Okay, so this review will be a retro review in the same vein that a review for Megaman 10 would have been a retro review a few years back; new game made in old format. Lone Survivor is a game we recently plowed through, available on the PSN. For Playstation Plus users it was free at the time, although for a game its length, the pricetag it otherwise totes would be modest at best. My co-blogger caught this one in an issue of Game Informer, and it had me sold from the ground up. Survival horror? Check. Retro style gameplay? Check. Ambient and atmospheric? Check.
Lone Survivor makes a bit of a hypocrite out of me, I’ll admit. While I would call other games that borrow heavily from another series a “rip-off,” it’s tough to throw this game in the same ring. It’s more a tribute than a rip-off, and maybe the relatively short investment period helps make that differentiation. From the enemy designs, the environment, and right down to the music, I found myself thinking, “Yep. This is what Silent Hill would be like on the SNES.” The soundtrack sounds like it’s torn directly from Yamaoka’s early mixer, and the creature designs would be right at home in a low-res Silent Hill. The bulk of your plot is told through conversations with people you aren’t entirely convinced are actually there.
Lone Survivor also engages in minimalist storytelling, which leaves quite a bit open to interpretation. I don’t want to spoil anything that is revealed, but suffice it to say we scratched our heads a few times throughout the course of the game. On the one hand, you get to draw your own conclusions and interpretations on scenes and the endings. On the other hand, we found that certain elements of the endings seemed bizarre and out-of-place, due to missing the breadcrumbs that gave them context. However, it’s difficult to be critical of this fact because Lone Survivor is designed to be a multi-playthrough experience. With a firmer grasp on the sanity mechanic and knowledge of the game layout, you can take better care of your character, get through the game quicker and get the better ending. I’ve no doubt that if our character were in optimal mental health, his conversations would reveal “a-ha!” moments, and aspects of the game would be clearer. Some things would be still be open to interpretation, sure, but in the day where the gaming industry tells stories with the subtlety of a cinder block I have difficulty faulting the game for that.
The game takes a spin on survival horror that you don’t see terribly often; you have to eat and sleep. While our adventure never left us starved to death or collapsed from exhaustion, we did have to scramble to salvage food and go back to the main characters’ apartment to sleep (and save). What it did take a toll on, however, is the main characters’ mental health. The mental health system isn’t unknown to survival horror, but this game tackled it in a sort of interesting manner. It isn’t a simple stat that affects your ability to survive. Varying degrees of mental health open dialogue options that shed light on what may be going on. Our mental health was largely middle-of-the-road, so our dialogue options were minimal, if available at all. Watching a video of the good ending had the character pouring his soul out to his adopted cat, Sunny (yeah, this was the “not-crazy” health path. Suuuure). Eating and sleeping on time promote good health, starving and being overtired negatively effect mental health. Furthermore, your mental health improves when you water and talk to a fern outside your building, you talk to a stuffed cat that you carry around with you, and talk to your adopted cat.
Your mental health deteriorates if you opt for free supplies while sleeping, although the dream sequences are pretty bizarre and should be experienced at least a few times. While taking care of food and weariness adds a splash of realism to the game, the rate at which he gets tired and hungry quickly becomes tedious, and nothing yanks you out of the mindset to explore a foreboding basement faster than your main character whining about being hungry, even though he just ate literally five minutes ago. On the subject of food, I’d be remiss if I didn’t criticize how ridiculously picky your character was about what he cooked his food in. “Yeah, I’m starving to death and half-insane but I’ll be DAMNED if cut and cook this ham in a saucepan!” Really, game? With an apparent monstrous outbreak, you’d think he’d be a little less finicky.
The gameplay is, like the plot, fairly minimal. The game takes place shifting between backround and foreground of a side-scroller. You are most often given chances to shift into the backround and sneak by enemies undetected. You are fairly fragile, and can’t withstand more than a handful of attacks. Early in the game, you are given a single pistol and, spoiler alert, that’s it. Your character even outright refuses to upgrade his arsenal at a gun shop, because his gun is “cooler.” I can’t imagine this was put in as anything other than snark. Pistol ammo is limited, and you face a few unpleasant decisions to supply yourself with more, or simply do without. Thankfully, the game is designed to be able to be completed without firing a single shot (seriously, there’s even a trophy for it), so you can manage. You get a handful of disposable diversions in the way of rotting meat and flares, so if you’re certain you won’t be backtracking they’ll clear the way nicely.
At first, your mission straightforward; to escape and survive. As you explore your building and the surrounding areas, you’re introduced to the occasional repeat sidequest, building quasi-relationships as you continue your search. Wall mirrors serve a unique two-part purpose in Lone Survivor; your window to your apartment to sleep/save, and as an indicator of how your mental health is doing. As the events of the game take their toll on your psyche, your character comments on his reflection differently. I think this is an underused method of outlining the characters mental weariness, and would like to see larger franchises take something similar into consideration.
All in all, this game was a fun and interesting diversion, especially for the (nonexistent) price. The retro look and control scheme really created a “what if” scenario when the content and delivery was so dripping of Silent Hill it borders on copyright infringement. I would feel content up to a price of $10.00, considering the potential for multiple playthroughs and speed-runs. If you’re a fan of the survival horror genre and catch it on the Playstation Network, it was definitely worth the ~5 hours we threw into it.