It’s hard to overstate how much I love RPGs. I love the robust character creation, the engaging mechanics, the beautiful stories, and the expansive worlds. But I have to admit something. Sometimes, I get a little tired of all the fantasy titles the genre is clogged with. You can hardly look at the RPG tag on Steam without being buried by bikini elves or grim-faced armor dudes. If I see another title like “Realms of Realmlore” I’m going to go feral.
Maybe you, like us, need a break from all the elves but still want all the great things an RPG provides. Then perhaps you want something darker. Perhaps you want to roll the dice, make a character, and feel the chill of dread creep up your spine. Perhaps, dear reader, you want a horror RPG.
Thanks to the likes of Sandy Petersen’s Call of Cthulhu and modern titles like Dread, horror has been a fixture in role-playing games since the days of pen and paper. Sadly, in the world of video games, horror RPGs tend to be relatively rare. But take heart, children of the night! What the horror RPG genre lacks in quantity, it more than makes up for in quality. In this grimoire of games, here are some of the most spine-chilling, blood-curdling masterpieces ever to haunt your console or PC.
15: Elvira II: The Jaws of Cerberus
Back in the mid-80s the horror series Movie Macabre gained something of a cult following thanks largely in part to its hostess, Elvira, Mistress of the Dark. Her charisma, sarcastic wit, and kitschy horror look contributed to her meteoric rise in popularity. It only makes sense that she’d eventually get her own games. Said games are…questionable at best, though Jaws of Cerberus is the larger (and better) of the early Elvira RPGs.
This game sees Elvira kidnapped by Cerberus himself. To rescue her, players must explore a haunted studio where movie sets have come to life, battle with the monsters of horror movies past, and endure Elvira’s constant verbal abuse. Unfortunately, the game suffers from a story that can quickly turn from campy fun to egregiously offensive in places. The gameplay also certainly hasn’t aged well due to its clunky exploration and antiquated combat mechanics. Still, if you want some kitschy, gory, horror fun, then this game is well worth your trouble.
Developed by Sacnoth Studios for the PS1, this game was something of a rare departure from the lighter-hearted fantasy RPGs that were popular at the time. Koudelka eschewed fantastical locations for the more grounded, historical backdrop of an abandoned abbey in the 1890s. Players took on the role of the titular Koudelka: a Romani girl trapped within the forgotten halls of the ancient temple, whose shadow-choked halls are packed with grotesque monsters inspired by Japanese ghost stories, demonology, and H.P. Lovecraft.
The game does a fantastic job of weaving grid-based RPG combat with a horror story that feels right at home in an edition of Strange Tales. Unfortunately, some of the RPG mechanics work against the sense of dread. It’s not long before players stare down the maw of eldritch horror and simply wonder what loot it’ll drop. Still, this is a unique and exceptional example of the horror RPG concept.
13. Fear and Hunger
Fear and Hunger uses a dark fantasy backdrop inspired by medieval occultism to ask players a sobering question: What would you be willing to do to survive in a horrible situation?
In this game, nothing is off the table. Sacrifice party members to dark gods, devour their flesh, turn yourself into an inhuman nightmare, and lose it all at the flip of a coin. While that randomization can spice up the game, the way one lousy roll can tank your progress turns things from fearful to frustrating very quickly. Of course, fans of another frustrating horror RPG still to appear on this list will likely eat this one up as well.
12. Parasite Eve
Developed by the RPG studio behind Final Fantasy, Square intended Parasite Eve to be a bold departure from their usual format of sad anime boys fighting God., instead blending the turn-based RPG combat the studio was known for with the methodical exploration and resource management of survival horror games like Resident Evil and Silent Hill. The game also boasted a dark sci-fi plot complete with plenty of body horror, psychic powers, and existential dread that felt like something right out of an 80s horror classic like The Thing or Scanners.
Sadly, Parasite Eve‘s best and boldest ideas were watered down in its sequels, both in terms of the gameplay and characterization for the game’s protagonist, Aya Brea, who is stripped of her powers in a display that makes Other M’s Samus look like Ellen Ripley. The original is still a gem, though.
11. World of Horror
One of the more recent entries on this list, World of Horror feels like a cursed Macintosh game found on a blood-stained floppy disk. I absolutely adore it.
World of Horror puts players in a desperate position to stymie the arrival of one of several dark gods that threaten to swallow the world in their particular brand of cosmic horror. Players must solve (or survive) a series of paranormal mysteries inspired by titans of Japanese horror such as Hideshi Hino and Junji Ito. While the game’s roguelike format, combined with its pre-written stories can force you to repeat certain mysteries each run, each story does have multiple endings that will keep you guessing and screaming.
10. Prey (2017)
A controversial title, to say the least, Prey offers a brilliant sci-fi horror story that traps players in an isolated, retro-futurist space station overtaken by self-replicating aliens. Those aliens’ ability to disguise themselves as everyday objects, or even people, creates a pervasive sense of paranoia, while the recurring themes of lies and identity leave the player constantly questioning the world around them.
Prey also finds brilliant ways to turn classic immersive RPG concepts into exercises in pure horror. Even the game’s level-up system (which involves on-site brain surgery via ocular needles) means even the simple act of upgrading your character is visceral and unsettling.
9. Sweet Home
Before Resident Evil and Silent Hill, the Famicom channeled an ancient evil that haunted those fortunate enough to take a chance on this hidden gem. Based on a horror movie of the same name, Sweet Home dared players to explore the haunted mansion of an infamous child murderer to uncover its deadly secrets.
The game combined non-linear puzzle solving with a four-character party and combat that felt like a more lethal version of Dragon Quest. But where Sweet Home’s horror really shined was in the way it asked you to split your party up to solve puzzles or find clues. If a party member was slain, either by monsters or hazards, they were dead forever. No phoenix downs here, folks. That mechanic turns nearly every decision into a matter of life or death. It’s no wonder this game inspired Shinji Mikami during the development of Resident Evil.
8. S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl
Despite its various bugs and technical shortcomings, there’s no overlooking this bleak sci-fi horror game set in the irradiated wastes of Chernobyl. The blasted ruins and sickly forests of “The Zone” are filled with horrors both paranormal and all-too-human.
The game leans a bit more into first-person immersive sims than role-playing games, but the robust mechanics, customizable load-outs, and varied approaches to problem-solving place the game firmly in the RPG category alongside titles like Deus Ex. Crucially, this title’s open-world structure offers plenty of room for moments of unscripted dread, like desperately seeking shelter from a radiation storm or hiding from roving packs of murderous bandits.
7. Vampire The Masquerade: Bloodlines
Based on the popular tabletop RPG of the same name, Bloodlines throws you into a dark and terrible realm known as Southern California. Players are newly-turned vampires who are forced to sink or swim in a cutthroat world of vampire Mafiosi, supernatural snuff films, murderous werewolves, and haunted hotels.
The game is a potent Bloody Mary of crime drama, alternative punk movements, and Gothic horror that’ll leave you begging for more. The only reason it’s not sitting pretty in the top five is because it sags a bit near the end, especially during the infamous sewer section. You’ll also want to download a few fan updates to resolve some of this game’s more annoying technical issues.
6. System Shock 2
Cyberpunk and horror are a match made in hell, and we wouldn’t want it any other way. Few games demonstrate how well those two genres work together better than System Shock series. In these games, claustrophobia and isolation rule the day as you navigate the metallic guts of a vessel overtaken by an inhuman and malignant consciousness. But the black vein running through both games is the theme of autonomy and what happens when it’s taken away.
That theme is at its most palpable in System Shock 2, a brilliant sequel where you must face a starship twisted by the cruel designs of a malignant intelligence. Your enemies, while formidable, are also victims whose very bodies have been turned into tools of their own enslavement. All of these horrors are committed in the name of a war between twisted gods of metal and flesh for dominion over a man-made hell. Oh, and there are psychic monkeys. You know, in case you need another reason to play this masterpiece.
Influenced by early 20th-century playwrights like Albert Camus, Pathologic allows players to select one of three characters with distinct backgrounds and storylines before throwing them into a small village rife with supernatural phenomena, mysterious cults, and a deadly plague that threatens to swallow the community.
This game lacks traditional horrors like killers in the dark or waves of flesh-eating zombies. Instead, the horror here comes from the desperate struggle to survive in a terrible situation. You’ll need to scavenge for supplies like food, water, and medicine in a diminishing community where everybody is just as desperate as you are. Slowly, dread begins to build as the world around the player is overtaken by poverty, decay, and disease. The subject matter may hit just a little too close to home, and, like Camus’ own writing, the storytelling can be a bit abstract. Each character is only given a piece of the story during a playthrough, requiring multiple plays to fully grasp the mystery of the plague. The experience is well worth the trouble, though.
4. Darkest Dungeon
After watching a cannibal witch boil a crusader alive, your highwayman has begun drinking to forget. The drink has affected his aim, and each missed shot earns him derision from your vestal maiden who has become abusive to cope with nearly dying to a cultist’s blade. Food is dwindling and the torch is burning low. Welcome to Darkest Dungeon.
Darkest Dungeon is a roguelike RPG where permanent death and disfigurement can come from any direction. Surviving a trip through even the game’s lesser dungeons requires perfect strategy, the right items, and more than a little luck. Indeed, here is a game not only about facing horror, but enduring the lasting damage that true horror inflicts. The result is an inky-black masterpiece made even more delightfully dark by narrator Wayne June’s icy baritone voice informing you of just how hopeless everything is.
Darkwood begins with a dog being killed shortly before the player character is tied to a chair and beaten half to death. From there, things get progressively worse.
This game immerses players in a post-apocalyptic fairy tale where flesh is as malleable as the mind. Players “level up” by boiling down mushrooms and directly injecting them like a backwoods Jesse Pinkman. Yet, every benefit gained leaves players with a crippling, permanent debuff. Sure, a third eye that lets you spot enemies is handy, but is it worth making those precious healing items less effective? How much are you willing to give just to survive one more night? Better decide quickly. The sun is setting and there are more than wolves out tonight.
FromSoftware has always excelled at blending role-playing with horror elements. Even by that studio’s lofty standards, though, Bloodborne is an entirely different beast.
The game lures you in with an almost Castlevania-esque premise: an illness is turning the people of the Victorian-era city of Yharnam into beasts. You, a hunter, must try to stop the outbreak by any means necessary. Things start with the standard Van Helsing package (fighting werewolves, witches, etc.), but the game soon pulls the rug out from under you. Next thing you know, some guy is screaming about “growing eyes on the inside” while the moon gives birth to a god made from melting corpses. And that’s just the halfway point! Now, would someone please tell us which elder god we need to summon to get a PC port?
Wistful, melancholic, and featuring a soft, scribbly art style that seems at home on a fridge or in a child’s sketchbook, some might look at Omori‘s Earthbound-inspired aesthetics and combat and wonder how anyone could call it a horror game. In fact, at first blush, it looks a bit like an attempt at cashing in on the popularity of games like Undertale or Lisa: The Painful.
However, Omori encapsulates a different kind of horror than the other games on this list: the kind that comes from within. A deeper dive into this RPG reveals that those cartoony graphics and soft-faced characters conceal a tragic secret. This game uses horrific imagery as a conduit to express very real, very human fears — the kind of fears we may all have to deal with one day. I won’t dare reveal more than that since it’s best to dive into this game as blindly as possible. Just rest assured that no horror fan should miss out on this fable of isolation and loss.