Resident Evil, Silent Hill, Dead Space, Amnesia: These are the names that come to mind when I mention the genre of survival horror. Atmospheric adventures such as these conjure feelings of paranoia, anxiety, hopelessness, and desperation. What awaits around the next corner? A much-needed health pack? An abomination itching to take your life? Sweet checkpoint salvation? Horror titles remain rare experiences, representing a niche class. After all, how many people scare themselves willingly? Now with Resident Evil's new action approach to fear and Amnesia sequel details tortuously scarce, gamers currently have slim pickings if they're looking for a fright. And yet the 3D world is only one dimension explored. What about the 2D void? Despite its graphical limitations, Lone Survivor (developed by the one-man team of Jasper Byrne) delivers endless frights on a psychological level.
Up front, Lone Survivor is light on exposition. The protagonist is just a plain civilian with a surgical mask, no name, and no backstory. What does it matter? Lucky doesn't fit his description. An outbreak is turning people into inside-out monsters while the remaining handful of quizzical apartment residents seem joyfully oblivious to the matter. The character has managed to survive in his flat for an unknown period of time, but rations are running low. Dementia, schizophrenia, amnesia, or some other cerebral disease now controls his mind. Is anything he sees real? Much like Isaac's torment during the first Dead Space, the survivor's grip on reality is slowly loosening. With no alternatives, the only option left is escape. As he combs the depths of the infected infrastructure, terrifying and fresh horrors fracture the hero's psyche.
The scenery hits the "What the fuuuuuuu..." note early on.
Much of the experience remains interpretative. The survivor often recalls a girl in a blue dress (simply referred to as Her), a key part of his forgotten life. Swallowing colored pills transports him to a hallucinogenic land occupied by a box-wearing denizen happy to loan health items, flashlight batteries, and pistol ammo to the cause. Other strangers freely pop in and out of the world, leaving cryptic messages and questions behind. Newspaper clippings detail some mystery war, and bombed-out craters decorate once busy streets. Amidst the chaos, diary entries contain the only traces of human existence. The payoff for investigating is rewarding as you piece each clue together. It's a complicated but wonderfully scripted narrative that may drive players themselves insane.
At times, the ambiguous storytelling may annoy more than it engages, but this indicates Lone Survivor's greatest strength. Likely, no two players will share the same delusional experience. Three different endings complement the infrequent dialogue choices and random interactions with a possible fourth rumored. Every decision and resource salvaged is taken into account. How many times did you trade with The Director? Did you insult the local weapons shop owner? Did you rescue the stray cat? A final detailed outline highlights your faults, merits, and states of mental deprivation.
A clue to the past, or another bad dream?
Exploration remains the key focus. Often you'll need to locate the one object that opens a new maze of corridors. That means hidden keys abound. The number of overlapping doors borders on overwhelming, though, given the 2D presentation. Acquiring a map – a must – will update the layout with locked doors, blocked paths, or points of interest. Due to the sheer size of the world, magical mirrors act as warp points to teleport you back home, a welcome and needed concept.
The apartment operates as a safe haven for cooking food, sleeping, and devising the next plan of attack. Each day, the survivor must nap and eat to maintain mental fitness. This isn't Fallout; don't expect to last thirty days without catching some shuteye. Going too long without ingesting some crackers or soda slowly wears down his cognitive functions as a hazy, shaky perspective dominates the screen.
The small touches further add to the immersion. A can opener grants dining access to that hearty tin of beans. A stray bucket houses drinkable, dripping water from an undisclosed source. Heating food with propane gas proves more hygienic than eating meat raw. Such factors vastly better survival chances. Even social interactions – like playing with a Game Boy knockoff or feeding a homeless kitten – improve sanity but sadly allude to a life long unobtainable.
Too bad forever doesn't mean forever.
As grotesque as the situations the survivor finds himself in, the pixelated art style can be as nauseating for the player involved. 8-bit environments, character models, and text tend to blur when stretched to fit a 1920x1080 resolution, although the aspect ratio, thankfully, can be lowered any moment in-game.
Lone Survivor's soundtrack stands out as the most eerily beautiful thing I've heard this year. Two tracks in particular contrast the dark workings of the protagonist's inner thoughts. These scores cover bright and colorful memories where he is happily reunited with his love, then suddenly ripped away and brought back to the harsh reality of a dilapidated present. It's a bittersweet revelation to say the least.
Enemy variety equates to a mere two types of fleshy, mannequin-like monsters, not including non-hostile creatures like a pulsing cocoon, yet the AI's behavior hits high on the predictable scale. The ghouls simply shuffle back and forth lest you wander too close with your flashlight, at which point they rabidly pursue you out of their territory. The inspirations to Silent Hill classics are clear. Hesitation means certain death if you fail to distract these mutants. Dropping rotted meat lures the beasts away from your intended destination, and flares briefly incapacitate any foe caught in the glow, providing a nonlethal means of confrontation. Putting a few pistol rounds into their deformed skulls comes recommended only when there is ammunition to spare.
Upon death, enemies stay dead. No respawning here.
But Lone Survivor's greatest technical achievements are the solemn, tear-jerking moments it manages to deliver. With rampant disease and death taking the lives of your loved ones, how long until you start talking to a plush cat toy or a plant named Chuck? Could you cope being haunted by images of a lost friend? There's nothing unique about the protagonist – just an individual with the drive not to die alone. Perhaps this is why the thrills are all the more intense, knowing the character's not immune to off-screen danger. With such light gameplay elements and few overt story bits, it's hard to say what makes this man's four-hour journey so special (I argue for the unexpected emotions evoked within this time frame). As an undeniably thought-provoking experience, Lone Survivor hits the solitary nail on the head and for all the right reasons.
Publisher: Superflat Games
Developer: Jasper Byrne
Release Date: March 27, 2012
Number of Players: 1
Platforms: PC (Reviewed), Mac