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Lone Survivor: A Review

  Have you ever read a mystery novel where you were going along, enjoying the story, but didn’t quite get it until one particular line, right at the end, before the big reveal, sets everything in place for you? Where one simple line of dialogue or description just suddenly triggers the “Oh my god,” reflex? It’s an amazing feeling, mentally sifting through all the subtle and now-apparent clues where you realize that, at some level, you knew exactly what was going on. On some primal, unexplainable level, your brain was compiling a list of evidence, sorting through symbolism and meaning to understand the story at hand. You may not have been consciously aware of it, but the second you read those key words, you inhale sharply and hold your breath - everything was building up to this moment, and this revelation, this twist changes everything.

  That’s the Lone Survivor experience. I’m going to spoil this review and tell you to just buy it on Steam right now. Then come back and read this. I’ll wait.

Lone Survivor
"You're not listening, are you? Ugh, figments of my imagination are the worst."

  I actually wanted to talk about this in my initial five blog posts, but I already rambled incoherently about a rather disappointing big-budget game and a gaming convention which is harmless but kind of dumb. I didn’t want to inundate the four people who read this site with gaming posts when, really, my website really isn’t geared toward that. At this point, however, there’s enough other content to keep the balance of video game talk to under fifty percent posting and, good gravy, this game is amazing.

  The story follows ‘You,’ the masked male survivor of a plague which has the nasty side effect of turning people inside out - and homicidal. It’s established very early on that time has very little meaning - although the passage of time is acknowledged as ‘Day One’ and so on, all you know is that your supplies are exhausted and it appears that everyone once human is either dead or turned into faceless monstrosities. The first priority is to escape your apartment complex, followed by fleeing the city. Along the way, you’ll disprove the title by meeting two other survivors, fight or hide from the monsters, eat and sleep well enough to stay alive, and deal with the mental damage isolation has done to you.

  One of the most interesting aspects of Lone Survivor is the integration of mental instability into the gameplay and story. From the beginning, it’s clear that the protagonist is not well - without human contact, he’s eroded to the point where he hallucinates and openly questions whether or not what he sees is real. There are two other ‘definite’ survivors, but several other cast members who each challenge you in interpreting reality. The Man Who Wears a Box appears in dreams. A sinister character breaks in occasionally to aggressively ask you questions. A pale-faced man appears in an alley by your apartment and nervously talks to you before departing with a mysterious, “Until we meet again for the third time.”

  As you progress, you need to take care of yourself, and not just in managing a physical life meter. If you fail to sleep, the screen gets harder and harder to see. Honestly, I haven’t seen what happens if you go too long without it, because the game is tense enough without passing out in the hallway surrounded by monsters. Failing to eat leads to complaints by the protagonist - once again, I didn’t find out what happens when you let it go too long - death, honestly, is the foregone conclusion, and the game is already pretty depressing without adding starvation to it.

  Mental health is a little harder to maintain, and is a bit more difficult to really pin down, but is nevertheless vitally important to the overall experience. There’s a plant in the hallway that I totally missed in my first playthrough - watering it gives you a basic routine which is healthy. You can adopt a cat, which may eventually come live with you and save you from crushing loneliness. Before sleeping, you can take certain medicine to induce dreams which can help you grasp the situation. The decision of whether to kill the monsters or sneak by them also seems to affect your character’s mental health.

  This kind of upkeep helps to determine the ending you receive. I’ve thus far experienced two of the three available endings (green and blue - I need to see red), and Jasper Byrne (the one-man team of awesome behind this game) is apparently planning on adding even more to the game over time. I’d also like to point out that this is the first time - and I’ve been playing games for quite awhile - that I didn’t receive the best ending on the first go. The ending I got the first two times (blue) merely hinted at the truth behind Lone Survivor. After the final sequence which left far more questions than answers, I was given a ‘Psych Report’ which lists all the things which had an impact on which ending I saw - although in what way, I couldn’t be sure.

  It was the third playthrough that finally gave me the epiphany moment. Jasper Byrne laid out the story incredibly well throughout the game, giving you little hints here and there about what lay beyond the veil. The second I heard the amazing finale track play my heart skipped, and then when the ending rolled proper - when I saw the protagonist suddenly standing above a figure in the hospital bed where he had been sleeping moments ago - my jaw dropped. Within a few sentences of the dialogue, my mind was tearing through my experience with the rest of the game. I realized that I had known the ‘truth’ the entire time, but I just couldn’t bring myself to see it. It was a beautiful and heartbreaking moment.

  Honestly, this is probably the best horror game since Silent Hill 2, and the game takes a lot of inspiration from it. The main difference is that Lone Survivor is actually fun to play whereas Silent Hill 2 suffers from being really fun in memory and frustrating when going back to give it another whirl. Presented in a 2D side-scrolling style, one may be under the impression that any actual scares come from the plot rather than the game itself. In reality, the reverse is true - almost all scares come from trying to outmaneuver the baddies while the plot handles the business of the plot. If anything, the claustrophobia is more effectively managed: whereas a 3D game, like Silent Hill 2, means you can pretty much give any lumbering sack of meat a wide berth, being locked on a track means that you have to think your way around a situation or spend a lot of bullets making a clear path. And while you’re making that decision, those things are getting closer and if they see you... well, it’s fairly obvious.

  The music is simply beautiful - haunting when it needs to be and surprisingly jaunty when the situation arises. I purchased the briefly available First Aid Edition, which included the soundtrack, and I fell in love with it before finishing my first run. Hell, I love it so much I asked - and received - permission to use it in You Know It (Thank you again, Mr. Byrne!). While some of the tracks are highly reminiscent of Akira Yamaoka’s work with the Silent Hill series, Byrne really exceeds the trappings of typical horror-music with a lot of the tracks. “Sleep Forever”, “Survival”, “Moving On”, and “Lone Survivor” are all amazingly-orchestrated and hint at horror while having a bigger-than-life feel to them. While the story is intensely personal, the feeling that this goes beyond the individual is accentuated with the music. The schizophrenic nature of the game and the large selection of music styles compliment each other extremely well, adding to the character’s fragile mental state.

Lone Survivor
"Hey, I'm heading out to get more beer. Anyone need anything? Jeez, Cheryl, did you take a picture of me while I'm blinking? Goddamn, figments of my imagination are the worst!"

  The threat of a complete break is mentioned occasionally, but seldom experienced. When it does happen, though, it is effectively jarring because everything just works so well together. In one playthrough, I stumbled inside an abandoned building and had to fend off a creature with my last bullets. The music was loud and pounding, the sudden screech of being discovered as the building loaded made me panic. The creature went down, but I was now effectively defenseless. The protagonist rightly began freaking out and just collapsed. Suddenly, the music was quiet and soothing as the hero sat in a chair next to another man. After exchanging words, he woke up at home with an extra magazine of bullets. The one moment was far more affecting than anything Dead Space 2 tried to scare me with.

  And that’s really one of the reasons I love this game so much. It is clear that Jasper Byrne loves the genre - hell, he made a 2D de-make of Silent Hill 2 awhile back - and that he was paying attention to what makes the games remarkable. While modern big-budget horror games have been becoming variations on monster-in-a-box or unremarkable homages to poorly-remembered halcyon days, indie developers like Byrne have shown what actually matters. While Resident Evil created the term survival-horror, Byrne actually made it mean something. He remembered what made stumbling around in the dark so scary in Silent Hill and perfectly encapsulated it in a game far more effective than any of the modern sequels.

Lone Survivor
"Hey, guys, I'm ba-HOLY BALLS WHY DOES THIS ALWAYS HAPPEN TO ME AT PARTIES!?"

  Jasper Byrne’s Lone Survivor proves that great things come in small packages. Haunting and provocative, calling it a throwback because of its 2D nature simply does not do it justice. If anything, the gameplay and story, both individualized and in tandem, set the bar for bigger developers. It is a challenge to the big leagues to match this kind of quality. Lone Survivor, blown up into a fully-3D world, is simply unattainable with the way the industry is now. All the monsters would have guns and hide behind convenient cover, your character would be an ex-marine named Biff Strongpunch, and Her would be a big-breasted sassy grrl who gives you orders over a headset. The challenge that Lone Survivor has set forth, and it is the same one set forth by Silent Hill 2 all those years ago, is to meet the same quality by wedding gameplay with story.

  Related Content

  Superflat Games Homepage

  Lone Survivor Homepage

  Buy The Awesome Soundtrack

  Jasper Byrne is Super Cool

  You Know It, You Just Don’t Know You Know It

EDIT

Psych
I'm, like, 88% sane! That's gotta be worth something!

Purchase Project Northwoods at Amazon.com.   Purchase Washed Hands at Amazon.com   Purchase Improbables at Amazon.com.
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