After reading our best handheld consoles list, I was reminded of the time I fell out with my mum's cat. Not because she’d scratched me, or because she’d peed against the curtains for the umpteenth time that week. Not even because she’d brought in another decapitated mouse from the garden as some sort of ceremonial 'gift' for looking after her while my parents were on holiday. This time, I'd fallen out with Bella – an admittedly adorable moggie with green eyes and the softest black and white coat – because, if it wasn't for her, Amanda Ripley would still be with us.
The star of Alien: Isolation would not have been impaled through the stomach at the hands of a Xenomorph. Her eyes would not have rolled back into her skull as she gasped her last, desperate breath. And her organs would not have spilled onto the tiled floor of Sevastopol Station's components warehouse.
But they did. And in the real world, I poured coffee all over the rug, dropped my Nintendo Switch on its side, and was chastised by my unsuspecting girlfriend after screaming "Bloody hell, Bella!" at the top of my lungs at half-eleven at night. Across the room, Bella the cat shot me a thousand-yard stare, as if she didn't just set the above in motion by leaping onto my lap, and digging her claws into my thigh – causing me to break cover in-game, and for Ripley to get skewered like a human kebab. Bloody hell Bella, indeed.
You can't tell me that handheld consoles aren't the best way to experience video game horror.
Playing with the lights off, your headphones on, and a screen a few inches away from your face, for me, is the most intimate way to play horror games, and the best way to bury yourself in their horrid hellscapes. In these moments, you're completely switched off to the real world around you (restless cats, and all), and fully-tuned in to the digital beasts that go bump in the night. Ambient noises are sharper, shadows are darker, and jump scares are more terrifying than ever.
Roll your eyes and tell me horror games don't actually need jump scares, and I'll suggest the moment the wheelchair man grabs your arm in the opening half-hour of Outlast is among the best examples of tone-setting in any horror game I've played. Despite that game's problematic approach to horror, mental health, and stereotyping, its ability to keep jumpscares fresh to the end is applaudable.
Shake your head and tell me you could easily replicate the lights-off, headphones-on situation above in front of your high-end PC with its 30-inch monitor, or while sat on your couch opposite your 55” 4K telly, and I'll tell you the familiarity of your regular gaming set-up will always make you feel safer, more comfortable, and less vulnerable. Try keeping your cool while fleeing Brennenburg Castle's unseen horrors in Amnesia: The Dark Descent while sitting on the toilet, or watching the world disintegrate around you in Layers of Fear while lying in the bath.
“Won't someone think of the frame rates!”, you cry like a brooding Helen Lovejoy. But I can't hear you, because I'm the zone, volume up full, and hunched over the 4x9.6-inch screen of my Switch, haplessly searching for supplies in Darkwood, dancing at the feet of that horrible cleaver-wielding chef in Little Nightmares, or downright convinced someone's watching me in Stories Untold.
I'm now so invested in handheld horror, that if ever there's a horror game I've yet to play, I'll actively seek it out on the Switch – or, depending on its age, the Vita, PSP, or DS version if it exists – over console and PC. Even if I've already completed a game on more capable hardware – like, say, Alien: Isolation – I'll make a point of replaying it on the small screen. And I always enjoy it more.
At Gamescom 2021, Techland named December 7 as the release date for its long-awaited parkour action-horror sequel, Dying Light 2 (although it's since been pushed to February, 2022). A few days later, the developer also announced the series' first game was heading to Nintendo Switch in the (hopefully) not too distant future, which is, of course, a massive moment for handheld horror.
Given the at times breakneck pacing of Dying Light, not least in combat, when clambering onto the highest rooftop with a horde of hungry undead clutching at your shoelaces, I don't expect the sharp visuals and lofty frame rates of its console counterpart on Nintendo's handheld, but I am super excited to take Techland's flagship horror jaunt on the move. The PSP incarnation of Silent Hill Origins, released way back in 2007, advised players to play with headphones on, within a dark room, in order to best experience its survival horror fare, and that's exactly what I plan to do with Dying Light whenever it arrives.
In the meantime, I'm doing everything I can to get Amanda Ripley off the perpetually doomed Sevastopol Station with as few holes through her torso as possible. You should try and do the same – slouched over your Switch, with the lights off, and headphones on. If you do, mind and keep one eye on that bastard Xenomorph. And, worse still, keep the other fixed on Bella the cat.
Need some more scares in your life? Check out the best horror games you can play right now.