Lone Survivor is a pixel survival horror game that takes notes from Silent Hill and David Lynch. Seems like a recipe for success. SEEMS.
|Console||PC/Mac/Linux, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, PlayStation Vita, Nintendo Wii U|
|Publisher||Superflat Games, Curve Studios (Director’s Cut)|
|Genre||Survival horror, indie|
|Release Year||2012 – 2014|
|Purchase (PC)||Purchase from Steam.|
|Purchase (PS3/PS4/PSV)||Purchase from PlayStation Store.|
Lone Survivor, a game that is essentially a love letter to Silent Hill. Definitely not a bad idea in itself, considering the Silent Hill series is pretty much dead at this point. Put that in with a post-apocalyptic setting and retro graphics, you get some standard horror fare.
A couple of years back, I played a similar-looking horror game called Home: A Unique Horror Adventure. It was made by one guy and he did do an okay job in its presentation. Unfortunately, it was far from being the kind of game I was looking for; it lacked gameplay, it was linear, the retro graphics didn’t do anything to make the game feel unique, and nothing you do in the game really mattered. It was a generic experience for me.
So to have learned about Lone Survivor due to its similar aesthetics, I was pretty excited to finally try out this game. Did it meet my expectations? Short answer: kinda. It falls short on what I was hoping for. This is not to say it’s a bad game.
Oh, far from it. It’s just that… sometimes, it makes me want to go back to Silent Hill. So let’s see what does and doesn’t work in this hit indie game.
Trapped in the Apartments
Lone Survivor is a fairly unique sidescroller where you play as a man (commonly referred to as “You”) trapped inside an apartment complex. The world had gone to hell and humanoid monsters crawled from every orifice of the dark, foggy city. You must gather more food and resources to ensure your survival, and maybe even find a way out…
So you must leave your cozy apartment and evade monsters while you forage. You can either kill off the monsters with your pistol or use evasive tactics. Nearly everything you do in Lone Survivor will count against you and decide which ending you’ll get.
Alright, so let’s get this out of the way. I played the Steam version of Lone Survivor, which has its own exclusive complaint. It has a lack of native gamepad support, which baffled me. Lone Survivor had multiple ports across different consoles, so why doesn’t the PC version work with a regular Xbox 360 controller? Instead, you have to rely on keyboard controls, which you cannot remap. I don’t understand this decision.
I know Lone Survivor was first released as a DRM-free PC download in early 2012. Still, the game sells well on Steam but it never got an update for gamepad support. What is this even.
Yeah yeah yeah, I know…
Just use XPadder!
It’s not the same thing as native gamepad support, guys. Decent workaround for games with simple controls, but finicky on what you can and can’t do.
Lone Survivor is one of those games that has a moderately steep learning curve and requires a bit of trial and error. You need to learn how to use every resource and how to use the environment to your advantage in order to survive. And of course, doing so may require you to die a few times, whether it’s by a monster’s hand or by starvation.
You start off in an apartment room, which includes: a bed (for sleeping and saving your game), a radio for hints, a diary to summarize the last major event, and a tutorial for controls. From there on, you must explore the apartment complex and gather certain key items to unlock new areas and advance the story. It’s an exploration game where you have limited supplies to live off of, so time is of the essence.
One of the first things you learn about is hiding, which you can do by sneaking along a back wall while a monster passes by. The monsters are shortsighted and they usually patrol around corridors for prey, but they will react when you shine your flashlight on them or if you get too close to them.
You can use rotten meat (which you can get in unlimited quantities from the refrigerator) to distract the monsters, but you can only carry six at a time. Learning how to use rotten meat effectively can prevent confrontations against the monsters, keeping you in good shape.
Next, let’s talk about the map system. Oh god, the map system…
SWEET JIMINY CRICKET, WHAT IS ALL THIS!
The main problem with the maps is that they’re made with a 3D perspective in mind. But because Lone Survivor is a 2D sidescroller with doors in the background, foreground and even middle ground, it’s very easy to get lost in the apartments. It doesn’t help that the directions on the screen do not always match up with the directions on the map. Going left on the screen will probably mean you’re moving towards the right on the map. And it can change in any area.
The way the map is designed may make sense to the developer. Let’s try a realistic approach. But to the player, it’s just not fun navigating through this game. It makes backtracking more difficult, which is never pleasant in a survival horror title. It’s just more tedious. Furthermore, you have to check the map every minute just to make sure you’re going the right way, because this is going to screw you up when you get to the basement section of the apartment complex.
The worst part about these maps is that they show you some objectives, but the game never marks them off after you finish them. In a game that constantly demands you to keep the protagonist well fed and rested, you’d be wasting so much time backtracking over nothing… then the nameless man will complain three times about food along the way.
Imagine if you come to a stop and decided to stop playing. Then the next time you come back to boot up the game, you forgot what you were supposed to do next. All you have is the radio and the diary to rely on in an attempt to reorient yourself.
Have fun, lol.
Thankfully, you don’t have to navigate yourself back to your apartment room. You will come across mirrors that will teleport you back to your home area, making it easier to get some proper rest and save your game. And of course, you can use the same mirror at your home location to return to the previous area you were at. So, you can at least count on that.
Descent into Insanity
As you grow acclimated to the exploration and puzzle-solving, you will later acquire a pistol with limited rounds. You can shoot the monsters at the chest or the head. The chest is easy damage, but headshots are harder to pull off but do more damage. You can also shoot the monsters at the feet to do lesser damage to them and force them to back off for a couple of seconds, if you’re feeling pacifistic.
Now, why would you do that, you ask? Well, I’ll explain in a bit.
To put it bluntly, the combat is slow and frustrating. Your character pauses a whole second between each shot, and some monsters take many bullets before finally biting the dust. And sometimes, you may have to fight off multiple monsters in the same room to get by. You can’t just walk past them like with in Silent Hill or Resident Evil in order to conserve your health kits and ammo. You either need to kill them off, use limited flares to stun them for a short time or bypass them using hiding spots (which are not always present).
However, what the game doesn’t tell you is that you can lure monsters from a different room, as long as the doorway to your current room is open. You can lure them inside the room using rotten meat, then use a hiding spot to sneak by. That way, the monster will remain in that room and will leave you alone for the rest of the playthrough.
Also, your nameless character has a hunger meter and a sleep meter. As you play the game, he will frequently let you know when he wants to eat and to rest. And I mean frequently. So while you’re budgeting your bullets and food supplies, you also have to take the time to eat and sleep to keep yourself sane. You can cook some of the food you pick up for better satisfaction.
On paper, these sound like cool ideas, but you will soon learn that they’re just more annoyances. Imagine a text box popping up while you’re playing, with the nameless man complaining, “I’m hungry! Feed me!” You fed him, then he complains about the same thing two minutes later. Then two more minutes later, another text box pops up saying, “I want my nappy!”
Remember this shit from Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest?
Imagine that happening a few times in less than ten minutes.
Why not just have simple meters for hunger and sleep at the side? Or if you don’t want to see them in the middle of gameplay to help with immersion, put them as part of a pause menu—like Resident Evil did for health and ammo. Frequently appearing text boxes is not a good substitute to indicate your character’s condition. In trying to be an immersive game, these text boxes give the opposite effect. It’s just annoying.
All these flaws combined make for a frustrating experience. Since Lone Survivor does not have a checkpoint system, you will restart from your last save when you die. There’s generally a lot to do in between save files, so you may forget what you were supposed to do next. Needless to say, it can drive you mad.
The Woman, the Old Man and the Man in the Box
So far, I mentioned a confusing map, clunky combat mechanics and annoying text boxes. That must mean I hate the game, right?
Well, no. Whenever I get frustrated with Lone Survivor, these are the common problems I had with the game. They’re especially prevalent when you’re just starting out, almost making me not want to finish the game after constantly losing supplies and dying to enemies in cheap ways.
But that’s when I realized the difficulty curve significantly drops after you meet The Director.
The Director is easily the most important NPC in Lone Survivor, since he gives you many items that are essential for your survival: dishware, flares in exchange for bullets (which are MUCH MORE effective in bypassing monsters than killing each one individually), and other special items that help boost your sanity.
Ah yes, I didn’t talk about sanity yet, have I?
Sanity is a hidden meter that ties directly to your sleep meter and hunger meter. Depending on your actions, it will increase or decrease.
You can increase your sanity by eating high-quality food, being a caretaker to living things, talking to NPCs, sleeping well, etc.
You can decrease your sanity by eating low-quality food, killing monsters and whatever you come across, going too long without food or rest, etc. So if you want to keep your sanity up, it’s best not to kill monsters at all if you can help it. Flares do the job much better anyway.
Your total sanity will ultimately decide which ending you will get. But keep in mind that some endings REQUIRE you to perform specific actions in order to unlock.
For example, you will later acquire pills with different effects. The red pills have caffeine-like properties, keeping you awake but dropping your sanity significantly.
Taking a green pill before you go to bed will result in you having a dream about the pacifistic Man Who Wears a Box, who gives you cryptic advice and helps you rest better. He will even give you batteries for your flashlight if you’re low on them.
Taking a blue pill before bed will result in you having a dream about the bellicose Seated Figure, a mysterious old man who attempts to drive you to become more violent. He will give you more pistol ammo if you’re low on them.
So once you get past the game’s flaws, you will find that Lone Survivor actually has quite a bit of depth in its gameplay. You can only eat certain foods if you have the appropriate dishware for them, and cooking and combining them with other foods can significantly decrease your hunger and raise your sanity levels. The pills make a huge difference in your playthrough, even locking you out of some endings if you take the wrong one. And of course, seemingly little things like watering a plant or raising a stray cat can help out.
The story and visuals heavily remind me of movies directed by David Lynch, with intentionally obscure symbolism, mysterious characters and surreal imagery. In fact, some of the imagery reminds me of Twin Peaks. That’s pretty cool.
This is not to say the story is difficult to follow. Rather, it’s quite linear but you’re frequently asking yourself, “who are these people?” and “why are these weird events happening?” Very much like Lynch’s Eraserhead. Lone Survivor never answers these questions, in true Lynch fashion. In a story that appears to be about a man fighting for his survival, the story could actually be an allegory based on his current mental state. That would actually match up with what Silent Hill did before.
The Director’s Cut of Lone Survivor has an additional ending, where you must have the highest possible sanity level and perform specific tasks. And yeah, it’s best to complete the game once and then attempt a second playthrough with a walkthrough, because the game doesn’t really tell you how you’re supposed to achieve this ending.
And it culminates to a pretty intense final sequence, which is more climactic compared to the other endings. So for curiosity’s sake, yes, this game has some good replay value. Five endings in total, and your subsequent playthroughs will be much easier now that you know how the game works and what the layouts of the world are like.
While I find the pixel graphics charming, they’re probably not the best art style to go with in a game like this. But I’ll give credit where credit is due. They do well in conveying small details in the environments, combined with varying degrees of lighting and fog to give a faux 8-bit/16-bit look with some more advanced visuals. Not to mention it depicts the dreary and morbid images quite well.
And of course, the soundtrack is reminiscent of Silent Hill’s more ambient tracks.
Lone Survivor is a good horror survival title if you can work past its flaws. It has its difficulty curve a bit inverted, starting with the hardest parts first and easiest parts last. While I really want to love this game, it is quite finicky on what you should or shouldn’t do. When I learned that taking more pacifistic actions help you better in the long run, the game is much more tolerable to deal with.
I will also mention that Lone Survivor is one of the better pixel horror games I’ve played yet, so it has that going for it. Had the game eased me in better from the beginning, I probably would’ve liked it much better. But in the end, I did enjoy it for what it is.
- The game becomes significantly easier when you understand how certain items work and how The Director can help you.
- A hidden, but deep, sanity meter that can shift on many different actions, determining which ending you'll get. Also comes with a deep cooking system that can help you regain even more sanity.
- A decent story that draws inspiration from David Lynch productions.
- Decent pixel graphics.
- A soundtrack reminiscent of the Silent Hill series.
- Lack of gamepad support for PC version.
- A confusing map system that doesn't keep track of completed objectives. Backtracking can punish you big time.
- Clunky combat mechanics.
- Annoying text boxes that pop up often.