Great horror RPGs are more difficult to find than you might think. Despite clever innovations like the sanity stat, role-playing designers still tend to favor swords and sorcery over everything else (just ask sci-fi fans). That doesn’t mean there aren’t some perfectly scary RPGs out there, though. Whether they feature raw psychological horror or more traditional werewolves and vampires, there’s plenty of spookiness to be found in the role-playing genre. So on this, the spookiest day of the year, here are five great RPGs to play on Halloween.
Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines
Troika was an RPG studio that was aptly named. Led by Fallout developers Tim Cain and Leonard Boyarsky, who would later go on to work 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.
Bloodlines was barely more than half a game when it launched, rife as it was with 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. The fans did the rest, producing a series of sprawling patches that addressed many of its most pressing problems.
Bloodlines’ creepiest quest is almost certainly The Ghost Haunts at Midnight, which sends players to explore the frightening Ocean House – a hotel haunted by a very active ghost. I won’t spoil it for you, but you’ll want to play this level with the lights off.
The first five minutes of Parasite Eve features an opera performance in which everyone bursts into flame. It’s a mood that encapsulates the Square of that era rather well: dramatic, slightly unhinged, and wildly experimental. The game itself answers the question, “What if Resident Evil were an RPG?” A sequel to the novel of the same name, it stars rookie cop Aya Brea as she battles mutated monstrosities through New York, featuring a variant of the active time system that Square was famous for at the time..
To be clear, Parasite Eve is very much a product of its time. It’s stilted, awkward, and often struggles to mix survival horror and role-playing together, but it’s worth playing because it’s so evocative of Square Enix’s spirit circa the late 90s, and because there simply aren’t that many games like it. The aged graphics also belie some supremely creepy artwork. No one did “cinematic RPG” better than Squaresoft at the time, and Parasite Eve’s twisted mutations make for some great nightmare fuel during Halloween.
Omori is an RPG in which horror lies in memory, emotions, and a seemingly-joyful photo album that’s darker than it appaears. Based on a webcomic, Omori broadly resembles Earthbound, but with themes of guilt, isolation and depression. Put it this way: Earthbound is dark, but Omori is dark. It vacillates between pastel colored pencil-style art and real life, with lots of pun-based opponents as enemies. It seems innocent enough but even the happy moments are tinged with a sense of dread. If you want, you can have the main character retreat entirely into their own head. Omori isn’t the first game to follow in the tradition of Yume Nikki, the OG of surrealist horror RPGs, but it’s certainly one of the best.
Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey
Most Shin Megami Tensei games have at least a little bit of horror in them, but Strange Journey might be the most unsettling of them all. It embodies the existential horror of Annihilation and the paranoia of John Carpenter’s The Thing as a team of international scientists delve deeper and deeper into an apocalyptic phenomenon known as the Schwartzwelt. As you’d expect in an SMT game, the Schwartzwelt is swarming with all manner of demons, but the true monster is man. The original Strange Journey is harder to find these days — and Redux on the 3DS is far from an adequate replacement owing to its inferior art and simpler mechanics — but it’s well worth tracking down. With its striking visuals and outstanding 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 beloved monster collecting RPG discovered at a flea market. It’s memorable because it seems so real, describing a version of the game that could be believably created using real game mechanics. If you haven’t read the story you should check it out here. It concludes:
I’m not sure what the motives were behind the creator of this hack. It wasn’t widely distributed, so it was presumably not for monetary gain. It was very well done for a bootleg.It seems he was trying to convey a message; though it seems I am the sole receiver of this message. I’m not entirely sure what it was — the inevitability of death? The pointlessness of it? Perhaps he was simply trying to morbidly inject death and darkness into a children’s game. Regardless, this children’s game has made me think, and it has made me cry.
With the release of the real Pokémon Black, this version has come to be known as Pokemon Creepy Black, and has even been faithfully recreated by fans as a genuine ROM hack. It’s an excellent ghost story to chill your bones over the spookiest day of the year, and a testament to the creativity of Pokemon fans.
Kat Bailey is IGN’s News Director as well as co-host of Nintendo Voice Chat. Have a tip? Send her a DM at @the_katbot.