No matter how many monster movies you’ve seen, and how much Stephen King you’ve read, steeling yourself against every brand of fright imaginable.
Japanese horror can always find the one crack in your armour and exploit it to scare the ever-living crap out of you. That’s just how it is. The western world woke up to this big-time when The Ring came about, but gamers knew the drill for almost a decade at that point. After all, Resident Evil, arguably the granddad of Japanese horror games, came out in 1996.
|FATAL FRAME / PROJECT ZERO: Maiden of Black Water
|Yomawari: Midnight Shadows
|Nippon Ichi Software
|The Evil Within
|The Evil Within 2
|Resident Evil Remaster
|RESIDENT EVIL 2 / BIOHAZARD RE:2
|Capcom Development Division 1
|RESIDENT EVIL 3
|Resident Evil 4
|Capcom Production Studio 4
|Resident Evil 5: Gold Edition
|Resident Evil 6
|RESIDENT EVIL 7 biohazard / BIOHAZARD 7 resident evil
|CAPCOM CO., LTD.
|Resident Evil: Revelations
|Resident Evil Revelations 2 / Biohazard Revelations 2 Deluxe Edition
|CAPCOM CO., LTD.
|Resident Evil 8: Village
|Capcom Development Division 1
|Silent Hill Homecoming
|Double Helix Games
If you’re done with Dead by Daylights and Amnesias and would rather get into the weird and unsettling stuff that Japanese developers are so good at, we have for you a juicy collection. It has some obscure classics, some famous classics, and a few indie games which should definitely be one or the other. Behold, this is our list of the best of scary Japanese games
Fatal Frame (series)
Before there was Phasmophobia to make the gaming world obsessed with finding proof of ghostly apparitions, we had Fatal Frame. Rooted deeply in Japanese folklore and urban legends, Fatal Frame games provide players with a camera capable of capturing ghosts and calming them down. Of course, the job isn’t quite Pokémon Snap-like walk in the park, as the ghosts you track aren’t exactly cooperative.
First of all, the ghosts want to haunt you. Second, they don’t stay in focus too long, and your camera’s exorcising effectiveness is based on capturing clear images. It’s tricky, but very satisfying, and frequently genuinely terrifying. The franchise has been going for twenty years now, with several installments of the core series, with a remaster of Maiden of Black Water coming out in 2021.
As it will become reality very soon, many Japanese horror games don’t look anywhere as big-budget as Residents Evil now do. Instead, they often do a great job on a small budget and limited form. As the first example, take Mad Father, a cute game about an 11-years old girl who made a huge mistaking of snooping around her father’s laboratory and discovering what she shouldn’t have.
Despite isometric camera and dialogues delivered in a manner similar to visual novels, Mad Father tells an engaging story about a really messed up family. If what you expect in a horror is a good plot, not stunning grpahics, then you shouldn’t be disappointed in Mad Father. The game’s branching endings should also give you enough reason to replay the game a few times.
Ao Oni began as a Japanese-only RPG Maker XP production, but has quickly gained not only a following and a cult status, but also other versions, including, crucially, an English one. The gist is simple: you’re a teen called Hiroshi, who made the classic blunder: he and his friends entered a haunted mansion, door suddenly closed and got locked, and now they are dealing with an Oni.
As you might imagine, it’s not an optimal situation, and your main tasks are saving your friends and getting out before the Oni tracks you down. Thankfully, careful exploration might yield some helpful items and information. The game has a very simple presentation, but the location design and the oppressive atmosphere make it worth a while, especially since it’s free.
Yomawari: Midnight Shadows
Putting children in supernatural danger seems to be a running theme here. Yomawari: Midnight Shadows doesn’t break away from this, putting you in the shoes of two girls coming home from a firework display only to find themselves stalked by ominous spirits. While the girls are separated, you hop between them as story progresses, and make choices with lasting consequences.
With no way to directly fight the spirits, you must find other ways to survive, and listening to the heartbeat is the only way to know when you’re safe. As you explore, you’ll start uncovering the mystery of the place and figuring out what the spirits haunting it are. Yomawari: Midnight Shadows does a great job mixing lovely aesthetic with dark, disturbing story.
Another freeware which gained cult following, Purgatory begins not with an earthquake, but by falling into a room filled with bodies and covered in blood. See, you’re playing as a girl called Enri, who made the same blunder as the teens from Ao Oni and got dared. This time the dare involved going to a place rumored to be stalked by a monstrous Butcher violently dealing with intruders.
Purgatory has a neat old-school aesthetic, powered by the Wolf RPG Editor, and uses it quite well. The game is very short, so it can fit between longer play sessions, but it does have two endings! There’s even a sequel which takes a broader look at the world the game is set in, and features Enri as one of the protagonists, rather than the sole playable character.
Misao: Definitive Edition
We told you there’s a sequel to Mad Father, didn’t we? Well, here it is! It’s not a direct sequel, but the existing links are quite obvious. This time instead of family drama we’re dealing with high school drama, as a school gets dragged to a hellish dimension by the spirit of a girl gruesomely murdered some time prior. That’s already dark, and gets even worse as you investigate.
See, the core premise requires you to find body part of the murdered girl, Misao, and a lot of that involves interacting with other students who knew her and were dragged into this hell with you. It would be a disservice to the story to spoil it here, but there’s a lot going on. Gameplaywise, Misao is very similar to Mad Father, so you should feel right at…home?
Chilla’s Art games (Masako, Aka Manto, etc.)
Rather than pointing you towards specific games here, we’ll point you at the entire series, because developer Chilla’s Art created a whole load of smallish horror games. Some of them explore some urban legends and yōkai lore, such as Aka Manto or Onryo, but others are happy to follow more generalized horror tropes. Sometimes they even emulate a VHS aesthetic.
The games tend to be somewhere between an hour and two hours in expected playtime, but often there are several endings to explore for extra replayability. If you’re looking for focused horror experiences, then Chilla’s Art games might be right up your alley. They don’t look stellar, but ride the graphical limitations well, and make them work for the scares they want to create.
What could be spookier than a ghost game? No, not a game about ghosts. A game which was fine, until one day it was killed, and whose vengeful spirit lingers in a limited number of PlayStation 4s? Enter P.T., a teaser for a Silent Hill game, developed by the joint forces of Hideo Kojima and Guillermo del Toro. It was scraped from existence for… reasons, which makes it very precious.
The premise of the teaser is (was?) simple: it sent you, the unnamed protagonist, into a clearly haunted house somewhere on unspecified suburbia. The scares deployed against you were very skillful, which adds to P.T. legendary status. Between game experimentation of Kojima and cinematic flair of del Toro, this game could have been something amazing. Alas, its life was cut short.
Corpse Party (2021)
This one is a bit convoluted. It is as far as we can tell, a 2021 re-release of a 2010 remaster of a 2008 remake of the original Corpse Party from 1996. Despite this confused lineage, this game is a proper classic which not only had all these redoes, but also started its own series. Not bad for a game that looks quite old-school, with isometric, pixelated graphics, and simple dialogue presentation.
The plot involves nine students of the Kisaragi Academy who try to use a friendship-cementing act of magic. Instead of becoming best friends forever, however, the are transported to a nightmarish version of the school their academy was built over. There’s also a vengeful spirit of a girl who makes this otherworldly excursion very bloody indeed. Good luck surviving and getting out.
A PlayStation 2-era classic, Siren may have gotten a bit old, but it can still scare you out of your pants if you give it a chance. The plot follows a group of survivors who have just went through a disaster in rural Japan. It’s a bit Rashomon, in that we see event from several points of view, and now even in a particularly chronological order, which adds to the mystery.
Over time you discover that it wasn’t just a simple earthquake, but what it is, exactly, are better left for you to figure out. Siren emphasizes using stealth while getting around, as the dangers lurking in the areas you’re exploring aren’t kind to humans. Original Siren was launched in 2003, but has been re-imagined in 2008 as Siren: Blood Curse. There’s also a 2006 sequel, Forbidden Siren 2.
Is Bloodborne really a horror game? Definitely not in the typical sense, but its dark and gruesome world full of twisted demonic creatures that could be lurking around every corner is definitely creepy and can easily scare the unaware. The Lovecraftian horror themes coupled with impeccable monster design makes for a compelling mix that’s creepy as hell.
It’s worth noting the game’s extraordinarily high difficulty level – it’s not unusual for one to die here much more often than they would in similar action RPGs. In a way that could also be contributing to how scary the game is. After all a bizarre horror is less of an issue if it strikes with the power of an angry dandelion. Either way, Bloodborne’s a great balance between action and horror.
The Evil Within
A tired cliché about talented detectives is that they can “get into the mind of the criminal”, but what if that was literal? Well, in some cases it could look like The Evil Within, a game which has you investigate the absolutely horrific, twisted mindscape of a troubled man. Welcome to the worst work experience of Detective Sebastian Castellanos, you’ll be here for a while.
The place is absolutely nightmarish, and Sebastian has to deal with many twisted monsters on his way to being free of this place, but also answer to the ongoing murder investigation. The Evil Within is a third-person perspective game with strong survival horror elements. It was directed by Shinji Mikami, one of the mastermind behind original Resident Evil!
Speaking of Resident Evil: Resident Evil! The game which defined the genre for years to come, it launched originally in 1996, but it has not only been remastered and remade, but also has numerous spin-offs and a lengthy, healthy main series that’s now up to eight core releases. Not bad for a game with tank controls and voice acting which nowadays can only be described as cheesy.
The plot involves a team of Raccoon City police investigating a series of murders only to find out they got more than they bargained for. Resident Evil set up series legends like Chris Redfield, Jill Valentine, and of course, Albert Wesker. If you’d like to see how RE developed over the years, you can’t go wrong by starting from the beginning, it’s clunky, but still works VERY well.
Silent Hill 2
When speaking of Japanese horror games, it’s most often one of the two – either Resident Evil or Silent Hill. But which one is better?
The answer is none. Both are comparably awesome and both set new standards for entire generations of horror games. However, the differences are clearly visible – while both games look similar at first glance, it quickly turns out that they are approaching the horror genre from two different sides. Resident Evil is more like a zombie-filled action game, and Silent Hill focuses more on creating tension and the truly scary and unsettling atmosphere without resorting too much to cheap old tricks like jump scares. Those who owned PS2 surely do remember unslept nights after long Silent Hill sessions with friends.
Resident Evil 7: Biohazard
We didn’t want to fill the entire list with Resident Evil and Silent Hill games, but for RE 7 we make an exception. What’s so unique about Resident Evil 7? It’s the first in the main series with a first-person-perspective and a solid VR support for maximal immersion. And thanks to that it does deliver amazing scares as you explore a mansion of mutated, homicidal Baker family.
As Ethan Winters, a man searching for his wife you’ll have to contend with an unnaturally strong fan of chainsaws, numerous hand-wracking traps, and a mystery behind everything that’s going on. RE7 received a great sequel, Resident Evil Village, in which Ethan comes back, this time visiting Europe to find his kidnapped daughter in a messed-up village ruled by creepy lords and ladies.
Face your fears, if you dare
This concludes out glimpse in to the worlds that are just like our, but also slightly wrong, and populated by people who are just like us, but… also slightly wrong. Or, you know, just straight up zombies action movie vibe, like Resident Evil.
Either way, Japanese flair for the horrific and unsettling makes for a really good fodder for horror games, and hopefully you’ve found something to spook you this Halloween.