Halloween horrors of the virtual world

“The Evil Within 2” promises visceral horrors and sadistic enemies. Image via Bethesda Softworks/Tango Gameworks.

BY CHARLES BATTERSBY | Many video game publishers like to focus on big blockbuster games in the fall, to usher in holiday gift-giving profits. However, a few clever companies have brought their spookiest titles to the market just in time for Halloween. Horror games where monsters pop out at the player for cheap scares are slowly being replaced by projects offering more cerebral frights. Many of this year’s big horror titles have little combat — and even when they do, the primary source of fright comes from the protagonist doubting their own sanity. Whether you’re filling up your own virtual pumpkin bucket or playing the long game of stocking stuffing, here are a few disturbing and terrifying treats that deserve to make the cut.

This year, October 13 is on a Friday. So, of course, Bethesda Softworks had to release their big new horror blockbuster, “The Evil Within 2,” on that ominous (some say cursed) date. The much-anticipated sequel picks up a few years after the first “The Evil Within,” but new players should be able to leap right in without playing the first game. They will take control of former police Detective Sebastian Castellanos, who finds himself in a small town called Union. The plot of the first game centered on a device that could draw people into a virtual reality, and Union is actually a distorted virtual version a wholesome little town. The game has a non-linear story, so players will be able to set aside the main quest line and go looking for mysteries to solve in Union.

Both “The Evil Within” games are directed by Shinji Mikami, who also directed the first game in the “Resident Evil” franchise, not to mention “Resident Evil 4.” Many horror game fans consider “Resident Evil 4” to be the apex of that series, and “The Evil Within 2” uses similar controls and combat. This means the horror is tempered with plenty of action. Players will still need to ration their ammunition and other resources carefully but, for those who like gunplay combined with their horror, this is the game grab of the fall.

A hatchet is of little use against the abysmal enemies of “Conarium.” Via Iceberg Interactive/Zoetrope Interactive.

People who want a more introspective form of horror can try “Conarium,” which released in June. This game has little combat, and takes its inspirations from weird science author H.P. Lovecraft, and his tales of things too terrifying for mankind to comprehend. It begins at an Antarctic research base and uses a plot that is overtly inspired by Lovecraft’s novella “At the Mountains of Madness.” The player discovers a secret prehuman society deep beneath the ancient ice. To survive this encounter with the unknowable, players will need to solve puzzles and occasionally escape pursuing monsters.

Unlike “The Evil Within 2,” this game doesn’t allow players to gun down the bad guys. In “Conarium,” the only option for the poor protagonist is fleeing in abject terror. Learning the full backstory of the game requires players to hunt down journal entries and other clues, and then piece together what happened. The overall tone, visual design, and storytelling will delight true Lovecraft fans.

Another terrifying game from earlier this year is “Outlast 2.” In it, players control a photojournalist, armed only with a camcorder. Instead of rationing ammo, players have to ration batteries for their camera. As with “Conarium,” there is no way to fight back — and “Outlast 2” is full of patrolling enemies who are constantly searching for outsiders to kill. Players must sneak around in the darkness to survive, using the night vision lens of their camera outwit foes in the darkness.

Much of the horror in “Outlast 2” comes from the fact that it uses a relatively realistic setting. The main characters must escape a rural community that is beset by a holy war between two groups of religious fanatics. It is deliberately provocative with its use of Catholic imagery and a “Middle America” setting.

Because “Outlast 2” uses an entirely different protagonist and location, players don’t need to have experienced the first game. However, the original “Outlast” remains a brilliant psychological horror game in its own right, even four years after its release.

For players who want to support the work of indie designers, the game “Inmates” hits the virtual shelves on Oct. 5. While it isn’t as polished or elaborate as some of the other horror games out there, it does incorporate many of the same design elements, including a helpless protagonist trying to escape a prison populated only by memories and phantoms.

Dreaming you’re back in the fourth grade is not the scariest part of “Outlast 2.” Image via Red Barrels Inc.

Even games that aren’t specifically about horror are getting in on the act this month. Online multiplayer games like “World of Worldcraft” usually hold short-term events during the weeks around Halloween, and WoW’s developers have already confirmed a “Hallows End” in-game event, which begins on Oct. 18.

Last year, the online shooter “Overwatch” also held a “Halloween Terror” event that temporarily added in new maps and game modes with a gothic horror theme. It also served as a way to test out a new cooperative mode where players teamed up to fight waves of robot zombies. This week, the publisher of “Overwatch” confirmed the return of “Halloween Terror” beginning on Oct. 10. People who have yet to try this massively popular game now have one more reason to jump on the bandwagon.

Zombies have been a part of the “Call of Duty” franchise for nearly a decade. The most recent game, “Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare,” also has an outlandish zombie mode. The developers have confirmed that something special coming this month, although details have not been released at the time of this writing.

From the absurdities of fighting robot zombies to the terrors of confronting religious extremism, Halloween 2017 has a virtual nightmare for everyone.