Game Review: Lone Survivor

Game Review: Lone Survivor.

When I reached the end of Lone Survivor, my playtime very clearly read 4:26. Four hours and 26 minutes. For a moment, I thought I’d taken on the defining characteristic of my delirious mask-wearing avatar; I thought I’d gone mad. But then I realized there were two reasons for my gut-wrenching, tear-jerking adventure’s relative brevity: 1) I had come so very, very far — always with Death’s door seemingly inches away — both in terms of survival skills and character development, and 2) I’d fumbled around in the frustrating darkness that is trial-and-error for an extra two hours or so. Both of those facts form Lone Survivor’s gnarled but never-stopping heart — sometimes messy, occasionally offbeat, but more often than not, amazing. 

One Is The Loneliest Number

Lone Survivor is the tale of a man at the end of the world, at the end of his world — both.Something terrible happened, and now everything he’s ever known and loved lies in shambles. All he can do is sift through the rubble and make desperate, convulsing claws at reclaiming his life. What that translates to is a 2D sidescrolling brand of survival-horror with an emphasis on survival — sleep frequently, collect food to survive, stealth when possible, and hopefully escape from the city. Flight, not fight. Guns (or rather, Lone Survivor’s lone pistol) are an option, but ammo’s incredibly scarce and aiming for anything other than the torso is impossible unless undead enemies are a couple feet away. 

And so, each in-game day, I woke up and inched further and further away from my apartment, all the while snatching any scraps of food I could find and slipping past the writhing flesh creatures that aimlessly roamed my apartment building’s pitch-black corridors. Sometimes, though, they backed me into a corner, and I had no choice but to blast my way out. They were human once, noted my character. But I had no choice. It was either me or them.

Combat’s nearly suicidal much of the time. Stealth is your best bet.

And in a lot of cases, it was still them. In many ways, Lone Survivor is a throwback to the survival-horror games of yore, so careful resource-management is printed in giant neon letters on the sign that points away from Horrible Grisly Death Town. Lone Survivor’s main character is not Rambo. Hell, he’s not even an aged yet still preternaturally muscular Rocky. As a result, he’s frail as an ice-skating rink on top of a hot spring and nearly as prone melting under pressure. He can hardly fire a gun on the best of days, and when he’s hungry or sleep-deprived, he’s basically a walking meal for the walking dead. 

For the most part, it’s a really cool spin on the psychological horror formula, especially as ambient sounds – like monsters’ garbled, static-y drones and the main character’s heartbeat — become deafening as physical damage, starvation, and sleep-deprivation cause him to lose his tenuous grip on sanity. Problem is, objectives are purposefully vague, so thorough sweeps of uncharted, incredibly dangerous territory are required to find items — say, power generators or gas canisters — necessary to advance. In that way, Lone Survivor’s more like a point-and-click adventure. Success, however, isn’t guaranteed, and after 10 to 15 minutes of real-life time (five to 10 more if I chugged coffee), I had to go back to my apartment and rest. The end result? Dwindling food and ammo, and — unless I was making smooth progress — no way to replenish them. 

Yes, you can talk to a cat plush. It’d be kind of cute if it weren’t so depressing.
I had to play almost every major section of Lone Survivor’s middle “basement” portion at least twice, barely scraping by and bleeding a trail of discarded food wrappers and tins behind me. Also, blood. The trial-and-error was legitimately frustrating, and an isometric map that rarely corresponded well to the 2D environments nor allowed me to reliably mark my progress didn’t make matters any better. And all the while, my character wouldn’t shut his whiny mouth about how tired and hungry he was. Seriously, dude? First world friggin’ problems have no place in a post-apocalyptic world. But ultimately, I can’t say I regret a single infuriating second of it. That basement was both my and my character’s darkest moment. Then things got brighter. 

Know Thy Enemy

Lone Survivor’s attention to detail is positively insane, and once I started figuring out its little tricks, I felt like a legitimate survivor. For instance, I learned that I could place a bucket under a leak in my ceiling for an infinite water supply. I came across the shadowy, trench-coat-clad “Director” and started trading wimpy bullets for far more reliable signal flares, which sent enemies into a stunned panic. I took up cooking to create more nourishing meals for my character. I found that, in a pinch, hallucinogenic drugs would (for reasons that venture into spoiler territory) leave me with extra supplies in my backpack — even if they weren’t so great for my sanity. 

I see what you did there.
Slowly but surely, my character reacted. His comments grew more upbeat, his disposition more positive. Where once he looked in mirrors (which serve as handy quick-travel points because, again, insanity) and lamented that he barely even recognized himself, he began to make remarks like “Eh, seen worse” or “I think maybe I look older now.” He started forming bonds with the small handful of characters he ran across, collecting silly comics for The Director, and promising he’d find a cure for an infected man named Hank. He even adopted a kitty. Lone Survivor began as a story of utter desolation in the face of crushing, stressful (for both my character and me) intensity, but together he and I gouged and fought and struggled until — on the other side — we found a gushing wellspring of hope. Keeping my character healthy and happy became an addiction. I cared about him. I wanted desperately for him to make it through this. 

Here Comes The Sun

And — once more, without spoiling anything — Lone Survivor noted all of this. There are multiple endings, and an in-depth review after the credits sort of reveals how everything’s calculated. Again, the attention to detail here is positively immense. That said, Lone Survivor never spoon-fed me anything. Properly chewing on my ending revealed a multitude of layers that are open to all sorts of interpretations. What do I think Lone Survivor’s about? Certainly not what I thought when I first started playing. 

Hooray, a rave!
Yet even when I wasn’t quite sure who certain characters were, I found myself nearly in tears over a couple of Lone Survivor’s character-driven cutscenes. The mix of music and imagery on display here is positively masterful — so much so that it affected me before I even understood precisely why. I’m not just playing this stuff up for the sake of sappy melodrama, either. It actually happened. Needless to say, play Lone Survivor with headphones, or a great directional setup. And the retro-style graphics actually made the lurching, screaming things that went [sounds of blood spewing] in the night even more frightening, simply because the lack of details made them appear even less human. 

Lone Survivor, then, made me feel a lot of things. Frustration, rage, stress, exhaustion, fear, joy, hope, pride, sadness, wonder. Four hours and twenty-six minutes – plus some trial-and-error-based change. But this game’s going to stick with me much, much longer than that, and there are few higher forms of praise I can offer.

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