“Stay lonely, stay quiet, stay… you’ll keep breathing air.”
‘Electric Rainbow‘, Minus the Bear
Lone Survivor is intensely claustrophobic. Wandering through its decrepit environments, nervously flicking your flash light on and off is terrifying. For a game with a resolution compressed to a mere 160×90, Lone Survivor is a gorgeously presented, psychologically jarring experience. Your time awake and asleep are nightmarish alike, the post-apocalyptic world you can only wander through plagued with as many faceless monsters as questions purposefully unanswered. Lone Survivor works best when meddling with your sanity and it does a damn fine job of consistently doing so.
Much like Amnesia: The Dark Descent, flight becomes a much more welcoming option than fight. Soon after beginning your self-assigned objective to work out what’s going on and find a way out of the apartment building you’re currently residing/trapped in, you’re given a pistol and some bullets… by a mysterious blue-shirted man who appears in your dreams if you swallow a blue-coloured pill (I’ll come back to that). You’re welcome to use your weapon to kill the monsters that roam the world that once was but remember that outside of causing damage, a gun when fired will produce two things that won’t do you any favours: sound and light.
These monsters will attack anyone in the light and the sound seems to draw them to you: a headshot does more damage and a bullet to the knee will force them back but resource conservation is important and that includes bullets. Killing a monster can take anything from three to six bullets: considering you spend a lot of the game with no more than 21 and stronger enemies encountered later can take double that amount you’re best utilising alcoves placed within the vicinity of most monsters that shroud you in darkness and allow you to sneak past undetected. Just remember that they’re going to be there when you return; flares you acquire later only stun.
A lot of Lone Survivor is about running errands which will require you to move around several floors of the building and venture into numerous apartments to solve mysteries, gather vital resources and ultimately progress the story. Were Lone Survivor not so atmospheric and continually tense the copious number of tentative trips to and fro would probably succumb to tedium; thankfully that’s not the case and the gripping, crucially vague story welcomingly wraps itself tightly around events. Other characters will drop in and out of your waking nightmare – the denizens of Apartment 203 provide a bizarre, highly unsettling highlight – but the game’s proprietary sense of loneliness is critical and as you wander around trying to piece a surprisingly intricate puzzle together, constantly fearful and grappling with your sanity.
Respites in the form of mirrors that ‘transport’ you back to your safe house (read: someone else’s apartment you’ve occupied) and these infrequent interactions with other people are a welcome relief. The necessity to keep one eye on your resources – you will get hungry and tired which require consumables to keep you going, and there are numerous objects scattered around that will come in handy at different points – and the other on what the darkness holds has a very affecting effect. Panic is an inevitability and you’d best be equipped to deal with it, lest you make a deadly mistake. Alcoves get smaller, enemies become tougher and in greater numbers: you may find yourself frequently rushing back ‘home’ to rest up, save the game and compose yourself before venturing out again.
Compose yourself if you will, because at times when you need to put your thinking cap on and try to work out what to do (and what is happening to you) you’ll need to stop and think. Foresight is as much an aid to your progress as your sparse arsenal: maps scattered around the place may become your best friends. Once you’ve solved the accidental puzzle of how to read and navigate around a 3D map in a 2D game you can streamline your exploration time and save resources. The maps constantly update as you move around each place, so you’ll know where you’ve been and where you need to go. Several puzzles require you to explore areas to discover things and the maps become tantamount to solving them.
Exploration will help you find items both essential to progression and survival. Different foods require objects to cook/open them and pistol ammo and batteries are scattered around, which you’ll be very much grateful to find. A mistake made can cost you big time and several areas and items are covered in darkness which require you to use your flashlight. Pills which can be replenished and are initially acquired a few game days in can either keep you awake longer or give you access to two types of dream, but these don’t always give you what you need and aren’t food supplements. A blue pill before sleep will grant you a meeting with the aforementioned blue-shirted guy who’ll occasionally give you ammo and a small slice of story; a green pill taken will lead to an encounter with a Man with a Box on his Head who’ll sometimes give you a single consumable.
You’ll get hungry and tired a lot: eating before sleeping is far more beneficial to you than performing the latter without doing the former but popping pills is subtly implied as a last resort. Be conservative and explore plenty: not only will you find everything you need but you’ll get the best experience out of the game. Lighting trickery and superb sound direction linger continually in the background, toying with you. As with any great horror game nerve-wrenching sight and sound are fundamental to enveloping the player and creating the tension and rattling anxiety. Lone Survivor excels in both, the latter so much so that the game’s atmosphere at times is defined by the wholly enveloping score (there’s a reason why the soundtrack has been released independently).
Whether you recoil to your haven cursing the potential ramifications of your foolishly instinctive actions, creep silently through the darkness with the clicks of monsters a constant threat or wind your way through a particularly tasking task with breath held and alert eyes darting frantically across the screen, the music accompanies your every step and has a major impact on everything you do. Be sure to whack a pair of headphones on to truly appreciate this, as the unsettling score is arguably the most important component of Lone Survivor’s chilling, brilliant atmosphere.
Full disclosure: I’m not a horror fan but I loved every excruciating, fear-filled minute of this seriously affecting experience. Lone Survivor is one of the better horror games I’ve had the immense pleasure of hesitantly tip-toeing my way through, a deeply haunting emprise yet one with an engrossing, beautifully designed mystery of a story that frames a perpetually disquieting adventure supremely. Don’t let the humble indie origins put you off: you’d do good to give Jasper Byrne the $10 entry fee right away.