Lone Survivor review

Lone Survivor feature
Lone Survivor feature

If you’re concerned about genre labels, you'd probably have to define Lone Survivor as being a retro indie survival horror action-adventure game. But while it surely is all of those things, it’s truly best described as a simulation of surviving a clueless, fearful life. The focus isn’t really on the horrible creatures you encounter or the reason those creatures are there—it’s a game about those times we all feel destitute, yet in our desperation find something to help us get through, whether the thought of a companion, our dreams, a good night’s sleep, or tiny, mood-altering, color-coded pills. And you’ll definitely need to find something here, because this game is stressful. But like the best horror films, it stresses you out in a satisfying way, keeping you riveted within its throes even as you frantically search for a way out.

After a surreal dream involving espresso and a man with a box for a head, the game truly opens with you waking up in someone else’s apartment, with no knowledge of your circumstances other than that there are hideous things beyond the door and you need to survive. You’re barefoot (to tread lightly and not alert any creatures), and you don a surgical mask to protect you from who-knows-what. The concept of survival in this game means getting enough rest, eating well, making it through your night terrors (which lead to dream sequences), and of course finding someone—anyone—along the way to help you understand what exactly is happening.

As you try to escape from this horrible place and its inhabitants, there’s a very distinct and unnerving sense of isolation, and the story really isn’t about the cast of crazies you run into; it’s about you. In fact, ‘You’ is actually the character’s name: the protagonist doesn’t even seem bothered to remember his real name. The game’s goal, it seems, is to make you feel truly autonomous: though you control a male onscreen avatar, it’s really you making these decisions. It’s you surviving horrible things. And it’s the personal choices in the way you play that sets it apart from the game that obviously inspired it.

Creator Jasper Byrne is clearly a huge fan of Silent Hill 2. Not only is Lone Survivor strewn with references to it (including some very similar sound effects), but one of his earlier games, Quiet Mountain II, is a 2D, 8-bit “demake” of that game. You’ll find plenty that’s been influenced by Silent Hill here, like the odd deformity of the monsters themselves, the near-interchangeability of the “real world” and something seemingly from a nightmare, and the static radio noise when you near monsters (which may be an unexplained homage in this game, or it may have to do with the bizarre radio samplings in your starting location). David Lynch must have been an inspiration for this game as well, with nods to Twin Peaks and Lost Highway ever-present. The result is a game that’s creepy and cool, yet entirely fascinating.

Picking the game up is quite simple. It’s keyboard-only, and you use the arrow keys to move around the side-scrolling screens, the space bar to access your inventory, and other hotkeys to see your map, turn on your flashlight (careful: the battery runs out) and interact with the environment. If you decide to use a weapon, you simply hit another key to equip your gun. It’s nothing too complicated, but it should be noted that you have to know your way around the controls to survive—the game doesn’t pause when you’re shuffling through a menu to quickly find something to take care of an enemy.

Early on you’ll find a map, which is conveniently marked with your location and any areas you have/haven’t explored. This is great, but it can still be difficult to figure out exactly where you are and where you’re heading. It got tedious switching back and forth between menus just so I could get a grasp of my location. As you progress, areas will change, seemingly on their own. A well-made bedroom may be trashed the next time you enter it, doors may suddenly become unlocked, and the few characters you meet may disappear or become something else entirely. Luckily, while the effect is trippy in its own way, it never feels random or hopeless. You’ll always be clued in on subtle changes, and the map will inform you with a nice big question mark in the changed location.

How you deal with enemies is entirely up to you, and will change the way you experience the game and the way it unfolds. For example, although you do receive a weapon, you don’t have to use it. Ever. My first time through the game, I took the pacifist route and I never pulled the trigger. This choice led to different strategies, a different ending, and even certain puzzles that wouldn’t exist if I had chosen to simply shoot my way through.

Also affecting the game’s outcome—as well as your in-game mental health—are the pills and food items scattered throughout. After playing for a while, the protagonist will get hungry or tired. Sleeping may seem as simple as finding a way back to your bed (which also saves the game), but when you’re far from home, it’s tempting to just pop a pill that perks you up a bit. You can also sacrifice a bit of sanity by staving off hunger with pills—leading to some pretty bizarre dreams and outcomes in your game—or you can find cookware and food items to combine to stay full. Either way, the experience is incredibly entertaining, and you’ll be surprised in multiple playthroughs to see how your insomnia or gun-happy lifestyle influences things.

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Adventure games by Jasper Byrne

Lone Survivor  2012

The masked protagonist must escape from a city ravaged by disease, by any means.