Survival horror is a genre that’s had something of a dark age this generation. The only critically-acclaimed horror games lately have been titles that put horror second after polished action segments, such as Dead Space. But from the bowels of indie obscurity has emerged Lone Survivor, a survival horror title from a one-man development team that aims to scare the player using nothing but lo-fi sprites and two dimensions.
The premise is simple enough. You play a surgical mask-wearing survivor of an infection that has reduced the best part of humanity to aggressive mutants. From here on, you set out into the game world with little more than a note telling you the controls and a key to a nearby apartment. Each player’s journey through the game will differ, as there are plenty of different and impactful interactions with the world around them.
As with many survival horror games, the weakest aspect is the actual gameplay itself. It’s deliberately clunky in a way that’s easy to see but also easy to be frustrated by. You get a pistol early in the game, but attempt to take a combat-heavy approach and you’ll find yourself dying an awful lot. It’s all very typical of the genre – there’s one key to go into a combat stance, one key to reload, one key to shoot, and you do all of these actions far slower than the nightmarish enemies get up in your face. Instead, the key to surviving Lone Survivor‘s wasteland is making resourceful use of food, ammo and objects that allow you to sneak around enemies such as flares and rotting meat.
Whilst it definitely doesn’t bring any revolutionary changes to the genre it completely nails the survival aspect, and makes you feel desperate for any form of respite through depleting hunger and sanity. There’s just enough old food and medicine strewn about the place that it doesn’t get too tough, but when your character starts musing aloud that he’s starving, you’ll be wanting to abate that hunger as soon as possible. Most of the game progresses through simple inventory-based puzzles: find key, unlock door, find item, give it to person, and so on. The game’s areas are limited in size through the its simplistic style and the puzzles themselves aren’t hamstrung by too much obtuse point-and-click logic, so it allows the player to focus more on the atmosphere and journey than scouring the world map for that one item you missed.
The very first thing you’ll notice about this game is that it is, putting it nicely, retro. The product of it’s indie heritage, the visuals are presented as tiny pixelated sprites, blown up to ridiculous proportions to fit PC screens such old-fashioned designs were never meant to fit. The second thing you’ll notice is that this game takes place entirely on a 2D plane. You might think that’s possibly the worst design decision for a horror title ever made, but instead it just shows that Superflat Games are one of a few developers who actually get how scaring people works. Photo-realistic monsters aren’t as important as imposing a proper fear of danger and vulnerability on the player, and Lone Survivor does the latter so well that you’ll stop noticing how ridiculous your character looks after the first twenty minutes.
That’s not to say it’s all ugly. The game has some great subtle graphic effects that add to the atmosphere, and knows just when to use them for maximum payoff. There’s also something about dying in game, as the screen fills with crimson red, pixel-by-pixel, that’s much more striking than say Resident Evil 4‘s robotic YOU ARE DEAD. Superflat have done a good job with the tools they have, and the way the game looks means an inevitable Android/iOS version down the line if it experiences commercial success.
Lone Survivor is a game that will be more fun the more the player has the propensity to tolerate typical survival horror gameplay. Quite frankly, there aren’t many better horror experiences to be had this generation, however if you’re the sort of person that can no longer enjoy Silent Hill 2, you’ll probably be better off avoiding this.. It’s atmosphere is flawlessly built, and there are plenty of moments where you’ll get lost in the tension. The only criticism to be drawn here is that the save system and the fast-travel mechanic often breaks the flow of the game, and can often destroy the tension the game works so hard to create. You’re taken back to your apartment regularly, as as the game struggles to establish visual variety between environments it’s easy to forget just what you should be doing after repeated backtracks to save.
At the end of the day, Superflat Games have triumphed in creating an original title that both plays and looks as you expect. The way the story progresses is interesting, and there’s enough gravity to player choices that it’s worth a second play-through. If you’ve been longing for a survival horror experience that reminds you of the genre’s glory days, you can’t do any better for a budget price of $9.99. That is, if you’re confident survival horror is just as immersive and fun to play as you remember it…