While it is a niche within a niche, horror JRPGs do exist and there’s a good handful that are worth your time.
What makes a horror JRPG?
Well, this list includes any JRPG with some combination of dark or morbid story elements, monsters that are grotesque or frightening in nature, or just scary settings in general.
If you’re tired of colorful and light hearted anime designs, this is a good list to refer to for darker JRPGs that might be classified as horror.
In no order, here is a list of great horror JRPGs:
Parasite Eve Series
Parasite Eve is a survival horror JRPG that features NYPD cop, Aya Brea, who must confront biological monstrosities invading New York City on Christmas Eve.
Parasite Eve is turn based JRPG meets Resident Evil claustrophobia and gun customization, with the two sequels skewing more toward the action elements.
These games are among the first that come into peoples’ minds when horror JRPGs are brought up, and all 3 are worth playing.
The 3rd Birthday (Parasite Eve 3) can be played on PSP, or emulated via the PPSPP emulator.
Koudelka is about a woman who is beckoned by her psyche to investigate a medieval manor, where she later teams up with a bandit and a priest who have their own motives.
Koudelka is a rough play due to a high encounter rate and muddy visuals, but it’s worth the effort to complete it alongside a guide.
The monster designs are super creepy, the soundtrack has a great, spiritual percussion element to it, and the game is completely voiced and even uses motion capture technology for the characters.
Shadow Hearts Series
The Shadow Hearts games actually take place in the same universe as Koudelka, though it’s hardly a requirement to play Koudelka beforehand.
Shadow Hearts games involve typical, turnbased JRPG gameplay but with the addition of the Judgement Ring. Basically, you stop a spinning marker in the shaded areas for longer combos and more damage.
The original Shadow Hearts is about 15-20 hours long and features a fun cast of unique characters, including a enjoyably crude anti-hero protagonist. It’s a well paced horror story that involves freeing haunted towns from curses and spiritual corruption.
The sequels are decidedly more silly and less horror like, but Shadow Hearts Covenant in particular is a must play for its various gameplay improvements.
The Shadows Hearts games can be played on PS2 or via emulation (PCSX2).
Sweet Home came out in 1989 for the NES. It’s a survival horror JRPG that’s based on a Japanese film, Sweet Home, of the same year.
In this horror JRPG, you can swap between characters who each have a unique inventory of key items, splitting them up to explore an old mansion as you please.
Battles are done in the old-school 1st person perspective, and the game adopts a true survival horror element as you must find items to heal up instead of relying on spells like most other JRPGs.
Sweet Home plays surprisingly well for such an old JRPG, and it’s often cited as the first true horror JRPG.
Sweet Home can be played on the NES or via an emulator (mesen).
Bloodborne may be the quintessential horror JRPG to play around the Halloween holiday, featuring an unmatched aesthetic and world inspired by existential horror author, H.P. Lovecraft.
Bloodborne is about a hunter who must slay beasts during a never ending night. The weapons and character builds are gratifying, the bosses are grotesque and merciless, and hunting monsters under the full moon is peak horror gaming.
Bloodborne can be played on PS4 and PS5.
Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls Series
I would classify the Souls games as horror as they are all among the dark fantasy and medieval aesthetic, involve a great amount of death (on the player’s part), and feature stories of hopelessness and dread.
You can jump in with any, though I think they are best played in order.
Dark Souls games are unforgiving, frustrating, and notoriously unhelpful in aids given to the player. However, these elements are what make world endearing, the exploration rewarding, and that lend a nice pinch of horror to it all.
Dark Souls games can be played any modern platform, including PC.
Demon’s Souls can only be played in its original version on PS3, via the RPCS3 emulator with a strong computer, or by playing the ground up remake on the PS5 (highly recommended).
While most definitely a horror game, it’s hard to call Corpse Party an RPG as it lacks such elements. But I’m keeping it on the list since some would argue the case that it is.
Anyway, Corpse Party follows a group of friends who trap themselves in a haunted school after an occult ritual goes wrong. The game primarily involves exploration, locating items, and puzzle solving.
Corpse Party came around in 1996 and has various spin-offs and remakes. Generally, many say the PSP iteration is the ideal version and most accessible.
Corpse Party: Blood Covered – Repeated Fear can be played on PSP or via emulation (PPSPP).
Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne
Nearly all the SMT games might loosely be labeled as horror JRPGs, though I think Shin Megami Tensei III Nocturne best takes the label.
Nocturne takes place in Tokyo, Japan after an apocalyptic event brought about by some cult. The world is now a battlefield between demons and must be faced by the player in turnbased JRPG combat, who can collect and use demons for himself.
The soundtrack goes pretty hard and the gameplay is the tried and true sort if you are familiar with Persona games. This is a great JRPG to dive into if you’re looking for a darker setting.
SMT Nocturne can be played on PS2 or via emulator (PCSX2). A Nocturne remaster will also come to the West in 2021 for the Nintendo Switch.
Nier and Drakengard
Both Nier and its spiritual predecessor, the Drakengard series, are bleak stories with occasional bouts of grotesque shock value.
These horror JRPGs feature action heavy, hack-n-slash combat, haunting and ethereal soundtracks, and heart warming characters despite the barren worlds and disturbing plot elements.
Valkyrie Profile: Covenant of the Plume
Perhaps all Valkyrie Profile games are somewhat horror esque as they all follow themes of death. However, Covenant of the Plume is particularly dark by comparison.
Valkyrie Profile: Covenant of the Plume is a tactical JRPG on the Nintendo DS and the battles are extremely difficult. To overcome that difficulty, the player has the option to literally sacrifice a party member permanently during battle.
That gameplay mechanism still surprises me to this day.
Valkyrie Profile: Covenant of the Plume can be played on the Nintendo DS or via emulation (DeSmuME).
I think Vagrant Story fits the description of a horror JRPG, as it takes place in a dead city run amok with zombies, lizardmen, ghosts, and other fantastical creatures.
The main villain, Sydney, also summons monsters through dark rituals and pentagrams, and the overall vibe of the game is quite bleak.
The backstory of the main character, Ashley Riot, is brutal and adds great mystery to the playthrough.
Be warned that Vagrant Story involves a lot of weapon crafting and menu management, a rewarding system but one that can be frustrating to grasp effectively.
Recommend a Horror JRPG
Do you feel like another JRPG would classify as horror and be a good addition to this list? Feel free to reach out and I will be happy to have it added.