If you’ve read my review of Amnesia: The Dark Descent you’ll know I’m a downright snob about horror games. Most games calling themselves horror nowadays might have one or two special moments that meet my rigorous demands for the genre but most fail miserably. Resident Evil: Nemesis is the only game in that particular series to come close to my expectations and only because it dared to actually make players feel genuinely vulnerable, thanks to the game’s titular monosyllabic antagonist. The majority of so-called horror games out there – your FEARs and your Resident Evils – are just action games playing dress-up like children at Halloween. Real horror games get under your skin or inside your head and the very best do both. Amnesia is one, Silent Hill 2 is another. Does Lone Survivor have the chops to become another welcome member of this very exclusive club?
My initial impressions after the game’s surreal opening sequence, which veers deliriously between Twin Peaks and Silent Hill, were incredibly positive: Jasper Byrne is clearly a man who knows his horror. Silent Hill is the biggest inspiration of course and many of the crumbling unique urban environments you’ll explore demonstrate that in a deliciously grainy pixel art style, eliciting a great sense of dissonance if you usually associate retro graphics with fun and whimsy. It’s also a simple yet effective use of that classic horror technique of making the audience’s imagination do most of the work for you. The gangly faceless pale monsters you encounter wouldn’t be as creepy if they were made of polygons and high-definition textures, and were launched at you from a convenient shadowy nook every ten paces. The same applies to the locations – no two of which feel exactly the same – and imbues them with a sinister character of their own.
The soundtrack, reminiscent again of Silent Hill, complements the graphics wonderfully and together they set a great melancholy mood of loneliness and isolation. Byrne’s musical background shines throughout with a haunting piano score that careens into a discordant grinding dirge in the presence of something horrid, or shifts into a head-bobbing lounge tune during some of the game’s more surreal moments. Sound effects are sparse – you can expect to become intimately familiar with the creak and click of a door opening – but what little is there is well-crafted and used well, particularly the inhuman groans and shrieks of your bestial antagonists. The roars of one particularly large and ugly bugger, during a frantic chase sequence that gave me uncomfortable flashbacks to Infogrames’ Shadow of the Comet, were what I imagine Hell’s most unholy subway train would sound like at full pelt.
In gameplay terms Lone Survivor is a horizontal side-scrolling adventure that will be familiar to anyone who has played Clock Tower on the SNES, though it owes more to real oldie adventure games like Tir Na Nog on the ZX Spectrum. A cursor flashes up over things you can interact with as you walk past them and there is a point-and-click style inventory system to manage or manipulate stuff you pick up. Every area in the game is laid out horizontally left-to-right but some of them have doors in the background or foreground which can bring you out at the far left or right end of another area, resulting in some navigational confusion and a lot of map checking until you finally get a feel for it. I personally found the disorientation added to the ambience with my initial confusion mirroring the protagonist’s own until we both got “settled”. You eventually get to grips with it but it’ll take a little while and requires some patience.
Combat is a somewhat rudimentary affair and where the game stumbles a bit. At the touch of the “C” key your character whips out his pistol and keeps facing the same direction until he puts it away again, which can lead to some frustration and panicked holstering-unholstering when enemies are closing in from both sides. Your tactical options consist solely of shooting critters in the head when they’re close enough, shooting them in the kneecaps to knock them back if they’re too close, or firing dead ahead and spending more bullets than you really need to. Each enemy takes more than a couple of shots to bring down so you’re cruising for a horrible disembowelment if there are two or more, and ammo is not easy to come by either. Thankfully combat isn’t your only means of bypassing the horrors in your way, for many locations have convenient recess in the background that let you shimmy past most enemies. You’re perfectly safe while sneaking but it can still be a remarkably tense experience. For areas that don’t have this luxury there are several other non-violent means of bypassing enemies at your disposal.
One aspect of Lone Survivor that pleasantly surprised me is a refreshing emphasis on the survival part of “survival horror”. Reality may be stretched thin enough so that any large dusty mirror can teleport you back to your apartment, but our protagonist still has basic physical needs like eating and sleeping. You can fill your belly with packets of prawn crackers you found in a gutter and keep sleep at bay by popping red pills anywhere at any time, even when you’re surrounded by shambling things that haven’t noticed you yet. There’s just something strangely satisfying about returning home, after a hard night slaying or avoiding the contents of Francis Bacon’s sketchbook, and roasting some ham. Assuming that is you bothered to find gas for the stove, proper kitchen utensils, a source of water and other home comforts. These brief periods of mundane existence give you some respite from the pervading horror while at the same time reinforcing it, since you’ll inevitably have to go outside again at some point if you don’t want to starve.
I could have spent hours scavenging ingredients to cook myself slap-up meals whilst progressing gently through the main story, so I was rather disappointed to find the game ended far sooner than I liked. The story unfolds at a nice, gradual pace for the first two-thirds of the game, slowly reeling you in with a compelling smorgasbord of mysteries. Who is our unnamed protagonist? What is he hiding beneath that surgical mask? Are the strange people he meets real or hallucinations? Who keeps leaving all those pills in his bathroom? I found all these and more tantalising enough to want to savour, like a good coffee, for many more hours than what the game ultimately gave me. Sadly the ending comes far quicker than you might expect and feels painfully rushed: you fight a particularly frustrating boss battle and walk around a bit more, then watch one of two ambiguous yet satisfying endings.
After completion you’re given a psychological assessment of sorts listing almost everything you did, from enemies killed to things like how many times you talked to a plush cat in your inventory, as well as two final grades for your overall performance and mental health. After my foray through the darkness I got straight F’s for both, presumably because of all those pills I made the protagonist swallow before bedtime when he wasn’t scoffing squid-sticks found on the floor of a toilet. Killing nearly every pitiful shrieking thing that crossed his path probably didn’t do much good for his state of mind either, which is not the sort of thing you expect to have to consider in a horror game. Now that I have I’m left wondering why more more games don’t do it more often.
Lone Survivor didn’t outright terrify me the way Amnesia did but it definitely got under my skin and into my head, to the point where I’m almost as apprehensive about playing it again. When I do though it’ll be long before I replay Amnesia: Lone Survivor is clearly designed to reward replayability and feels strong enough mechanically to support it. You see I thought I was pretty methodical in my playthrough, but something about Lone Survivor has left me feeling I’ve only scratched the surface of what there was to see. For example I know there’s a coffee machine I can find for my apartment to brew top quality coffee because the game told me. Twenty jars of prime coffee I scavenged also attest to its existence, yet I never found one. Similarly I never had a single night’s sleep that wasn’t preceded by popping pills like a suburban housewife. I also once fed a stray cat I found while wandering around the city. Maybe it could have come home with me? The apartment might not have seemed so empty then.
That a small indie solo project can leave me asking these questions speaks volumes as to its quality. Complaints about its length and combat mechanics aside, Lone Survivor is a memorable and immersive indie horror gem well deserving of a place on the hard drive of any horror gaming connoisseur. If Jasper Byrne can produce something as wonderfully unsettling as this on a shoestring I’d love to see what dark, beautiful nightmares he could give us if he had a bigger budget.