[Review] Lone Survivor
Lone Survivor for the PC/Mac is an indie game through and through. A survival horror game transplanted into two dimensions, graphics compressed down into 160 x 90 resolution, with psychological themes strewn throughout, it’s like nothing I’ve ever played before. It keeps its answers an arm’s length away, but somehow manages not to feel intentionally vague. It’s definitely one man’s labor of love, but the question remains: is it any good?
Lone Survivor plays a bit like I would imagine a classic Silent Hill or Resident Evil game would if it was flattened onto a 2D plane. The player character, known only as YOU, is stuck in an apartment of horrors looking for a way out. The exploration is a pleasure with some light puzzling-solving thrown in. You’re constantly moving from one interesting area to the next, with plenty of objects to examine and hear about. There is one minor gripe with the 2D perspective, though. The map is an overhead map of a 3D space, meaning that sometimes when you move to the left or right on the screen, you move north or south on the map. It’s not a big deal, but it’s a bit disorienting and leads to opening the map a little more than I wanted to.
When approached with opposition, you are left with two choices: fight or flee. Instincts are both your friend and your foe. The cramped area-of-sight the transition to 2D brings about drastically cuts down on the amount of time you have to react, increasing the importance of good instincts. Handgun fire can draw monsters from all around, making a bad situation worse if you aren’t careful. Like any good survival horror game, you are much weaker than the enemies surrounding you, leaving a constant sense of dread of what could be around any corner.
The chunky pixel graphics give the game a unique style, with some scenes practically drenched in darkness. While you have the luxury of a flashlight, batteries are a scarcity. Light is a necessity, not only for vision’s sake, but because some objects in the environment can only be interacted with if properly illuminated. Monsters can spot you from much farther away when your flashlight is on, though, giving you a compelling reason to slink around in the darkness. In your travels, you will also find bits of rotten meat, which the monsters are drawn to. Several areas have alcoves to hide in, allowing you to sidle past distracted monsters. This leaves you an interesting choice. Do you risk running out of ammo to shoot the monster, who will die permanently? Or do you sneak past, knowing you’ll have to do this each time you want to access this area?
These moment-to-moment choices seem important at the time since they determine your survival, but there are massive long-term ramifications, as well. Gradually, as you kill, you may not like what you see in the mirror anymore. Pills are scattered about the environment that, when taken before bed, reward you with specific supplies, based on pill color, when you wake up. These pills also grant you dreams in which you’ll interact with some of the game’s most original characters. Whether you become addicted to the supplies or the company, you’ll have to deal with the repercussions. The best thing about these changes are that they’re not exclusively negative. Each pill-induced dream introduces dialogue from the corresponding character who can perhaps help clarify some of the events surrounding you. These instances lend to one of the game’s greatest strengths: its ambiguity. The game itself never makes it clear what the exact effects of your actions are going to be, meaning you worry much more about the immediate situation than the far-reaching one. This makes decision making much more interesting than the usual gaming dichotomy of “good” choices and “bad” choices. The choices here are just that: choices. You have to deal with the consequences, be they good or bad.
Just as important to the experience is the permanence of everything you’ve done. Your character needs to eat and sleep throughout his journey, leading to a need of scrounging every corner for something edible. As long as you ration smartly, food is not too much of a rarity. Sleeping is what’s really important. Not only do you have to sleep to keep your character alive and sane, but it’s the only way to save your game progress. It’s also worth mentioning that Lone Survivor has only one save file. This means that once you’ve slept, unless you’re willing to start over from the beginning, you have to live with all of the decisions made before that point. For example: the only way to experience dreams is to take a pill and go to bed. If you’re trying not to become addicted, but take that one last pill that tips you over the edge, there is no way of knowing until you go to sleep. By then, that choice has been made. There is no reloading your previous save. You will always remain addicted until you start a new game. Dark Souls was lauded for what its permanence did to its atmosphere and this game executes it just as well. To cement just how many choices you’ve made over the course of the game, you’re rewarded with a daunting stats screen at the end along with a grade and a little bit of information about the ending you got. It skates a fine line between telling you the contributing factors while still remaining mysterious about how to improve. Even the worse endings are important to see, though. Different interactions with different characters can reveal things about them and their surrounding world, answering different questions than other endings would. This results in a satisfying conclusion based on how you played, even if you did only manage to get the “worst” ending.
[+Unique] [+Interesting Choices] [+Varied Endings] [*Not For Everyone] [-Disorienting Map]
Lone Survivor is haunting. Just walking down its dank corridors can lead to a feeling of unease that rivals even the scariest of games. You’re never going to be terrified by it, but that’s not its goal. It wants you to be anxious, disturbed. It pulls these off with ease, thanks to its restrictive view, blurry graphics, and chilling sound design. The static-y screams the monsters cry put me on full alert every time and the music is atmospheric, sometimes beautiful. The characters animate fantastically, the lighting provides all the right ambiance, and the monsters react in remarkably satisfying ways when you shoot them. In fact, the only qualm I have about the presentation at all is that most of the scenes are unskippable. It was only a problem in a few of the game’s more difficult spots, but it did get a bit frustrating to start back in the apartment , forced to watch scenes I had already seen every time I died. Beyond that niggling complaint, the game is incredibly polished. The attention to detail goes right down to the writing, which is sometimes dramatic, sometimes silly, but always well-executed. The bits of humor flaked throughout give the game a tone all its own. It’s obvious from the get-go that this game is a labor of love from its creator, Jasper Byrne.
[+Great Writing] [+Impressive Animation] [+Excellent Sound Design] [+Creator's Passion Is Obvious] [-Unskippable Scenes]
For $10, you get a download of the game and DRM-free updates for the life of it. There’s a whole lot of content here for $10. My original playthrough clocked in at almost four hours, but that didn’t count all the time I spent dying. I would say that it probably came closer to six hours in reality. This was just one playthrough, though. While each subsequent playthrough gets shorter and shorter, there are seemingly quite a few endings and the creator has even expressed the idea of adding more endings through updates in the future. I’ve always felt a certain stigma when paying for games that opened up in a Flash Player window, but this game and The Binding of Isaac have ensured that I never feel that again. A quality game is a quality game, regardless of its architecture.
[+Good Price Point] [+Great Replay Value] [+DRM-Free Updates]
If you’ve been lamenting the changes that Capcom and Konami have been making to their respective franchises, you need to check out Lone Survivor. It’s survival horror in the classic vein with enough twists to remain new and exciting. The moment-to-moment decision making and psychological twists and turns are more than enough to keep you on the edge of your seat the entire time you’re playing it. As soon as the game becomes publicly available, I’ll be purchasing a copy. It’s a truly unique game that doesn’t skate by on its visual style or its weirdness. It delivers on every level. Even if you aren’t a fan of survival horror, a demo will be available soon and I highly recommend everyone at least try it out when the game releases on March 27. The well-done Maniac Mansion reference towards the beginning of the game didn’t hurt my chances of liking it, either.
[+Unique] [+Interesting Choices] [+Varied Endings] [+Great Writing] [+Impressive Animation] [+Excellent Sound Design] [+Creator's Passion Is Obvious] [+Good Price Point] [+Great Replay Value] [+DRM-Free Updates] [*Not For Everyone] [-Disorienting Map] [-Unskippable Scenes]