Other than using the items mandatory for staying alive, you won’t find that many objects used for puzzles, nor will you find that many puzzles in general. Perhaps that's a good thing, as the ones that are present—including finding a makeshift item to open a tricky door—feel a little uninspired. During the game’s final puzzle, in fact, I knew the answer to the puzzle simply by picking up an object and guessing what it’d be for. The puzzles work as a means to an end, but they aren’t by any means satisfying.
Adventure gamers should note that while it’s optional to fire your gun, Lone Survivor does still require you to be on your toes. Even if you don’t harm a soul, the experience is far more action-packed and twitchy than your standard 2D adventure game. Monsters are encountered fairly frequently, and at first you’ll find yourself hiding in dark areas and tossing bait to escape enemies. Later you’ll pick up flares to distract them, but I found the precision required to place them effectively was no easier than simply firing your gun in the right direction in the heat of the moment. There’s also a section halfway through where you’re chased across several maze-like screens by a monster, and if you don’t have the area memorized, it’s unlikely that you’ll avoid being attacked or running into a dead end. You’ll have to be okay with dying several times, though the frequency of save points makes the occasional death much more tolerable.
Though the game has a distinctively low-res, 8-bit style with a muted palette and noise filter, it’s still incredibly (if disturbingly) beautiful. With flickering lights, clever use of spotlights and color, and environments that change and contort, you may find yourself in awe and a little frightened at the same time. The developer composed his own music, which has a very creepy, mellow pop, lo-fi sound. Add to that some haunting classic Silent Hill-esque sound effects, and you have a very thoughtfully constructed package that screenshots alone cannot do justice.
One thing that feels a little out of place, however, is the dialog. It comes across a little flat, and the main character often talks aloud, narrating his feelings, which detracts from the solitary mood and the ability to invest your own emotions in the experience. Due to the nature of the game—one that’s far more about atmosphere than some big, overarching plot—dialog may have been better used in a sparse, suggestive way. Diary notes and letters found along the way certainly add to the narrative, but coming face-to-face with one of the few survivors and having them gab at you removes you from the horror somewhat.
By the second half of this roughly four-hour game, you’ll be a little more aware of the psychological pitfalls thrown at you, and you’ll find yourself much more in tune with traveling back to areas that will net you food and sleep. The stress of item management will also be lessened somewhat, because by then you’ll have some understanding of the game’s once-obtuse details regarding how much, say, cheese and crackers will fill you up, or whether the little red pill will help you power on without sleep. There’s a bit of backtracking required, but it’s nothing lengthy; if anything, it’s satisfying to go back to older areas when you feel you have a bit more control, whether you’ve already killed the enemies or found an easy way around them.
Once you get used to navigating the apartment building, the game is straightforward and linear enough to make it relatively clear which doors need unlocking and which monsters must be overcome. You’ll eventually make your way outside of the apartment and see a little of what’s become of the streets, stores and hospitals in town. But while you may encounter a survivor or find someone’s remains, you never feel like you’re unraveling a great mystery or even hoping to discover one. This game is more about the tension of being one of the last remaining survivors and seeing how your personal choices affect the character and his ending.
While the experience feels a little on the short side, it's not unfairly so. It’s a brief but stressful experience that's enjoyable while it lasts, but you’ll be emotionally relieved to get out of there at the end. Some things can lengthen the play time a bit. You’ll come across objects and characters that serve as side quests that either procure new items or alter the story, including a stray cat that you can feed if it warms up to you. Add to that the different methods of playing and replaying the game (shoot/don’t shoot, eat healthy/pop pills), and you have a lot of varied replay value.
Returning to the contentious topic of genre labels, this game shows glimpses of the classic Sierra/LucasArts adventure games of yore, but with its near-constant danger it's ultimately best considered a survival horror game with an old-school 2D aesthetic. If you're okay with a bit of action-infused side-scrolling, then taken on its own terms—as a game about surviving, and doing whatever it takes to get through—it’s fantastic. Ultimately, Lone Survivor is a very personal, choice-driven experiment in psychological horror, and the combined elements from different genres make for a unique experience that you’ll not want to miss.