Psychological thriller or survival horror? Or both?
Given that it is called Lone Survivor, Jasper Byrne’s latest survival horror offering boasts a surprisingly numerous cast of characters – pallid-faced men, shady traders, fever dream eccentrics and You, the unnamed protagonist of this second-person perspective game.
This is survival horror as it used to be: a scarcity of supplies, long shadows teeming with things that gibber and rattle, ponderous movement, and a lead character whose mental stability could be likened to a boiling kettle with a blocked spout.
The game starts with ambiguities and deliberately clarifies little. Ostensibly, You wakes up in a tumbledown apartment block, fretting at his chances of survival in the wake of a terrible disease that has reduced the rest of humanity to writhing skinless monsters intent on infecting him. And that is really as straightforward as the plot gets.
Thereafter, You meets a host of characters – sometimes in person; sometimes in his dreams – and tackles a series of puzzles, each one challenging his grip on reality and causing the player to doubt the truth of the Armageddon. Is it really the aftermath of a devastating plague? Or is it a vivid hallucination charting the unravelling of a mind? Lone Survivor keeps you guessing.
Byrne is a self-confessed fan of Silent Hill (indeed he once created a demake of the second game, called Soundless Mountain II) and his commitment to disturbing horror is present throughout Lone Survivor, from the clever use of sound to the limitations on visibility (light fades as your flashlight runs out of power) to the body horror of the thinmen.
However, the first thing you’ll notice about this game is the brilliantly conceived art style. At first glance, it appears to ape the look of countless 16-bit side-scrollers. However, a closer look will reveal extraordinary attention to detail in the nuance of colors, the animation of movement, and even in the shadowing and outlining of the retro-style font.
When you aren’t marvelling over Byrne’s control of the art on display, you’ll be swept away by the soundtrack. In fact, you owe it to yourself to listen to the song playing over the menu screen before advancing into the game. Byrne is a musician as well as a programmer and his multiple talents shine through.
The gameplay itself is simple, without ever being simplistic. The action is predominantly side-scrolling 2D, although a smart stealth mechanic allows for occasional depth of field. Initially, You sets out to explore his ruined apartment block, receiving mission prompts from his bedside radio and reminders of his progress from a diary.
The main task at this stage is to explore and forage for supplies. Every morsel of food gives You a better chance of surviving, both physically and mentally. But, it’s the other things he finds that begin to unlock the backstory and You’s purpose – abandoned coats, a pair of shoes, a handgun and, most intriguing of all, a collection of red, blue and green pills.
The blue and green pills in particular trigger unnerving dream sequences where You encounters a man sat on a stage in an empty theatre or a wind-swept man standing in a garden with a box covering his head. If that seems odd to you then you’re probably getting the measure of Lone Survivor. Little is what it initially seems and each puzzle solved or conversation concluded leads you on to wider mystery or greater doubt. It is smart story-telling.
It is not without its flaws, however. The map takes a bit of getting used to, being a top-down representation of a side-viewed play area. Working out how to read the turning of a corner is one of the first challenges you’ll encounter.
However, let that not detract you from this great game and its clever adoption of necessary gameplay mechanisms into the plot. For instance, the fast travel system is conducted through mirrors. Simple enough, you might think. However, looking in the mirror will also give you a summary of You’s mental wellbeing, letting you know whether you’ve been eating too much grotty food or over-indulging in the colored pills.
Similarly, checkpointing is controlled by sending You to bed, gaining him necessary rest to continue exploring. Also, if you opt for one of the drug-fuelled dreams, then you’ll find your backpack refilled with some useful supplies.
Thus, every mundane gameplay mechanic has a secondary strategic or narrative purpose. It’s ingenious; you end up looking forward to them.
At $10, Lone Survivor is a no-brainer. It serves up smart survival horror with deep strategic resource management, quirky old-school combat and, with its multiple endings, enough replayability to keep you occupied for time to come.
Tested on Mac
Follow Richard on Twitter: @HaydenOnP2R