Ethan Winters with higher stakes than ever before and monstrous consequences. With visceral scares, impressive boss fights and stunning antagonist design, Village continues Capcom’s strength as a AAA horror powerhouse. Unfortunately, the game's biggest fault is the militarization of its protagonists as they grow across multiple entries in their story, instead of doubling down or innovating on how the horror presents itself. Despite this, Village was a fun and impressive tentpole of the last year's release cadence that I wholeheartedly recommend.
Indie games took center stage last year, being discussed often in the same breath as their AAA counterparts. Below the veneer of publisher marketing dollars, there is a tier of indie game that often gets lost in the shuffle. Sunshine Manor developed by Fossil Games almost became that for me. Locked in a haunted mansion known as Aitken House, Ada MacReady must uncover what was truly behind the events that once transpired there and investigate the darkness that still lingers within. Armed with a delightfully grotesque 8-bit pixel art style and a “too good to be true” soundtrack, it was a remarkably refreshing experience that respected both my time and my intelligence. Its dark yet light-hearted narrative is one that you should carve five-hours of play time out of your day for.
I’ve had a contentious history with Bloober Team’s titles. Typically producing first-person horror, Bloober has subverted their traditional formula to craft a third-person narrative that feels far more personal than anything they’ve dared to do previously. As if to push themselves further out of their comfort zone, Bloober uses the main character’s ability as a medium to parse the screen in half. Displaying the real-time render of the material and spiritual world in parallel, Medium sets up engaging puzzles and fascinating cutscenes that I couldn’t get enough of. With a score from Akira Yamaoka and art inspired by Zdzisław Beksiński, Medium is a game that sets the bar for psychological horror narratives for years to come.
Developed by Daniel Mullins Games and published by Devolver Digital, Inscryption is one part card game, one part found footage and one part scares. It is certainly the weirdest game of the year. Within that oddity is an atmosphere that I don’t think really exists in any game I’ve ever played. It’s something of a coalescence between the visual style, the sound design, and the fourth-wall-breaking narrative that makes Inscryption a special experience. These elements serve as the perfect set dressing to a rogue-like card game with so much depth and complexity that I could never truly get enough of it.
Who’d have though that the guy who doesn’t really dig rogue-likes would put two rogue-like titles on this list, but I can't talk enough about how masterfully created Returnal is in both its design and narrative. Developed by Housemarque for Sony is a third-person roguelike shooter. While obviously pulling cues and inspiration from films like Alien (1979), Returnal delicately mixes in cosmic horror by way of its enemy design and narrative trappings, fusing sci-fi and psychological horror magnificently. The downside to recommending this impressive, title is that it requires a Playstation 5 console to play. Which, given the state of console supply these days, is a big horror in and of itself.
House Of Ashes
You might question why Supermassive Games, House Of Ashes is nowhere on my list? Surely it ranks above something like Medium, or could bump the spooky card game off the list? House of Ashes is a game that I just couldn't enjoy. Ignoring the problems surrounding setting your game in a war with a deeply patriotic a maligned lens, the game felt deeply uninspired and irritating to trudge through. Perhaps what turned me off were the characters caught in a love triangle so trite that I couldn’t tell if it was campy or just poor writing. It’s entirely possible that the robotic bobbing of characters in conversation weighed my experience down, as a cold reminder that I was playing a video game versus keeping me immersed in the narrative. Ultimately, it’s the way that player choices felt disregarded in favor of the illusion of choice that muddied it for me. By the time the credits rolled on House of Ashes, I nearly entirely swore off of the rest of the Dark Pictures franchise and I personally cannot recommend it to anyone.
Little Nightmares II
Fans of Little Nightmares finally saw the release of its sequel, Little Nightmares II from publisher Bandai Namco and developed by Tarsier Studios. In the creepy cute suspense-adventure game players take the reigns as Mono, a young boy trapped in a world that has been distorted by the humming transmission of a distant tower. Our favorite heroine Six, the girl in a yellow raincoat returns to the franchise as his guide to discover the dark secrets of The Signal Tower and save Six from her terrible fate. Reviews from players are overwhelmingly positive with one reviewer calling it, "a masterpiece of a game" and another saying its, "A creepy, atmospheric and often oppressive adventure-puzzle-horror game" they'd strongly recommend.
Back 4 Blood
The long awaited cooperative first-person shooter from the creators of the critically acclaimed Left 4 Dead franchise dropped in October 2021 just in time for Halloween with hordes of new zombies to defeat in a thrilling fight for survival. Developed by Turtle Rock Studios and published by Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment, Back 4 Blood received mixed reviews from players with its cooperative campaign and multiplayer modes while boasting extreme replayability. With one reviewer calling the game, "a soulless zombie survival game, attempting to piggy back off the success of Left 4 Dead" and many upset about the developer's Tencent aquisition.