Let’s pause for a moment to reflect on how incredible it is that this game did well enough to not only merit a Director’s Cut, but a Vita port.
You’re talking about a side scrolling horror game with really rough graphics even by pixel fan standards about a protagonist(?) whose entire reality is in question. Oh, it also features a guy wearing a cardboard box for a hat as one of its scare tactics who may or may not also actually be you. I am pretty sure that if you pitched this concept at a large game studio, you’d be shown the door inside of 30 seconds.
Fans of the original PC release of Lone Survivor will find some new rooms and new endings in the Director’s Cut, and these additions make it the definitive version to play for folks who had previously missed out on this title. In fact, even aside from the additions, I much prefer the game on Vita as opposed to the PC. The sometimes very gnarly graphics are easier to see and parse on the smaller screen, and the control scheme works really well. The sound, one of the strongest features of the game next to the story itself, is fantastic when wearing headphones. And although this is a short game (playthroughs aren’t likely to take more than 4-5 hours), it is well suited for a portable device due to the way the hunger and rest system work. “You” (the protagonist) need food and sleep quite frequently, and heading back to your room for sleep is a logical place to stop playing if you’re consuming this one during a mass transit commute.
Detractors of the original PC release will not get anything in the Director’s Cut to change their minds about the game. While I do think the graphics are easier to stomach on a smaller screen, the gameplay itself is still as limited as before. You’ll be dropping piles of meat and sneaking past creepy flesh things, or you’ll be shooting them in the head. You’ll be getting as turned around as ever by the ridiculously confusing map system and layout of the complex. While the disorientation is almost certainly intentional and is interesting as a thematic device, it is still infuriating as a gameplay mechanic. The game is far more linear than I think initial reviews suggested, and multiple playthroughs reveal that the number of truly meaningful choices is fewer than advertised. And if you think stories like “The Lady and the Tiger” or movies like “Inception” that end on questions are annoying, you’re not going to like this story.
But if Lone Survivor is remembered years from now, it will be for that same story. The reality-bending plot does not hold your hand in the least, and the game is not afraid to be deliberately obscure. How you play the game helps determine what clues about “You” will be uncovered by the time you reach the end, and the nature of the story itself changes based on the ending you are presented. What you have to appreciate most about the story is that it lends itself to multiple, equally accurate interpretations. Like “The Doubloon” chapter in Moby Dick, each of us can examine the same piece of evidence and come away with different interpretations, all of which can be equally valid. This game is no Moby Dick in terms of storytelling, but to stretch the analogy past breaking point anyway: the actual title of Moby Dick is “Moby Dick; or, The Whale.” Melville offers the reader a choice right away, setting the tone for the symbolism and questions to come. The title “Lone Survivor” could suggest, with equal validity, that “You” is a survivor of a plague, a car crash, or even the last person alive in the prison of his own mind. The title itself invites the player to ask: “Lone survivor of what?”.
In any of those interpretations, the feelings of confusion and frustration you’ll get playing Lone Survivor are supposed to be there. The bewildering layout of the complex, the annoyances of having to constantly feed this complaining guy, having to sneak past the same monsters for the dozenth time — all of it happens for a purpose. The fact that the purpose is not necessarily fun is what makes this such a tricky game to score. If you ask me whether this game is worth playing, my answer is an enthusiastic “yes.” But if you ask me whether it is much fun, I’m less enthusiastic. It’s lighter on scares than its supposed peers, for example, and dropping rotting meat over and over again is not exactly what I’d call compelling stuff. If you decide to grind through these annoyances on additional playthroughs, it is more likely to be interest in the plot that pulls you through than a desire to drop more piles of meat.
I’d argue, though, that we need more games like this. I don’t think Lone Survivor can possibly be taken seriously on the levels of the works I’ve mentioned in this review. However, the fact that every design choice in the game aims at putting the player in the head of the protagonist as much as a side scrolling horror game can, sometimes at the expense of something that might have made the game more “fun,” is deserving of praise. At the very least, it is deserving of examination. And I absolutely think it is deserving of at least an evening or two of your time.