Vault Play is Splitkick’s backlog series. Here, staff members will reach into their personal vaults and give scoreless reviews of games they’ve bought and have meant to play, but never got around to… until now.
While dedicating time to finishing off some of the games in my backlog, I got the itch to play a horror game. The genre has been going through a bit of a rough patch over the past couple of years, with most of the mainstream titles foregoing atmosphere for action. Luckily, indie titles like Amnesia: The Dark Descent and Slender are bringing back the classic scares and tension that series like Resident Evil and Silent Hill have moved away from. Lone Survivor, a side-scrolling survival horror title from developer Jasper Byrne, is good evidence that the spirit of the genre is alive (or undead!) and well.
It starts out with well-worn scenario. You, the eponymous “lone survivor” wake up in your apartment after an outbreak of undetermined origin has turned people into horrible monsters that roam the decimated remains of a city. It’s the type of situation you’ve seen in movies like 28 Days Later and The Omega Man. This all too familiar story becomes the backdrop for an exercise in terror and psychological dread, all presented through a 16-bit filter. The side-scrolling adventure game aesthetic works particularly well for Lone Survivor. Its “retro” art style intensifies the atmosphere, making dimly lit hallways feel more claustrophobic, and the featureless faces of ghouls more disturbing as you navigate the frightening maze of your apartment building. Sound design rivals the art, with creepy industrial noises, gurgling monsters, and static noises in a nice nod to Silent Hill
Hunger and the need for supplies are what will drive you from your apartment, along with the slim hope you might find some other survivors. From the moment you step out your front door, the feeling of oppression hits you like a brick. Lone Survivor does a great job of making you feel vulnerable. Your apartment truly feels like the only safe haven available in the labyrinth, and each journey outside it can turn into a harrowing ordeal where you may get sidetracked from your current goal by your never ending search for supplies or various side quests. Food and ammunition for your handgun (which is your only true means of offense) are scarce, along with healing and defensive items like road flares and chunks of rotten meat. Foodstuffs can be combined into more sustaining meals if you have the right tools and ingredients, and each dinner can feel like a major accomplishment when you’re on the brink of starvation.
As you journey deeper into the depths of your apartment building, you’ll be forced to confront the hordes of twisted mutants created by this unknown catastrophe. Already in a fragile mental state, “You” must choose between sneaking around the creatures by luring them away with rotten meat, or confronting them head on with your trusty pistol. Murder has consequences though, and killing things will only cause you to lose more of your tenuous grasp on reality. In your travels you’ll eventually encounter other characters who may or may not be figments of your imagination. Struggling to come to grips with who is real and who is not, the ever shifting maze of hallways, and strange mirrors that teleport you around, are all part of the “David Lynch-ian” nightmare that is this game.
All the choices you make along the way, even subtle ones, will have an effect on the final evaluation you receive at the end. There is a subtle brilliance to this system that is intentionally vague enough to peak a players curiosity. You’ll find pills scattered about that can help ease your burdens, but what are their long term effects? You may find respite from your isolation by talking to a stuffed animal, but what type of person would do that? These are the types of choices you’ll face in addition to the wandering ghouls and puzzles scattered throughout. Some players might find the lack of hand holding frustrating, but I felt it was a refreshing change that made me think about everything I did before I took any action.
Lone Survivor is a quick affair, lasting only a few hours. However, the engrossing story and multiple endings demand repeated playthroughs, which can feel drastically different from one another based on how you handle choices you are presented. This game turned out to be a total gem hidden in my backlog that I picked up as part of a “Humble Bundle”. I can’t recommend it enough for fans of Silent Hill or the survival horror genre in general, and any fan of quirky side-scrollers could find enjoyment in it as well. Get your hands on this game and play it as soon as you can.