Terror in the Shadows: An Obscure Horror Video Game Tribute
Maybe you’re all too familiar with the mainstream horror franchises and want a taste of something a little more unknown. Step this way as we dig through the video game vault for a selection of underappreciated titles.
Many horror games have popped up over the years, some of which have lasted the tests of time and are constantly cited as the greatest of their genre. Titles like Resident Evil and Silent Hill have gained critical praise over the years and spawned large franchises that still sell substantially well to this day. Since zombie horror gained a more mainstream profile, we’ve seen the likes of Dead Space and Left 4 Dead rivet audiences with a more full on gore fest of action bound horror. With such a saturated market, it comes as no surprise that some games have faded into the shadows under the weight of stronger competitors, but needless to say, many of the forgotten ones still deserve an iota of spotlight, just for sheer creepiness, or even for how absurdly entertaining they were!
While I’m sure plenty of you avid gamers reading have lists of your own for which horror games you think deserve more attention, but here I want to focus on a small assortment from my own recollection, mostly games of old, that many of you might not be too familiar with.
So let’s turn out the lights, grab a baseball bat and venture into the spooky annals of gaming horror!
1. ENEMY ZERO
Developed by WARP and released on the Sega Saturn in 1996, Enemy Zero is a combination first person point and click and shooter set in lonely deep space. Taking many cues from the 1979 movie Alien, the player is plunged into dangerous territory aboard the space craft AKI as you are pitted against an enemy you cannot see.
Taking control of protagonist Laura Lewis (WARP’s own digital actress), it becomes instantly clear there is something very deadly aboard the ship. Having been jolted out of cryogenic sleep upon an emergency situation arising, Laura finds herself suffering the effects of amnesia, yet is orientated enough to try and contact her crewmates to discover the source of the crisis. Though, she gets a very unwelcomed sight as she witnesses via video monitor her shipmate Parker (the Alien resemblance right here!) horrifically mutilated by an unseen creature…
With invisible foes roaming the ship, Laura must navigate with extreme caution. Exploration is conducted through FMV sequences when inside rooms, and in real time when traversing the corridors of the ship. By thoroughly searching rooms, clues and items can be found to help solve puzzles and progress further into the game. While there is some relative safety in exploring the rooms, the real danger occurs when moving through the ship’s corridors.
The enemy is completely invisible, and can only be tracked by an acquirable sounding device which changes pitch for their direction and chimes faster the closer they get. While for the initial portions of the game, Laura is defenceless, she does later acquire a gun to protect herself, but it does have its drawbacks. The gun requires time to charge up before firing and can only shoot a short distance; thus meaning, expert timing and nerves of steel are required to hit the enemy when they are right in front of you. Overcharging the weapon will cause the shot to dissipate and you will have to go through the charging process all over again. As the invisible aliens are extremely volatile, seconds chances are few and far between. If they get you, you’re dead. One hit kill. The game does not put a high emphasis on combat by how purposefully cumbersome it is to fight back, and instead, pushes you in the direction of stealth and running to get through these sections. The gun is a last resort, if anything. Dealing with these corridor sections can make for some intense and even terrifying moments, trying to decipher the sounds to clue you in on where the aliens are so you can try and get past them undetected.
The game design is pretty good, used effectively in the pre-rendered environments within the interactive rooms, giving you a sense of smooth, shiny and practical ultramodern environments befitting an idealist spaceship of the future. The level of interaction in the rooms is very good with copious amounts of exploration, so you never end up too disengaged with the environments.
Now, with the plot, you will not find yourself bowled over with originality. It’s a copy and paste affair of most sci-fi horror plotlines (and as mentioned, Alien, which is at the forefront of its inspiration), though to be fair, it does pace itself well, and throws in a couple of its own surprises along the way. The cast of characters within the game is very small, but those you do meet carry a lot of the exposition with them, as Laura herself is a silent protagonist, bar a few ums, ahs and gasps. Basically all conversations will just be Laura listening to the others talk and just emoting in response with an array of acknowledging sounds. But the game doesn’t always have other characters around, putting preferred emphasis on loneliness to face down the terrors on board the ship.
Despite some hokey voice acting, Enemy Zero is an exceptionally unnerving game. Running around alone on a large ship with unseen foes ready to pounce certainly gets the heart racing, and with a weapon that requires critical timing, you have to make the decision on whether it’s wiser to make a run for it or risk taking on the enemy – though sometimes, the game doesn’t give you too much of a choice in the matter.
The gameplay does have its shortcomings, but on the other side, it has an intensely creepy atmosphere. It will test your wits and nerves from start to finish.
2. HELLNIGHT (DARK MESSIAH)
Developed by Atlus, Hellnight was released in 1998 in Japan (under the name Dark Messiah) and 1999 in Europe. The game is from a first person perspective as the player navigates mainly 3D environments in hopes of escaping instant death from a trailing, metamorphosing creature.
Set in Tokyo, an unseen protagonist (representing you, the player) flees into the subway after being chased by members of a cult for, as yet, unknown reasons. After boarding a late-night train, seemingly the protagonist escapes pursuit. Elsewhere, in a laboratory, a creature contained within a tank breaks free, contaminating a scientist, who proceeds to go on a killing spree before escaping into the subway, ending up on the tracks right in front of the protagonist’s oncoming train. Of course, this spells immediate disaster, as the train derails. Suddenly, the injured scientist begins to mutate into a hideous monstrosity…
Aboard the train, the protagonist and a young girl, Naomi, have survived the crash though find themselves in further danger. The monster has boarded the train and is killing other survivors. Not wanting to meet a similar fate, the pair makes a run for it. Out on the tracks, they are intercepted by a team of hostile soldiers, but before they can be taken into their custody, the monster sets upon them. In the midst of the crazed gunfire and bloodshed, the protagonist and Naomi escape, finding access to the sewers. But the monster is not far behind…
The gameplay is heavily puzzle orientated as you navigate the maze of the underground, all the while avoiding contact with the only enemy in-game, the mutating monster. You do not have any means of combating the creature yourself, so your only option is to run as fast as you can whenever you hear the unnerving grunts it makes. If you do get attacked by the creature, it is a one hit kill. Though there is a way to survive this, it comes at the cost of another.
Throughout the game, you can be joined by a partner character, starting out with the aforementioned Naomi, who has an uncanny ability to sense the monster when it is close by. Other partner characters have their own skills that will help you fend off the monster temporarily. Whoever you team up with will affect the ending you receive upon completion. Though, if you are attacked by the monster while with a partner character, they will take the unfortunate fatal blow on your behalf. It’s the equivalent of having a human shield – though this does make the protagonist a bit of a douchebag.
The game design puts you – more often than not – in tight situations. Many corridors are very narrow in width, meaning there is little room for manoeuvrability. You’re left hoping and praying the monster isn’t going to be directly in front of you. Speaking of the actual design of the areas, most are pretty forgettable to be fairly honest; generic textures that don’t stand out too much. Overall it’s just a place with many long corridors and vacant areas layered in shadow; it does work on a very isolating, drab level for the purpose of freaking you out when you’re being chased down and are trying to rush down very samey passageways, getting yourself lost in the process, so it’s not completely without intention.
Between solving some of the complex puzzles, you will spend most of your time on the run, trying to stay one step ahead in a game of cat and mouse to stay alive. When the monster gets close, be prepared to put your foot on the gas. But like any person, running hard for extended periods will tire you out, so take into consideration when you really need to be running, and when walking will suffice to conserve energy.
Hellnight’s plot is an intriguing one you will come to unravel between the bouts of running scared. You interact with numerous people you find living in the dingy recesses of this weird settlement known as ‘The Mesh’, a place that has separated itself from the surface world. They will give you an insight to some of the weirdness going on around you, and maybe even help you on your journey of escape. You will eventually come to learn more about the cult and their true motivations and how the protagonist figures into the whole situation. There are plenty of twists and turns to keep the story enthusiasts out there hooked from the start.
It’s definitely the type of game you don’t want to be playing with the lights off. It’s a delightfully terrifying experience which will have you perched on the edge of your seat.
3. DEEP FEAR
If there is any horror game I need to give some dubious credit to, its Deep Fear. It contains some of the most shocking voice acting ever committed to audio. Even worse than Capcom’s 1996 Resident Evil, which proudly wore the crown for having some of the most disjointed, ridiculous and downright hilarious lines to be featured in a game. There is no doubt about it – Deep Fear completely takes the cake on this front, something you’d have to hear to believe.
Putting that aside for a moment, let’s focus on the things that made Deep Fear a respectable edition to the survival horror genre.
Released on the Sega Saturn in 1998, it turned out to be the last game to come out for the console in Europe. Taking inspiration from such 1989 movies as The Abyss and Leviathan, Deep Fear is set in an underwater Naval and research facility called The Big Table. Their current project is the investigation of a space capsule that recently plunged back to Earth. The capsule was retrieved and brought to the facility for top secret tests, but their discoveries are going to bring unexpected ramifications for everyone at The Big Table.
Things start to go pear-shaped when a submarine crashes into a portion of the facility, causing some pretty serious damage. This brings in our protagonist, John Mayor, a part of a rescue team based at The Big Table. He is sent out to locate survivors, as well as rescue an important doctor who was working around the damaged area. What they encounter on the submarine is a thing of nightmares, as crew members begin to mutate into violent monstrosities, and it isn’t long before the mutants start appearing inside The Big Table as well. What are causing these terrible mutations? Despite having a nasty cold, John sets out to discover the source of this nightmarish situation.
Deep Fear does share some gameplay comparisons with Resident Evil in terms of the controls, as well as the fixed camera angles which were so prevalent in early Resident Evil games. But it has enough of its own gameplay quirks to give it some individuality. Particularly notable is how the game constantly puts the player in jeopardy with the lack of oxygen in various areas of the base, and the requirement to try and keep up oxygen levels plays a big impact on how you survive. Oxygen reduces in areas at an even pace, though the use of firearms to defend against the mutants does deplete the oxygen levels at a quicker rate. So to avoid dying of asphyxiation, you will need to replenish oxygen supplies by way of air system ports located in some areas, as well as oxygen grenades that can be tossed into areas lacking the air system to refill the supply; though if both of these are lacking, you can use a regulator in areas without oxygen and underwater sections, which can be refilled via the air system ports.
The 3D environments throughout the game are really quite decent by design, much as you would expect of a facility based underwater in all its industrial glory. It’s especially eerie – with your character being trapped in a harsh metallic enclosure at the bottom of the ocean – when you’re running around alone tackling weird, freakish mutants. The atmosphere within is set with absolute perfection. The soundtrack played over these environments is a great accompaniment to set the mood for the action.
The game is not perfect by far, voice acting already covered. There is some ridiculous defying of physics for one thing, like with one room being entirely flooded, but when you walk into the room next door, its bone dry. Clearly, water should not politely stay within its own confines and resist flowing out into another room just because that one particular room is the only one meant to be flooded. Common sense clearly failed whoever was designing this game.
With an intriguing cast of characters and a B movie plot, Deep Fear is certainly an experience not to be brushed aside so easily. While the game might not be especially scary, there is a disturbing element to the design work of the mutant enemies, plus enough tension is built to keep any avid horror fan satisfied. It’s definitely a game for those who want an old school gaming experience.
Please visit Audio Atrocities™ to hear some truly cringeworthy voice acting taken from the game: Audio Atrocities™ : Deep Fear · SEGA · Saturn · 1998
Another creation of WARP featuring their digital actress Laura, this time developed for the Dreamcast and released in 1999 in Japan (2000 for North America respectively). D2 utilises first and third person action and movement gameplay elements.
The game takes place in the isolated snowy wilderness during the aftermath of a plane crash. Cult terrorists had attempted to hijack a plane midflight, though by even greater misfortune, it is struck by a meteorite and downed in the barren Canadian wilds. Protagonist Laura survives the accident, and awakens inside a cabin under the care of fellow surviving passenger, Kimberly, who informs her that the plane crash had occurred around 10 days prior. Kimberly had only found Laura a couple of days before close to the site of the crash. Laura has no memory of the days between the crash and when she was found by Kimberly, a mystery she wants to try and unravel. Their peace is disturbed as one of the hijackers stumbles into the cabin and promptly mutates into a plant-like monster…
The game sends Laura on an uncertain journey as she tries to find a means to contact the outside world, as well as search for other survivors; she becomes embroiled in the strange situation around her with people mutating into plant creatures, all the while trying to decipher strange visions that keep accosting her. Slowly but surely, fragments of her memory do begin to return, especially concerning those missing days after the crash, but it becomes clear that it’s not about what she’s missing, but what she has yet to discover about this nightmare… and herself…
The biggest credit for this game is its multilayered story, a concoction of science, surrealism and spiritualist ideology. There is nothing particularly straightforward or predictable in its approach, and it keeps you guessing at times to what is happening, also giving you room to construe your own ideas. But where I can attest it shines the most is within the dramatic concluding stages, where gameplay amalgamates with some clever storytelling, causing some affects on the gameplay that can disconcert the player.
The gameplay consists of third person exploration for outside navigation as Laura travels from place to place, though when she enters a building, the perspective switches to first person to closely investigate the enclosed areas. This is also the case when Laura is confronted with battle situations. In a fight, Laura is not able to move about freely, only rotate on the spot and shoot from her position. Battles occur completely at random, though successfully defeating the enemy acquires Laura experience points to level up her stats, much like the style of a role-playing game. There is an air of repetitiveness regarding the gameplay as mostly you will find yourself traversing areas and getting caught in random battle situations, which are routine situations in themselves.
After a certain amount of playtime, Laura will gain access to a snowmobile, which takes away some of the slog of traversing the outdoor parts. What I find entertaining is that even though you power around at speed on your remarkable snowmobile, Laura will graciously disembark in preparation for a random battle. Why not just ram them in the face with it? Okay, so it’s not very sportsman-like.
Restoring health can be accomplished by the consumption of meat, which Laura can hunt throughout the game with her trusty rifle. For all the poor little rabbits and birds that come across Laura’s path, she can snipe them like a bloodthirsty pro and take meat for later sustenance. There is no vegetarian option.
There are a lot of story driven cut-scenes within D2, and I mean, a lot! Some do take quite some time to get through as well. While in some respects this is good, sometimes it can be a little bit jarring the amount of time you spend watching things happen rather than taking controlling and playing actual gameplay sections.
D2 is definitely one of those games worth a try. It isn’t really a scary game per-se, more like disturbing with a squick factor seven, and really just plain weird at times. Oh, and tentacles are prevalent in this game… Need I say more?
Furthermore, if you want to experience the ludicrous amount of times Laura makes a magical entrance crashing through the ceiling, this is definitely the game for you!
5. Martian Gothic: Unification
Probably one of the most underrated survival horror games out there to date. Developed by an incredibly tiny team at Creative Reality, Martian Gothic: Unification is an ambient horror set on Mars, navigated by third person perspective through a fixed camera system.
Set in 2019, an investigation team consisting of three members, Kenzo, Karne and Matlock, are sent to the Martian base of Vita 1 after communications ceased 10 months prior, with a last ominous instruction for anyone wanting to enter the complex: ‘Stay alone, stay alive’.
The mission doesn’t bode well from the start as the spacecraft is forced to make a crash landing on the planet surface. The three split up as they battle to get to the complex through adverse planetary conditions, entering through different airlocks as per the mission direction to ‘stay alone’. As the three go through the decontamination process, they sense something is very wrong concerning the gas used. Regardless, Kenzo enters the facility, though he is the only one able to do so as the internal doors are both still locked for Karne and Matlock and require deactivating from another location.
Vita 1 is eerily quiet; bodies litter the base, many deaths caused by violent confrontation and others through self-inflicted methods. What could have happened to have caused such a grim situation to occur? Through investigation, Kenzo is able to access a computer to deactivate Karne’s door lock, but shortly after, the dead bodies around him begin to reanimate and mindlessly attack.
The gameplay splits itself between the three characters, which you can switch between whenever you like to explore and solve the puzzles, a lot of which are not easy or straightforward, and will require time and patience to solve. Puzzles will also require you to exchange items with your fellow teammates. This can be done via ‘Vac-Tubes’, which will deliver items to other accessible points around the base.
Action is very limited, and your confrontations with the zombie crew – referred to as Nondead – should be engaged with carefully. If you can avoid fighting them, it is recommended, as Nondead cannot be permanently killed off, only subdued for a certain amount of time, thus meaning unless they are impeding your path, you will be wasting ammunition on putting them down. You will also encounter other enemies in the game, which will require different methods to dispose of, like with the big, deadly Trimorph, which will take more technical means of avoiding and disposing of until you get something more substantial to kill them with later on.
An important aspect of the game is the ‘stay alone, stay alive’ gimmick in place, inferred from the last message of Vita 1. Throughout the game, your characters are infected by an alien bacteria, and if any of the team mates come into close contact with each other, they will be unceremoniously drawn together and mutate into a horrific Trimorph. And it will be game over. Early portions of the game will have the three characters sealed in different areas of the base, so avoiding each other will not be too much of a problem. But eventually, when the base becomes opened up and each character can traverse freely around, you will have to take extra care for the characters not to come into contact with each other. This means a cure will have to be found if any of them hope to leave Vita 1 alive.
The pre-rendered backgrounds are astoundingly beautiful and incredibly detailed, giving an intense level of depth to the game. There is a wealth of unique areas to feast your eyes on, melding together areas with a clinical scientific gleam akin to a research base with more homely designed decor, which gives a more acclimatised impression of home – though it could be said these even resemble something of a haunted house within the game’s setting.
The game is held up by its three main characters, whose voice acting is varied in quality, though they are all distinctive personalities that bounce off each other impressionably. Kenzo is a calm and intelligent young man, Karne is a tough as nails leader guy and Matlock is a witty and sophisticated woman. Working together with their specialist skills, they try to avoid a similar fate to the crew of Vita 1.
Of course, I cannot forget to mention the computer MOOD, voiced by the actress Fenella Fielding, who is an astounding presence as the eccentric AI that tries to help the three in their quest for survival. There is nothing more enjoyable to listen to than a sassy computer, who provides some of the finest dialogue in the game.
While the game does suffer from some clunky control issues and overly complicated puzzles – all of which might cause you to bite your own lip off with indignation – Martian Gothic: Unification has so many facets to appreciate that shapes it as an intense horror experience. There is a clear unnerving ambience that follows you around the base, with strange sounds and whispers assaulting your senses to put you on edge. What music is used – and in many cases, lack thereof – is perfectly reflective of such a morbid, disturbing situation. The atmosphere is simply spot on – grim, foreboding and unimaginably creepy. It’s a survival horror for those who want a disturbing experience.
So there you have it! Quite the selection of horror games to sink your teeth into! From space terrors, to underwater escapades, out into the vast snowy emptiness, and even into the deepest, darkest underground. So many different types, all with their own engaging aspects and chills to be had! Please don’t hesitate to give your own thoughts on lesser known horror titles out there – any obscure horror video game is deserving of time in the spotlight!
Images © WARP/Atlus/SEGA/Creative Reality