A while back, we presented a list of our favorite games to chill out with for those times you just want to relax and not evoke your brain or senses too much. Titles like Flow or Firewatch are low-pressure games great for putting you in a mellow mood. But what about those times you want to do the exact opposite?
What do you play when you want an adrenaline rush?
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We can think of dozens of games that fit into this category, but narrowed the list to 10 of our favorites. Some are scary. Some are gory. Some are frustratingly hard, but all are guaranteed to spike your adrenaline. Don't worry if you have already mastered some on the list. We included alternate picks around each title so there's plenty for you to choose from.
Demons and Zombies and Aliens, Oh My!
By the 23rd century, Earth had been depleted of its natural resources. So the one-world government (EarthGov) built a fleet of planet-harvesting ships called "planet crackers." Three hundred years later, one of these planet crackers named the USG Ishimura goes radio silent.
Player character Isaac Clarke is a systems engineer sent as part of a rescue mission to see what has happened to the Ishimura. What they find is a ship full of creatures called "necromorphs"---essentially mutated zombies with a hive mind and swords for hands.
Fun Fact: Audio FX head Don Veca used a combination of human baby sounds, children screaming, and a panther's growl as the voice of the small necromorphs called Lurkers. The result is very creepy.
Dead Space was co-produced and co-directed by Glen Schofield and Michael Condrey. Schofield described the game as "Resident Evil in space." However, the only real thing it shared with the famous Capcom game is its genre. What makes Dead Space unique is that the necromorphs move fast and are not easy to kill. Taking off their head only makes them mad. The most effective way to neutralize them is to sever their limbs.
But it's not even the monsters in Dead Space that get your heart pumping. At times you are plunged into pitch blackness with only your flashlight to find your way around. All the while, noises have you on edge, waiting for the next baddie to jump out and plunge its blades into you. The atmosphere and sound effects work well together to rattle your nerves. The team pulled inspiration for Dead Space from Resident Evil 4 and Silent Hill---two other great examples worth an honorable mention.
Resident Evil 7: Biohazard was a pretty disturbing and scary game when released in 2017. Main character Ethan Winters goes to an old derelict mansion on a plantation in Louisiana looking for his girlfriend Mia, who has been missing for three years. After finding her in the basement, she pretends to lead him to safety but dementedly attacks him. He ultimately ends up a prisoner of the Baker family, a small group of cannibals who can't be easily killed because of their powers of regeneration.
Fun Fact: RE7 had five playable demos with the VR version ironically being the first released---KI7CHEN (E3 2015), Beginning Hour (June 2016), Lantern (Gamescom 2016), Twilight Version (September 2016), Midnight Version (December 2016). Twilight and Midnight versions were variations of Beginning Hour.
The game did a pretty good job at elevating the player's fear and anxiety on its own. Then Capcom released a PSVR version. The core game remained the same, but there is a certain level of disconnect between the player and Ethan when playing the standard. Your subconscious keeps reminding you that you are just playing Ethan. In VR, though, your brain hounds you that you are Ethan. Straight video does not convey the fear, but a YouTuber hooked up a heart monitor while playing to show his fear level (above---spoilers).
I had no problem playing and finishing the standard release, but when it came to the VR port? Nope. I had to take frequent breaks, and not because of eyestrain. Let's just say I kept my underwear drawer open. If you want a really good scare and a game that frequently gets your heart racing and adrenaline pumping, you cannot go wrong with Resident Evil 7 VR.
If you don't have PSVR, the regular game will have to suffice. Capcom has not ported RE7 to any other VR platforms yet, but fans hold out hope. Until then, Half-Life: Alyx is a suitable VR substitute.
We could have included any version of Doom in this list because this franchise is the king when it comes to heart-pounding gameplay. We chose Eternal because it is the latest in the franchise and because id Software decided to go back to Doom's roots after its brief experiment in survival horror on Doom 3.
Fun Fact: The original Doom was initially supposed to be a video game adaptation of the movie Aliens. Developers scrapped that plan to allow more creative freedom.
The game takes place sometime after the Mars incident. Demons have ravaged Earth and wiped out 60% of the population. The Doom Slayer comes back to Earth searching for three Hell Priests---Deags Nilox, Ranak, and Grav---and the one they serve, Khan Maykr.
Not much needs to be said about the gameplay. It's the same winning formula of frantically killing legions of demons using the many weapons found throughout the game. The fast-paced action has you moving all the time. There's no way to stealth through this game. Battles are always hectic and often end up in your face. All the better, as smashing demons in the face with your fists for health power-ups is pretty satisfying.
Oh, Hellll No. Run!
In Alien Isolation, you assume the role of Amanda Ripley, the daughter of Ellen Ripley from the original Alien movie. It's 2137, 15 years after her mother was lost in space, and a team has found the Nostromo's flight recorder. Amanda is offered a position on a recovery team sent to the space station Sevastopol to retrieve the black box, but they find something has gone very wrong when they arrive.
Fun Fact: Fox provided the designers with three terabytes of original production material from the movie Alien, including the film's original sound effect recordings, which is why the game's setting has an almost retro 1970's sci-fi look.
The gameplay is tense as you battle hostile humans and androids onboard the station. However, what makes the game more intense is the Xenomorph, which roams the outpost freely. Unlike the other antagonists in the game, you cannot kill the Xenomorph. Instead, you have to hide whenever it comes around.
Amanda can duck into lockers or under desks. She can even crawl into vents to hide from the alien. If it sees her, the player must find a way to run away and break its line of sight. This aspect makes the game highly stressful. For example, when hiding in a locker, you can hear the Xenomorph prowling around looking for you, and sometimes it finds you. So you spend these times praying that it did not round that last corner just as you dove into your hiding place.
Games that rely more on your wits and hiding from the thing going bump in the night can be both rewarding and paranoid-inducing. If that's your thing, you should also try Outlast and Krillbite Studio's baby-horror game Among the Sleep.
Limbo is a spooky platforming puzzler. Players take control of a boy who wakes up in a dark forest looking for his sister. Along the way, he must avoid obstacles and a giant spider that has it out for him.
Fun Fact: The dark forest setting in Limbo was inspired by a spooky wooded area near where creator/director Arnt Jensen grew up. The menacing spider sprang from Jensen's arachnophobia. So you could say that Limbo is a reflection of its creator's nightmares.
The action is slow-paced, but the forest is full of traps and unexpected hazards, making the game challenging and frustrating at times. Every jump could lead to a gruesome death, making it all the more toe-curling when jumping traps and pits.
Limbo is dark and brooding with a narrative that is shown rather than spoken. Despite the game's stylized cartoony grayscale graphics, death scenes are often gory. This aspect has led to fans describing the puzzles as "trial-and-death" challenges rather than "trial-and-error."
Indy developer Playdead's follow-up game titled "Inside" is a similar puzzle-platformer that is worth giving a whirl once you complete Limbo, which is relatively short.
Dying Light takes place in the fictional city of Harran, where a deadly viral outbreak has occurred. Protagonist Kyle Crane is an undercover agent working for an agency called GRE. The organization tasks Crane with retrieving a file stolen before the government quarantined Harran. His work is cut out for him in a city full of zombies and completely cut off from the outside world.
Fun Fact: The city of Harran was inspired by the favelas (slums) of the Rocinha district in southern Rio de Janeiro. The doorless entries and open windows provide ample parkour opportunities.
At first, Dying Light seems like your average "kill the zombies, save the citizens" open-world affair that has become a cliché at this point. However, in addition to the zombies encountered during the day, the night brings out the super-fast, uber-powerful Volatiles. While they generally cannot down you with one hit, Volatiles are fast, scary, and challenging to kill. Your best bet for survival, when caught out at night, is to make your way to the nearest safe house and hide out until morning, especially if there is more than one in the area.
The hairiest moments are when you hear your watch alarm going off to warn you the sun is about to set, but you are miles away from safety. These times are when parkour, a core gameplay element, comes into play (video above). As long as the Volatiles don't have you boxed in, you have a chance to escape by vaulting through windows and over fences to outrun them.
Although it's not an open-world game, an excellent alternative to Dying Light is Zombie Army 4. Unlike the first three titles in the franchise, ZA4 is quite a bit more frenzied. The Last of Us Remastered or Days Gone are also suitable substitutes for PS4 owners.
Prepare to Die... a Lot!
Let's just get this out of the way: Dark Souls (or any other title in the franchise) is not for casual gamers. It is tough---very tough. It is an RPG that is not for those who like Final Fantasy. Honestly, it's not even meant for those who play Fallout 4 on Survival difficulty. Bandai Namco sums it up best on the back of the box.
Fun Fact: Sometimes games get leaked before their release date, which can lead to early spoilers. Developer FromSoftware combatted this by monitoring servers and sending in characters with maxed-out stats to invade the player's session.
"Tense dungeon crawling, fearsome enemy encounters, and incredible challenges provide an absolute foundation of achievement and reward," reads the rear cover art of the Dark Souls box. "Prepare to die." Indeed! This game chews up and spits out hardcore gamers. Casual players need not apply.
As if the game's vanilla gameplay were not punishing enough, other players who have died can invade your game session looking to earn back their humanity by killing you and stealing all your hard-earned souls. That said, the other part of Bandai's blurb is true, too---the satisfaction of actually making it to each bonfire alive after much death is a gratifying reward.
There are not too many other games like Dark Souls by other developers. The two sequels and the spiritual predecessor Demon's Souls are mostly the same formulae. That said, you might also like Bloodborne or Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice.
I won't even attempt to outline the plot of top-down shooter Hotline Miami, not just because I don't want to reveal any spoilers, but because it's somewhat surreal and hard to explain. In Hotline Miami, you step into the shoes of a nameless assassin that fans have dubbed "Jacket." Jacket receives cryptic phone calls at the start of each level, telling him to go to a specific address and "clean house" or other euphemisms for killing everybody there.
Fun Fact: The Australian Classification Board refused to classify the sequel to Hotline Miami because of an implied rape scene. Instead of changing the game, developer and creator Jonatan Söderström told Australian players, "Just pirate it!"
Unlike the other games listed so far, there are no monsters or jump scares to get your blood pumping. It's less of a top-down shooter, and more of a puzzler tasking you with figuring out how not to die. While deaths are over-the-top gory, the retro graphics and 1980s neon motif tame that down, so that's not what will get you going. This is a different kind of adrenaline burn. It's the gameplay itself that riles you up.
The enemies in Hotline can kill you as fast as you can kill them or faster if you count the bosses. Each enemy encounter is hair-trigger fast because one hit and you are dead. If the baddies decide to mob you, you might as well just lay down. The combination of trying to get the jump on the bad guys and the frustration of dying multiple times during a level will get you swearing at times while still driving you to want to play.
Games don't always have to be scary, gory, grotesque monster-filled affairs to get your adrenaline flowing. Cuphead is a shining example of that. Graphically it comes across as a cutesy cartoonish kids game. The animation is reminiscent of the old movie theater breaks with their anthropomorphic sodas and popcorn telling you to visit the snack bar.
Fun Fact: To fund their game, creators Chad and Jared Moldenhauer both remortgaged their houses. Despite this, or because of it, they still had to work part-time jobs while making the game.
However, it shares something in common with Dark Souls in that you will die many, many, many times before reaching the end. At times the game seems overwhelming, even impossible. But it is always a matter of learning the patterns and using every tool the developers provide to overcome the challenge.
Its notorious difficulty is part of its allure. It takes quick reflexes and a lot of trial and error to get through even the earliest levels. You will spend hours on some stages, even though you can get through them in under five minutes once you have them figured out. This makes completing a level feel like a genuine accomplishment.
Ready. Set. Go!
This list could not be complete without a racing game, but it was a struggle to choose just one. Whether an arcade racer like Mario Kart or a driving simulator like Gran Turismo, they all offer adrenaline-inducing action for all skill levels. So for lack of a way to put one above the others, we chose Assetto Corsa Competizione because of its physics.
Fun Fact: At Gamescon 2018, Nvidia announced that Assetto Corsa Competizione would be one of the first titles to support Nvidia RTX real-time ray tracing. As of March 30, 2021, ACC and Dirt 5 are the only racing games with RT support.
Assetto Corsa Competizione has some of the most advanced physics of any racing game, including the arguably better-known Gran Turismo series. We briefly touched on this in our examination of video game physics a while back. For instance, most racers only have four contact points with the asphalt (the four tires).
Assetto Corsa has 20 points of contact thanks to its five-point tire model. Each tire has two points on the front and back of the tire's footprint and one in the center. This model allows the cars to react more realistically when turning or edging up over a curb (see video above). This subtler bounce and a more comprehensive threshold of grip add to the exhilaration when negotiating corners at the edge of the car's capabilities.
Of course, a racing game does not have to have realistic physics to get your adrenaline going. Arcade racers like Need For Speed or even Sega's retro classic OutRun can do the job just the same.
If you are looking to get that adrenaline high, our list is a "just-for-starters" compilation.