There seems to be a general consensus among a large number of gamers is that horror games, as a whole, have been spiralling towards a slow death since 2002′s Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem. Yep, looks like this is going to be one of those reviews in which I reference a whole bunch of other games. Apart from Condemned: Criminal Origins and Amnesia: The Dark Descent, horror fans really haven’t had all that much to satisfy their desires for the last decade; adding insult to injury is the fact that the period between 1998-2002 saw a huge number of blood-curdingly terrifying games released back to back. And now we have Lone Survivor. This strange amalgam of platforming, exploration and psychological survival horror (with an emphasis on the survival part) is the product of just one man, Jasper Byrne, and even if you walk away thinking you didn’t really enjoy it, you’ll be wholly unable to avoid the lingering feeling of despair that accompanies only the greatest of horror games.
You are… well, you are “you” – that’s the only name that your character, a surgical mask-sporting male, is given throughout the story. Almost immediately after hitting “new game”, you are confronted with a bleak, rotting corridor, complete with inside-out fleshy infected human-monster-zombie-things that you’re expected to sneak past. The premise is that you are the lone survivor of a horrendous outbreak of some sort of infection that turns people inside out and deadly. As a platformer, the sneak aspect could be considered a little underdeveloped, but the simplicity of it (“press x to hide”) contributes to the stress of edging closer to the monsters in order to slip into the shadows, as well as removing any chance of you blaming your untimely death upon the control scheme. After a short prologue you’re shown waking up in your downtrodden apartment block, darkly muttering to yourself “it’s time to face the outside world.”
Not far into the story you’ll be given a handgun in the strangest of circumstances. Combat, however, is such a difficult affair that, for the better part, you’ll be better off avoiding the fleshy creatures rather than trying to take them if there’s more than one in one place. Monsters don’t respawn, so if you’re planning on repeatedly visiting a section of the map it may be wise to take a lurker out, but ammunition is scarce, forcing you to develop and execute a careful tactic of forcing the inside-outy to hit the ground. Well, that’s not entirely true – without giving too much away, one colour of pill found scattered throughout the world will replenish your ammunition after taking a snooze, however take too many of these and you’ll receive a different ending to a player who made minimal use of the pills. This, of course, adds an element of doubt about whether or not you should take that extra pill. What harm could it do, right? …right?
Combat is an intentional struggle. Once you’ve equipped your handgun, you can’t change the direction you’re facing. The obvious benefit of this is that it makes it possible to shoot while backtracking, a feature previously unheard of in platformers as far as I’m aware. When that white noise ramps up in volume and a fleshy fiend is on its way towards you, shooting while backtracking becomes your absolute best friend. The downside to this is the near certainty of a gruesome death should you lack foresight and find yourself trapped between two ghastly ghouls. God forbid there’s more of them. This helps to emphasize that combat is not the only, or even recommended, option to bypass the monsters – in fact, should you spend the majority of the game ploughing your way through freak after freak, it will be remembered and the ending adapted accordingly.
It is survival, however, that takes the cake as the most important gameplay element present. I’ve already mentioned conservation of ammo; in addition, expect to use your flashlight sparingly as its batteries will drain quicker than they did in my old Game Boy, and if you haven’t picked up any spares, you’re going to be exploring the already-creepy world in the even-creepier dark. And on top of all that, you’re required to frequently eat and sleep in order to maintain your sanity. Cold squid sticks and beef jerky will do the job, but finding the required ingredients and utensils to create a proper meal is one of the great joys of Lone Survivor. That’s a good thing. Mirrors are used as teleports to travel between your current location and your centre of operations, your apartment. You’re required to frequent your bed in order to lay your head, as not doing so will quickly cause your character to lose his grip on his sanity. Sleeping will also save your game, but be careful – you’re locked to just one save file, so try not to fuck up. This isn’t one of those instinctive 3-second-interval-save games.
The first thing you’ll notice about Lone Survivor is the atmosphere. I honestly can’t remember the last time I played a game that encapsulated so perfectly the atmosphere that all psychological horrors should strive for. Even from the first click of the menu screen, the melancholy feeling strikes and does not let up for a minute. Not once are you allowed to even think about forgetting that you really are stuck in the middle of a depressingly bleak shitstorm. The loneliness, the isolation, the hopelessness; Byrne has shamelessly taken more than a leaf from Silent Hill 2‘s book – and, believe me, this is a sentence that every horror fan has been eagerly anticipating for ten years.
If it wasn’t for the soundtrack, though, there would be no atmosphere. Lone Survivor has to boast the best soundtrack I’ve heard thus far in 2012. And it’s not just the soundtrack. Any game can have good, fitting music playing over the background, but the skill with which the musical cues are woven in with the gameplay is truly masterful. Every sound plays at exactly the right moment to keep you tense, ensuring that you remain scared even if there’s not a monster in sight. Reliance on white noise is essential – by employing the inherently creepy nature of static, the epitome of the absence of sanity in audio, Byrne has created one of the most perfect soundtracks without the need to pen a catchy melody.
And the last thing – which might be the very first thing people notice, even before loading up Lone Survivor - is the visuals. I’m working on a review of Resonance, a point-and-click adventure locked to 640×480 resolution, and I was going to whinge about that – now I’m not so sure. Lone Survivor, you see, is forcibly locked to 160×90. You heard right. That’s less than the NES’s native resolution. The thing is, however, that this amazingly low resolution runs absolutely flawlessly and smooth on 1080p monitors. Everything scales so naturally that you’d be forgiven for believing that the game simply detected your native resolution and adjusted its own resolution accordingly. My first impression upon opening the game was something along the lines of needlepoint embroidery or a patchwork quilt – despite the harrowing nature of the environment, everything maintains a very organic feel thanks to the warmth with which each pixel blends into those adjacent. Text can be difficult to read, especially on a large monitor, as the pixelated font becomes jarring as it’s zoomed to fit the screen, but you soon adapt to it, even if it involves pushing your chair a little further from the monitor.
This is horror. Sure, it’s a strange mix of psychological survival horror, adventure, Metroidvania, stealth, and platformer, with a sprinkling of dark humour for good measure, but it’s still horror – an admirable feat for a sidescroller locked at 160×90 resolution. Lone Survivor, quite simply, has got everything right when it comes to the ingredients to a good psychological horror. There’s just enough scrounging for supplies, avoiding enemies, and walking down dark corridors; with aural accompaniment as good as in any AAA game I’ve ever played, you’ll feel a tingle down your spine more than once when the static starts to build up. Choosing to avoid the ahh-monster-in-your-face route taken by far too many horror games these days, Lone Survivor will bring back fond, if pant-wetting, memories of the glory days of true horror video games, only enhanced by the numerous direct references to some of Byrne’s favourite games. This is a game that refuses to hold your hand; instead, it’ll push you into the deep end of the swimming pool and laugh at you kicking and spluttering. Maybe it’s not as good as the games I love so much from the golden age of horror, yet it can stand proud as one of the best of this generation. No, you’re not going to jump out of your seat and knock your head on the ceiling, but every second of Lone Survivor is crafted with such skill that you’ll always be ready to.
Lone Survivor is even brave enough to have a go at the current state of the video game industry. In the sarcastic, self-aware words of the protagonist, he states what is likely the primary reason for people ignoring this title, claiming “it’s just another zombie game.” after walking past a game titled “LS” in an arcade made up of Byrne’s previous titles. “It’s some kind of simulation.” “It’s a game about monsters.” “It’s a game. Just another game…”
Select Start Media was provided with a review copy of Lone Survivor by Superflat Games.