"In a genre not known for death, Lone Survivor is the exception."
If you're one of the last people on Earth, do the rules change? Laws crumble – perhaps morals follow, reshaped by dire circumstances. When survival becomes the only thing, a way of life – and a difficult one at that – would you really pause to think how
you're surviving? Drugs, violence, distrust, eating slop from a cat food tin. Survival at any cost, right?
Lone Survivor is a thoughtful, subtle meditation on survival. Among the last human beings on Earth, the protagonist (called simply "you") has holed up in some dead man's apartment. Number 206 has the most comfort you're likely to find after a biochemical apocalypse: bed, sofa, oven, radio. The game begins when you decide to leave with the vague goal of locating other survivors, those not yet corrupted by the rogue chemical that destroyed civilization. Horrific monsters stalk the city and hunger, thirst, exhaustion, and mental health are also chief concerns. How – and if – you survive is entirely your choice.
Lone Survivor melds survival horror, graphic adventure, and a 2D side-scrolling perspective with ease to create one of the most unique and true to the genre survival horror games in years. Whereas most games in the genre value horror, Lone Survivor focuses on the neglected half, and those expecting Amnesia levels of sheer fright will be immensely disappointed. The game nevertheless manages to be an unpleasant experience in the best way possible. The setting has a wonderfully oppressive atmosphere full of haunted sights and sounds. Snippets of eerie music punctuate a disintegrating world full of blood, darkness, and the tortured cries of wandering monsters. Lone Survivor is a game that I didn't so much look forward to playing as I looked forward to having played.
In Lone Survivor's terms, survival means exploring the corpse of a city, staying fed and well rested, avoiding psychological trauma, and overcoming enemy encounters. Micromanaging the elements of daily life might be too tedious for some, but I enjoyed the subtle approach to gameplay. In a genre not known for death, Lone Survivor is the exception. Failing to meet the basic needs outlined above means certain death, and the game will undoubtedly kill you. A few encounters come down to trial and error – die, learn, move on – but most require quick thinking or a creative approach. Repeating a segment numerous times can be frustrating, but the game would not be complete without death, the antithesis to survival.
The innards of the gameplay are completely invisible, and items and actions can appear to have no effect, but you know the game is keeping a silent tally. Although this opacity could deter some gamers, I think this is one of Lone Survivor's greatest strengths. Behind the curtain lay gauges for parameters like hunger, thirst, drug use, level of violence, and mental health, and these determine which ending you see. While you have little tangible knowledge of the inner-workings, there are subtle cues concerning your quality of life. Eating empty snacks produces a different piece of dialogue from eating a cooked ham, for example. The game is about choice – not so much getting to the end as the journey there and the multitude of seemingly mundane, daily decisions and how these contribute to your fate.
There are at least three endings, and you're not likely to get the most optimistic or revealing ending first. My first playthrough was a bit of a mess, and I received a mediocre conclusion as punishment for my folly. A playthrough of complete violence and carelessness is tempting, particularly when you're cornered by unnerving ghouls who can leap on ceilings and spew blood. The pacifist's path is the most difficult, but also the most rewarding. Regardless of ending, you're likely to have questions about the purposely murky plot. I have my theory; you'll have yours. Although there aren't many major consequences for your actions outside the final cutscene, the game's brief length and mysterious gameplay encourage replay.
Lone Survivor requires less item hunting of the key variety than most other graphic adventures. The focus is much more on the survival mechanics, particularly overcoming monsters. These fiends are sprinkled liberally throughout the city, but you have several options for defeating them either permanently or temporarily. You can sneak past them by slinking by in the background, set off flares to paralyze them with harsh light, distract them with rotting meat, or simply shoot them. Your recipe for survival will likely require a combination thereof, as each encounter is slightly different. Some encounters don't have convenient hiding places (favoring the gun) while others include multiple enemies (favoring the flare, a sort of area of effect weapon). Generally, the more passive and non-violent methods are more difficult to pull off, but perhaps more rewarding. The combat controls are slow, but this seems appropriate. The protagonist is an awkward, unsure individual, refreshing in a sea of cocksure heroes.
Moving about in the city can be confusing, however, due to muddled level design. The 2D layout is baffling at times, particularly when paired with the map, even if it's almost necessary for survival. Sometimes moving left took me right on the map; sometimes vise versa. Doors are at times too close together, and navigation is much more difficult than is necessary. Getting pointlessly lost made one major segment artificially difficult, which stripped it of some of its horror. What could have been one of the game's defining moments is instead one of its most tedious.
The hyperpixelated retro graphics also make the scenery more confusing, although I appreciate the overall effect. To read the text comfortably, I had to reduce the aspect ratio by about half, which meant hitting "Q" 30 or 40 times every time I started the game. The pixelation is perhaps too large for its own good – a bit too hazy at times. Fortunately, that same effect contributes to the game's potent atmosphere. The pixelated look fits with the pixilated nature of the protagonist, who might see a similarly fractured world. Neat lighting effects and the size of the pixels also positively contribute to the game's effective claustrophobic feel.
Lone Survivor bears doubtless resemblance to that classic survivor horror franchise, Silent Hill. After all, Lone Survivor has creepy monsters, a mostly-empty city, a basement you don't want to be in but must be, fleshy red membranes, and a psychological bent. I like to think of Lone Survivor not as a tawdry imitator, but as an intelligent and surreal homage to a once-powerful series, and even perhaps a comment on the genre itself. This isn't just about surviving and getting to the end alive, it's about how
you choose to get there. Lone Survivor asks you to think in the midst of madness and horror. And if you don't, who knows where you might end up?