Survival horror is a genre that has been pushed aside in recent years, much to the dismay of many gamers, myself included. We are told by publishers that there simply isn’t an audience for it any more, that instead, action horror is the order of the day. A genre that, as the name implies, snubs slow-burning survival in favour of in-your-face encounters and cheap, throwaway jump scares. But, is the genre really on its last legs?
Jasper Byrne is a man that clearly thinks that this is not the case. After all, he has spent the last four years developing Lone Survivor, a game that takes classic survival horror and masterfully encapsulates it within a retro 16-bit aesthetic.
Played from a two-dimensional, side-scrolling perspective, Lone Survivor, combines classic adventure gaming with elements of stealth and action. Players assume the role of an unnamed protagonist simply referred to as You.
On the verge of insanity and living alone in post-apocalyptic world, You, is a man desperately seeking company, for he simply does not want to die alone. With supplies dwindling, he has no choice but to venture from the dilapidated apartment block he now calls home in search of fresh food and perhaps, fellow survivors. The only problem being that the outside world is now populated by a number of grotesque humanoid monsters. How unfortunate.
From a narrative standpoint, Lone Survivor, is an extremely ambiguous title, and all the better for it. By sprinkling a number of cryptic notes and bizarre character encounters throughout the game, Byrne allows the player to bring there own interpretation to the games events. It’s a thought provoking, mature approach to storytelling that deftly deals with themes of depression and isolation without pandering to it’s audience.
Visually, Lone Survivor wouldn’t look amiss on a SNES. Using a 16-bit art style, Byrne has created some highly detailed environments that absolutely ooze atmosphere. The amount of foreboding squeezed out of the pixels is an impressive accomplishment. The protagonists character animations are smooth and responsive, while the unnatural, almost mechanical spasms of the monsters movements go a long way in ratcheting up the fear factor.
While Lone Survivor may look like it was made in the mid-nineties, there are a number of sophisticated mechanics at play behind the scenes. Management of hunger, tiredness and sanity all are factors that need to be considered when exploring the world. Failing to keep on top of these necessities can have a number of adverse effects on You.
Lone Survivor is a game that treats its audience with respect, it’s a title that dismisses hand-holding in favour of player thought and experimentation. It’s as though the ambiguousness of the narrative has bled into the gameplay. Often you won’t know what you’re supposed to with the items in your inventory, and you’ll never be told either, it’s up to the you as the player, to put two and two together. While sometimes vague, problems like this never becomes frustrating as they rarely infringe on your advancement. Instead serving as optional side content, most of which you won’t even encounter on your first play through.
Not content with coding, design and artistic duties, Byrne also composed the games soundtrack. Blending an eclectic range of genres together in a way that perfectly complements the tone of the game. Sparse ambient pieces, that when coupled with the oppressive environments really help the bleak tone seep in under your skin. While jazzier numbers accompany the surreal dialogue sequences, lending a Twin Peaks vibe to proceedings.
Unfortunately, for all the praise I’m throwing at the game, it’s not without it’s faults, particularly in the control department. Combat is a little clunky at times, as it’s impossible to turn and face the opposite direction once you have a weapon drawn, often leaving you vulnerable to attack. Also, navigation can be confusing, as the top-down perspective of the in-game map seems counter-intuitive to the side-scrolling nature of the gameplay. However, in the grand scheme of things, these flaws are merely nit-picks that do very little to detract from the overall experience.
Lone Survivor can be completed around the three hour mark, but it’s a game that cries out for multiple playthroughs. The various choices that can be made throughout all effect the final outcome of the game, for example, favouring stealth over head-on confrontations is just one of many variables that may result in a different ending. Having played through the game twice now, I’m still not entirely sure what elements factor into the end game.
In short, Lone Survivor, is a pixel-perfect love letter to classic survival horror. Byrne has crafted an extremely immersive indie hit that manages to capture the essence of Silent Hill but deliver it in a unique, and surprisingly fresh format. While it won’t cause you to have a heart attack, it’s a title that earns it’s scares on a subconscious level. If, like me, you yearn for a return of the genre, this is a must buy. Even those with a passing interest would be foolish to give this one a miss.
Format: Windows & OSX
Release Date: 27th March 2012