Great horror RPGs are harder to find than you might think. Despite clever innovations like sanity status, RPG designers still prefer swords and sorcery over anything else (just ask science fiction fans). However, that doesn’t mean there aren’t some downright scary RPGs out there. Whether the focus is on raw psychological horror or more traditional werewolves and vampires, there’s plenty of horror in the RPG genre. On this spookiest day of the year, here are five great role-playing games to play on Halloween.
Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines
Troika was an aptly named RPG studio. Led by Fallout developers Tim Cain and Leonard Boyarsky, who later worked on The Outer Worlds, Troika produced a trio of classic RPGs – Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura, The Temple of Elemental Evil and Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines.
When Bloodlines launched, it was little more than half a game, full of bugs and hidden content. But what it lacked in polish, it made up for in ambition, immersing you in vampiric politics or allowing you to take on the role of a Nosferatu roaming the sewers beneath Los Angeles. Fans did the rest, producing a series of comprehensive patches that addressed many of the most pressing issues.
Bloodlines’ spookiest quest is almost certainly “The Ghost Haunts at Midnight,” which requires players to explore the terrifying Ocean House – a hotel haunted by a very active ghost. I won’t tell you anything, but you should play this level with no lights on.
The first five minutes of Parasite Eve feature an operatic performance in which everyone goes up in flames. It’s a mood that pretty much sums up the era’s Square: dramatic, slightly unhinged and highly experimental. The game itself answers the question: “What if Resident Evil was a role-playing game?” The sequel to the novel of the same name stars young police officer Aya Brea as she fights mutated monstrosities in New York. This is a variant of the active time system that Square was famous for at the time.
To be clear: Parasite Eve is a product of its time. It’s stilted, awkward, and often difficult to combine survival horror and RPG, but it’s worth playing because it’s so reminiscent of the spirit of Square Enix in the late ’90s and because it just isn’t like that many games like this exist. The dated graphics also belie some extremely creepy artwork. Back then, no one was better than Squaresoft at the cinematic role-playing game, and the twisted mutations of Parasite Eve make for great nightmare fuel this Halloween.
Omori is a role-playing game where the horror lies in memories, emotions and a seemingly cheerful photo album that is darker than it seems. Based on a webcomic, Omori is broadly similar to Earthbound, but with themes of guilt, isolation, and depression. Let’s put it this way: Earthbound is dark, but Omori is dark. It vacillates between pencil-style pastel art and real life, with lots of pun-based enemies as enemies. It seems innocent, but even the happy moments are tinged with a sense of fear. If you want, you can put the main character entirely in her own head. Omori isn’t the first game to follow in the tradition of Yume Nikki, the original surrealist horror RPG, but it’s certainly one of the best.
Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey
There’s at least a little bit of horror in most Shin Megami Tensei games, but Strange Journey is perhaps the most disturbing of them all. It embodies the existential horror of annihilation and paranoia of John Carpenter’s The Thing, as a team of international scientists delve deeper into an apocalyptic phenomenon known as Schwartzwelt. As you would expect in an SMT game, the Schwartz world is teeming with all sorts of demons, but the real monster is humans. The original Strange Journey is harder to find these days – and Redux on the 3DS is far from an adequate replacement due to its inferior graphics and simpler mechanics – but it’s definitely worth tracking down. With its impressive graphics and excellent dungeon crawling, it’s quietly one of the best – and one of the most disturbing – games in the series.
The other Pokémon Black
Long before the official release of Pokémon Black, there was Pokémon Black – the creepypasta story about a disturbing version of the popular monster-collecting RPG discovered at a flea market. It’s memorable because it feels so real and describes a version of the game that could believably created using real game mechanics. If you haven’t read the story yet, you should read it here. It concludes:
I’m not sure what the motivation behind the creator of this hack is. It wasn’t widely distributed, so it probably wasn’t for financial gain. For a bootleg it was very well done.
It seems he was trying to convey a message; although it seems that I am the only recipient of this message. I’m not entirely sure what it was – the inevitability of death? The pointlessness of it? Maybe he was just trying to morbidly inject death and darkness into a child’s game. Anyway, this children’s game made me think and made me cry.
With the release of the real Pokemon Black, this version became known as Pokemon Creepy Black and was even faithfully recreated by fans as a real ROM hack. It’s an excellent ghost story to unwind on the spookiest day of the year, and a testament to the creativity of Pokémon fans.
Kat Bailey is IGN’s news director and co-host of Nintendo Voice Chat. Do you have a tip? Send her a DM at @the_katbot.