Pixels can be scary…
Jasper Byrne’s Lone Survivor certainly made some waves on the PC last year reportedly selling over 800k copies, so it’s good news for PlayStation Vita owners that it has made it to the handheld whilst retaining everything that made the original so well received. On top of that Byrne has meticulously revisited the game for this Director’s Cut to add new locations, music, tweaks and bug fixes that as a result successfully manage to make this the most essential version of the game yet.
As the title suggests, you’re a survivor of a viral outbreak that causes people to turn into flesh eating monstrosities. The bleak situation pushes the player, a single blip in a grand scheme, into irrelevance and the narrative follows suit by simply referring to the protagonist as ‘you’ throughout the game. This isn’t a typical scenario though; initially you’ll have no friends to face it with or knowledge of anything but the apartment block you’re confined to – you’re ultimately alone.
You will meet strangers along the way, but a majority of meetings venture into the surreal; a man wearing a box on his head, another with a white face throwing cryptic messages at you, a wise figure sitting on a stage in metaphoric fashion. Some appear as dreams during sleep whilst others might be hallucinations; it’s purposely never revealed if they are or not. The essence of the narrative focuses on the psychological aspect of the protagonist and is what drives Lone Survivor. This Director’s Cut of the game also offers two more alternate endings (on top of the original’s three endings) after the first play through which shed some more light on the plot, but overall the game will ask you several questions and then allow you take your own answers away.
From a gameplay perspective Lone Survivor is a 2D title focused on exploring your surroundings in search of other survivors and supplies to keep you breathing. Initially the sequencing of doors, corridors and streets become confusing but thanks to the help of a map you’ll quickly gather your bearings. There’s also a ton of backtracking which does get tiresome, although thankfully enemies won’t respawn for the most part and fast travel is available through mirrors meaning it’s not always a chore. Repetitiveness does become a problem though, with the promise of freedom eventually turning into the realisation that you’re being lead down a very particular path.
Survival depends on batteries for your torch, food and ammo that all has a predictably short supply. You’ll find items that improve what you can eat by combining items together, plus other self-replenishing items such as the rotting meat that can be used as a decoy and the pills that help fill your inventory depending on what colour you swallow before sleep – not eating beforehand will reduce the benefit you receive on waking up. They work as a kind of aid mechanic that helps you when you’re struggling and also trigger dreams with the strange men that was mentioned earlier, further questioning your survivor’s mental state.
Atmosphere is paramount in these kind of titles and its the area where Lone Survivor really excels. The visuals are a pixelated mish-mash of beaten locals and blood stained walls, akin to an older generation of gaming and whilst they’re not the greatest spectacle they do serve this indie title well. However, it’s the sound design and soundtrack that bring the game to life. Chugging guitars and cacophonous synths ring out during play, whilst echos, grinds, white noise (all the genre mainstays) are here in force, but superlatively put together to create an atmosphere that’s harrowing and tense even out of conflict.
Perhaps the reason retrospective games work so well as survival horrors is down to what the game doesn’t allow us, rather than what it does. In Lone Survivor you can only point the gun in three directions; up, straight and down. Then there’s only two dimensions, so apart from the odd wall crevice that can be used to avoid monsters, you’ll only be moving two directions; left or right. In comparison, Silent Hill took away your visibility, whilst classic Resident Evils only allowed shooting in a stationary position. What this all boils down to is the fact that being hampered whilst trying to survive intense situations makes hearts beat faster, and it’s one of many reasons why Lone Survivor wins at being nerve-wrenchingly engrossing in spite of its 8-bit visuals.
The game translates particularly well to the Vita. Holding the right shoulder button pops up your gun whilst the other gives you a quick-use menu to save digging through your inventory. With headphones plugged in and lights off, it may even be the preferable way to tackle the game over its PC counterpart thanks to the console being close to you and slightly more immersive. There’s plenty to get through too with around 4 hours, maybe more, to play through depending on how you progress. With more knowledge your second and third playthroughs will be a lot shorter, but are worth doing if only to explore and better understand the narrative.
You’d be forgiven if you took one look at Lone Survivor and drew doubt over whether something that looked so dated and linear could ever be that horrifying; it would be the last time you did however. Jasper Byrne’s highly acclaimed effort has not only been improved with the new tweaks, but fits the PS Vita like a well made glove. Any fans of the survival horror genre who haven’t already, certainly owe themselves to pick this up, and those that do will find a game that humbly reminds its bigger and more renowned influences, how things should be done.