Lone Survivor begins by telling you to complete ‘The Ritual’: dimming the lights, using headphones, and even disabling the reassuring ping of trophy notifications. From this moment on, you know it isn’t messing about. It is an atmosphere that wants to consume you entirely. It is serious stuff.
Originally developed by Jasper Byrne for PC and Mac, this Vita version was made possible by the conversion kings at Curve Studios — the team responsible for bringing Thomas Was Alone and Stealth
Bastard Inc. to PS Vita. Lone Survivor positions you as a man living out of his apartment block, just eking out a day-to-day existence foraging for baked beans and flashlight batteries in a desolate, infected world. Struggling to sustain your survival is routine, and monsters are now a part and parcel of life.
As you can see from the screenshots, the visuals take a fairly standard pixel art approach. It’s pretty incredible that such basic visuals can come together to create something so menacing, especially without voice acting. An ambient, creeping soundtrack is the order of the day here, with infected monsters — effectively little more than an indistinct, vaguely human-shaped cluster of pixels — still managing to be unsettling. It’s a clever use of minimal design and animation that does this, with unnatural shambling, a lack of identifiably human facial features, and constant skittish head movements. Not to mention some ominous audio trickery that immediately alerts you to the fact you’re not alone…
Lone Survivor‘s narrative is not one that takes place at the start of the outbreak. By the time we are given control of the protagonist he has been surviving for a while — he has a past, he references unsaid events that have occurred before, and his time alone has begun to affect him. We don’t see how it started, we don’t know how it came to be, and there is a massive chunk of our character’s survival experience that we are not privy to. There are also certain indications throughout that the battle is a psychological one, as well as merely a physical conflict with monstrous creatures. A haze of confusion shrouds Lone Survivor, with peculiar events occurring throughout — events which are inexplicable to the protagonist and the player in equal measure, but taken in the stride and accepted without a struggle. Just like the monsters, these events are just a part and parcel of life now. Life is strange, ever-shifting, and untrustworthy.
As survival horror goes, Lone Survivor is pretty generous. That’s not to say it’s forgiving by any means, but death is rarely a setback that will give you any major headache. Sure, I’ve had to repeat stuff after a badly-timed death, but not much. The game saves when you sleep, and the character’s fatigue ensures you sleep fairly often so huge chunks of repetition are not an issue. However, it does feature a structure that may be considered troublesome in a more traditional game. For instance, the retreading of old ground and making the same journey through the same corridors is common, especially in the early stages, which some could argue is an exercise in tedium. However, it is essential to the plot, and to put you in the character’s shoes. As touched upon earlier, survival has been reduced to a routine in this fractured world, and making the same steps every morning — the steps that the protagonist has had to make day in day out, week in week out since the outbreak began — is a subtle way of making you understand that mindset.
I’ve been careful to not discuss some of the more interesting ideas and themes too much, for fear of spoilers. You may have noticed that description of the game mechanics — typically the main bulk of any game review —has taken a back seat here. That’s because they are basic and unremarkable, largely. The dynamic of exploration, discovery, and backtracking is almost metroidvania-esque, while the combat mechanics are as clumsy and awkward as good survival horror should be. But all this is, to a certain extent, irrelevant. The story is the game in Lone Survivor, but it’s a story so well observed and realised in game form that it couldn’t work as well in any other medium. The biggest compliment I can give to Lone Survivor is that it’s interesting. Like, really interesting. Not interesting for a game, not interesting with concessions, just plain interesting. It’ll have you thinking about it after completion like the best films and books do.
Lone Survivor is available on PS Vita and PS3 via the PlayStation Store. Of course, the PC version is still available too.[review pros="Great consuming atmosphere, a well-observed plot that'll get you thinking, creates tension from sparse elements." cons="Not massively engaging from a gameplay angle, if you think that's important." score=90]