Review: Lone Survivor

LoneSurvivor

There was a time when horror games were terrifying.  For me that time period was from 1996 to 2001, the time in which the first Resident Evil and Silent Hill 2 were released.  Operating on different levels, Resident Evil, with its busted limited save and ammo systems, created a tension of fear of bodily harm when confronted with zombies or other T-virus creations.  I do not think anyone ever was afraid to die by turning the power on, but when it was thirty minutes since one’s last save it became hard not to be emotionally invested in the well being of a game’s protagonist.  A feeling of tension which culminated in Resident Evil 3, when the titular monster, Nemesis, could follow players from one room to the next–a previously unknown threat–and a foreboding music track played whenever there was a chance he might show up.  Panic filled my head many times upon hearing a door slam shut, out of sight due to the old, fixed camera angle constraints of the first PlayStation, and the roar of “STARS!” preceded the heavy footfalls of the monster chasing me down.

Eventually the terror subsided in these games as a small arsenal was acquired and Nemesis was found to be an easy thing to avoid.  Fear removed from the game made the combat more of an annoyance than a source of concern.  Silent Hill, on the other hand, provided a fear of a loss of sanity, if not one’s own than that of the main character in the game, as things in the game world made less and less sense.  It would eventually seem like there was something wrong with the main character, not with whatever scheme the Umbrella Corporation had cooked up.  A more troubling proposition.

Lone Survivor draws inspiration from these earlier horror games to create something new.  As suggested by the title, players play as themselves, or at least some young man wearing a surgical mask named “You”, in a world that has suffered a disaster.  It is thought that some sort of disease has stricken the populous, killing everyone else but you.  The game is not clear on this, but it can be inferred that this took a significant period of time as it does not start off in your home.  Instead, when the game starts, you are in someone else’s apartment in an abandoned building, the owners, now presumed dead, having long since fled the area.  This room will serve as your home base now, not a mere dry place to lay your head for a few days, as your food supplies have run out and you must leave its safety if you want to survive.

Upon opening the door, you will find a world changed.  Skinless things wander the hallways of the building with no apparent goal.  While it would be easier to flee back into the safety of Room 206, a rumbling stomach and a desire to see if you are the only one left alive drives you on.  What will follow this bold decision to leave the comfort of home is a fairly short (less than six hours) adventure.  The game goes in some weird places and directions, but the method to advance is always relatively clear.

Typically, game reviews, including my own, will dedicate a significant amount of wordage to describe the systems in a game and how they all interact with one another.  This is not to make the review seem like a glorified user manual or a cheap and ineffective strategy guide, but instead to give a potential consumer seeking buying advice an idea of what he or she might actually be doing in the game if it was bought and played.  Someone reviewing Manhunt, for instance, might talk about how players will brutally murder people again and again, but that the actual mechanics of this are that they need to sneak up behind their victims and hold a button down for as long as they can.  The on-screen action is divorced from the actual input so it is important to separate the two in order to make it clear that players will not actually feel like murderers when playing (unless they are extremely good at associating with digital avatars and always felt like Dirk the Daring dodging a fireball when they pressed “Up”).

For this review, I am not going to go deep into the mechanics.  Not because it would be difficult to describe, but because finding out what can be done in the pursuit of survival is all part of the discovery that makes the game great.  A description of the basic motions necessary to advance in the world is laid out in game near the beginning, but there is much more to find.  Exploration with the yoke and challenge of bodily survival is the pull, not mastering systems.  That being said, for those that really want to know what their ten dollars gets them in terms of gameplay, I can say this game fits very neatly into the survival horror genre.

The entire game looks like it could have been made twenty years ago.  All of the characters and settings are rendered in distinctive-looking backgrounds and sprites that animate well, or at least as well as slightly shifting colored blocks in a cohesive body can move.  The creatures that will be faced are all terrifying in their own right and have a distinctive radio static mixed with fire alarm noise that will indicate that you have been noticed and should probably fight or flee.  The original soundtrack does a very good job of indicating when an area is safe, inviting any survivor to explore, and when danger lurks.

With survival being a real problem, it helps to increase the immersion that the events of Lone Survivor take place is a realistic small apartment building.  Interacting only with pixelated real world objects while surrounded by mundane, albeit dilapidated and usually ruined, setting helps to sell the idea that this is an actual place where action and inaction have consequences.  When the characters are as simple looking as they are, the player’s mind is forced to use its imagination to inject more into them in order to make sense of the interactive image on the screen in front of them.  Complex character models in today’s mainstreams are easier to pick apart when something looks a little off because their faces almost approach reality.  Colorful sprites, on the other hand, cannot be realistic and can end up expressing more with a few moved dots of color than a full suite of polygonal facial animations.

Or it can look like dated junk.  A lot of people do not have any patience or fondness for the way things used to look.  When it is not an action or arcade game like Pac Man or Contra, which only needs to convey motion, and is a game like Lone Survivor which tells a story and attempts to get players to accept the reality of a place, I think something more is added to the experience when it is conveyed with fewer details and your own experience has to inform what is going on.  Because if you do not do this, the game does not make any sense without assumptions on your part.  It is the difference between the sentence “John kicked the ball against the wall” and seeing video of a person kicking a ball.  To make a complete mental image of what is happening in that sentence you have to think of what John looks like, what kind of ball it is, what sort of wall, the lighting, how hard he is kicking it, and hundreds of other details.  When the game forces these kinds of assumptions and then breaks from them with horror elements, they can be more impactful.  Still, an ability to enjoy the pixel art on display here may be a matter of taste.

If I were to say anything bad about the game it would be that it is at times difficult to tell where certain rooms are in relationship to one another.  Something might be bright as day on a map, a room is at the end of a corridor, but the series of doors and turns into empty spaces required to get there may be less than clear.  Also, most static, useful things are not marked on the map, so it can be troublesome to find them again if they are needed and their location has been forgotten.  Largely these are faults inherent in the design and probably a reason that changes in perspective with a side-locked camera to represent parallel and branching rooms are no longer widely used, even amongst retro-style enthusiasts.  A Metroid-style huge series of rooms and corridors that can be displayed on one map, as representative of a continuous, sliced world where creatures can only go forward and back, would be more intuitive, but would also make no sense in the setting of Lone Survivor.  I do not think it was the intent that players get lost, but it is likely to happen at least once or twice.  Also, the gameplay elements are not very challenging or even fun.  For some there may be narrative and emotional reasons to replay the game, but it will not be for simply the joy of the gameplay.

Small faults aside, this game captures the essence of survival horror in a way that has not been seen for some time.  If this review has come off as a touch abstract and impressionistic, that is because I have tried to write a description that matches the subject.  Lone Survivor is a well made game but it seems to convey something more than what is presented.  A simple review might just say “it is 2D Silent Hill,” but there is more to it than that.  Jasper Byrne has managed to create an environment with a limited 8-bit palette that is just as scary as the early PlayStation horror games, which in itself is an accomplishment.  The extra part comes in with what the player brings to the play.

BuyIt

Pros:
+ Psychological horror done well
+ Classical presentation and mechanics

Cons:
– Actual gameplay elements are not very exciting…
– …thereby diminishing the already small amount of replay value

Game Info:
Platform: PC
Publisher: Superflat Games
Developer: Jasper Byrne
Release Date: 4/23/2012
Genre: Survival Horror
Players: 1
Source: Game purchased by reviewer

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About the Author

Steve has been playing video games since the start of the 1980s. While the first video game system he played was his father's, an Atari 2600, he soon began saving allowances and working for extra money every summer to afford the latest in interactive entertainment. He is keenly aware of how much it stinks to spend good money on a bad game. It does things to a man. It makes stink way too much time into games like Karnov to justify the purchase.