Jasper Byrne is a very talented game maker. Working by himself over the course of four years he created Lone Survivor, a survival horror game that has earned him a lot of respect. It has received considerable critical praise and a lot of commercial success. So much so that he has been collaborating with Curve Studios, the ones who gave us the Playstation 3 and Vita ports of the sublime Thomas Was Alone, with bringing his game to Sony’s systems. The aptly named Director’s Cut of Lone Survivor has been given more content for its console release, but the core gameplay is still as unsettling and fear-inducing as it was before.
You play as an anonymous man (the game simply refers to the player as You) who is trapped in a city that has been devastated by some widespread plague. There are monsters shambling outside, the food supply in your apartment is dangerously low, and all you have is a bed, and a flashlight. Making matters worse is the severe isolation and psychological pressure may have finally broken your mind. In edition to having severe night terrors, you are haunted by a handful of cryptic antagonists, including a man with a cardboard box for a head and a mysterious woman, all of whom may be just a figment of your imagination. Being left with no other option, you must venture further out into the city to find food, solve the mystery of the enigmatic strangers, find other survivors, and hopefully escape the disaster zone.
As it is implied, Lone Survivor is a resource-oriented survival horror game where the core gameplay elements are supply management and exploration. You have to eat food at regular intervals, ration out the use of your flashlight to save on battery life, and sleep regularly to keep your strength up. At the same time you must venture further and further away from your apartment, risk attack by the deformed beings that were once human, all while keeping an eye out for shortcuts, keys to new areas, and extra supplies so you don’t ultimately drop dead from malnutrition or exhaustion. It is more intense than it sounds.
Adding to this intensity is how you choose to deal with the monsters outside. There is the option of sneaking past the monsters, strategically placing rotting meat and slinking past, frugal placement of flares you find which blind and disorient them, or the ever reliable handgun. Either way, both approaches have their benefits and downsides. While directly attacking the monsters with your firearm makes sure they are permanently out of the way, the severe lack of ammo on hand can lead to kicking a few hornets nests you didn’t intend to stir up. Also, combat is unwieldy at best, where getting in lethal damage also involves being within attack distance. Alternatively, while rotting meat is more readily accessible and the approach is inherently more cost-effective, sneaking past the shambling horde is very taxing in terms of patience and nerve. Slowly moving past a mummified zombie is still as intense the fortieth time as it is the first, and that’s when there is just one.
This duality of approaches is also felt in maintaining your sanity and hunger levels. The most devious of design decisions has it that your mental and physical state aren’t represented in tangible bars but in messages that pop up from time to time. It does get annoying after a while, but the intangibility of these levels make them feel all more daunting. It’s ingenious because it makes any approach to how you keep going through the narrative impartial and also unnerving. It is completely possible to make an extra effort to cook and mix food and maintain a consistent sleep schedule and go at a meticulous pace. It is also completely possible to live off of cans of cold beans and chips and power on through with nothing but coffee and drugs fueling you, long-term consequences be damned.
Lone Survivor isn’t just about the close calls and the mind-games, there is also a lot of side missions to complete. While there is a coherent (sort of) main narrative, the side adventures involve progressively making your apartment more livable and keep your mind grounded in reality. These activities range between maintaining a plant, befriending a small cat, and even using one of your hard-earned batteries to play on a handheld videogame device, insert Inception joke here, for the sake of morale.
If there is a criticism to labeled at the gameplay, it would have to be due to the limitations of budget and on how blatantly Jasper wears his inspiration. Lone Survivor’s atmosphere takes a lot of cues from the likes of Silent Hill almost to the point of it losing an identity of its own. The story is intentionally murky and runs on madman’s logic. The design of the monsters and certain levels invoke memories of the iconic haunted town’s nightmare world. Even the key-hunting puzzles, while nowhere near as esoteric, invoke comparison to Konami’s series. For some, this can be seen as being creatively vapid or aesthetically lazy. Personally, the allusions to Silent Hill only compliment the gameplay, since everything holds together so well; a compliment that can’t be shared with later entries in the series.
As much raw talent as there is in Lone Survivor, the restriction to a 2D environment does lead to some navigation issues. While there are maps that clearly mark areas you’ve been to as you go, traveling can get confusing when you can’t figure out the door you need to go through is either at the end of hall, in the background of the room or the foreground.
The graphics in Lone Survivor are minimal and ultimately secondary to its atmosphere, which oozes from every pore. The monsters are all grotesque and move with sickening menace, the sparse supporting cast are all visually distinct, and overall just looks great.
As mentioned before, Long Survivor takes various cues from Silent Hill, and the soundtrack is no exception. Television static, loud lumbering industrial sound, unintelligible radio chatter, and poignantly minimal guitars make up the majority of the score and sound effects, all of which are put to very effective use.
Playing just the main narrative to the end, your first playthrough of Lone Survivor will be roughly three or so hours. While this seems like a pathetic length for a game, a lot of the game’s charm comes from repeat playthroughs. In addition to five different endings, the game has a very comprehensive psych evaluation at the end that spells out how certain events played out and how the game came to its conclusion. Plus with Cross-Buy and Cross-Play across Playstation 3 and Playstation Vita it is a great thing to play on the go, as long as you are okay with explaining to people why you’re so jumpy.
Lone Survivor Director’s Cut is a truly intense horror game. Mixing together the mind games of Silent Hill, the uncanny surreality of Twin Peaks, and the desperate visceral danger of a zombie outbreak into a game that has to be played if not for its scares than at least for its uniqueness. A living testament of how to make a lot with a little.
AAG SCORE: 8/10
- Intense Survival Horror Gameplay
- Unsettling Atmosphere and Story
- Begs for Multiple Playthroughs
- Navigation Can Get Confusing
- Shorter Than Expected
- Can Feel Like Silent Hill Rip-Off