(In the last two installments of Survival Horror Handbook, I looked at big-ticket titles and franchises. These were the titles that defined survival horror, not to mention ones that helped bring it to the masses. From here on out, I'm going to take a look at games you might have overlooked, for better or for worse.)
Too many games come out on a yearly basis for you to keep track of all of them. It's a sad fact, but even the biggest game critics out there, like Jim Sterling or Jeff Gerstmann, don't get time to play everything that gets released. For survival horror fans, this means several great games get overlooked, and by consequence, are buried underneath mountains of bigger, better publicized games. After all, when your game already appeals to a strictly niche audience, and doesn't have any real promotion behind it, who's going to play it?
Still, some of these games manage to gather significant cult followings, at least by survival horror standards. Here are a few games that aren't mainstream hits, but beloved gems to those in the fandom.
Deadly Premonition (PS3/360/PC)
Why not get the obvious one out of the way early, hm? Deadly Premonition is a game that was initially reviled, then gradually accepted and eventually loved by a positively rabid fanbase. It is a Frankenstein's monster of a game, stitched together from bits of sandbox games, survival horror, shooters, and comedy, spruced up with a decidedly Lynchian atmosphere. The game follows FBI Agent Frances York Morgan (but just call him York, everybody does,) as he travels to a sleepy town hot on the tail of a vicious murderer. Upon arrival, however, he gets wrapped up in a tale of intrigue involving a notorious serial murderer known only as the Raincoat Killer, and has to fight for his life against supernatural, zombie-like entities that may or may not be a figment of his imagination. Oh, yeah, and he has an imaginary friend named Zach whom he discusses 80's movies and psychoanalyses of Tom and Jerry with. And he can read fortunes in his morning cup of coffee. No joke.
A product of the dementedly brilliant auteur Swery65, Access Games' bizarre trip of an experience is something unlike anything else on the marketplace today. Simply put, it's kind of a weird masterpiece in the same way that Twin Peaks' first season was; on the surface, it seems like a confused and muddled mess, but scratching beneath the surface begets something truly special. On top of that, it manages to thrill and entertain in all the right places. If you're looking for something off the beaten path, this is the game for you.
Availability: It's been released twice, once as a budget title for the 360 and once as a revised Director's Cut for the PS3 and PC. I love the Director's Cut, as it introduces a great framing device and a decent bit of new content, but it also has significant performance issues that 360 version lacked. Both can be had for 20-40 bucks.
Rule of Rose (PS2)
Rule of Rose is a game that is truly fucked in the head. That may seem blunt, but it's absolutely true. The game depicts a cult of little girls who capture a young woman named Jennifer and proceed to subject her to very cruel and unusual punishments, on top of making them their errand girl. Bad timing, as she also ends up being tormented by masked assailants and eyeless zombie children, and to top it all off, her best friend is a dog. But despite the initially jarring subject matter, which isn't for those with tender dispositions, this is a truly beautiful story when you start understanding the intent behind it. Narrative-wise, it deals with the ramifications of child abuse and bullying by blowing certain things up to an extreme degree, then forcing players to stare at it in gaping disbelief.
That's to say nothing of the overall atmosphere, which is incredibly unsettling and effective. While there are no real cheap jump scares to speak of (meaning that PewdiePie won't be able to do an annoying Let's Play, thank the lord,) Rule of Rose will still manage to creep you the hell out, what with the disturbing soundscapes and haunting imagery. Aside from being scary, however, the characters are all very well-written, and the story is full of surprising yet feasible twists and turns. It's a game that has a dedicated fan community to this day, and for good reason: it's damn near a masterpiece of horror gaming.
Availability: Not good if you're looking for a cheap copy. This game has steadily increased in price since its release, and currently a complete copy will easily run you 130-200 bucks. Even without the case, you're looking at around 80-100. It's worth saving up for if you're a collector, but still, it ain't cheap.
Clock Tower 3 (PS2)
If you like creepy London scenery, claustrophobic spaces, and bizarre plots, then Clock Tower 3 is the game for you. Oh, yeah, did I mention that you're being chased the entire time? Yep, that totally happens. Alyssa Hamilton must run around haunting locales, completely defenseless, as she solves puzzles and tries to get closer to just what in the hell is happening. All the while, she's being pursued by hulking monstrosities that are attempting to brutally kill her and she has to find items to pacify ghosts, lest she wants them to attack her too. Basically, Alyssa is completely fucked the entire game, and you have to make she's significantly less fucked than she could be.
To further complicate things, because this is a survival horror game and of course there needs to be some complicated mechanic thrown in there because why the fuck not, Alyssa can get scared. This might not seem like a big deal, but if you like being in complete control 100% of the time, then it will be, because getting scared is a legitimate mechanic in this game. You have a fear meter, and the more freaked out Alyssa gets, the harder it is for her to do things. Items can help calm her down, but only to a certain extent, and a majority of the game becomes preventing her from having a mental breakdown, which makes her more vulnerable than usual. However, it must be said that this actually helps add a nice atmosphere to the game. It's terrifying as hell to worry about getting chased, pacifying ghosts, and on top of that, maintaining your mental stability for the course of the entire game. This is a pretty beloved game in the survival horror community, and for good reason: it's fucking scary, has a weird as hell but compelling plot, and some creative enemy encounters.
Availability: You can grab it for around 10-20 bucks most places, maybe way cheaper if you go to places like Play-N-Trade or flea markets.
Haunting Ground (PS2)
I have some trepidation about recommending this game for a few reasons. First off, I've only watched a lot of gameplay, and heard it described to me, so I can't fully attest to how it plays. Second off, it's of mixed quality and costs way more than it would probably be worth. And last off... well, how do I put this... your main character, Jennifer, gets chased around and approached sexually by everybody in the game, and when she dies, she literally gets raped to death. While she's getting eviscerated or eaten alive or some other horrible shit. This goes above and beyond the average horror game in several ways, and honestly, the way it's portrayed is pretty awful. Especially considering the rest of the game feels like a soft-core porn.
So why am I including this tale or a girl and her dog and a mansion of maniacs? Well, once again, for a few reasons. It was one of the last gasps of survival horror on the PS2, before the console petered out and the genre along with it, for starters. But mainly: a lot of people really like this game. While it may not be to my tastes, many people loved the significant change in tone and pace offered in Haunting Ground when held in comparison to other games on the market. It's still highly in demand these days, and if you can overlook the weird, psychosexual content, it's definitely worth tracking down. Pretty standard survival horror controls, from my understanding, so it shouldn't be too hard to get into. Again, though, if you don't like some of the most nauseating deaths in video game history, maybe pass this one up.
Availability: Just shy of Rule of Rose price levels, this is pretty much all of the place in terms of pricing. Be prepared to spend at least 40-60 bucks though.
Next time, I get really obscure and talk about some personal favorites that are woefully overlooked!