Sometimes as a games reviewer, you don’t really care how many people read your work. After you get your thoughts down on (virtual) paper you can relax, contented in the knowledge that you have put your opinion out into the world and if anyone finds it, they will learn a little bit about the game and maybe even enjoy reading about it. Other times though you want to scream at the world and you want everyone to hear. Sometimes its to warn them that a big game is not worth their time. Other times its to tell everyone that they may be overlooking a masterpiece. When playing Lone Survivor though there was rather a more specific message I wanted to shout at a specific group of gamers. It was this:
If you love Silent Hill then don’t play the terrible new versions put out by Konami! Play Lone Survivor instead!
Phew! Now that I’ve got that out my system I can tell you a bit about the game.
Lone Survivor is a game by Jasper Byrne. Its a pixelated side-scroller where you collect items to progress. Set (mostly) inside an apartment block, you will be exploring the 2D world, looking for food to eat to keep you alive and finding items to help you unlock new areas. You will travel back to your bed when you get tired in your dark little apartment to rest (and save your game) before setting out the next day to progress a little further and open new paths. You will find weapons and ammo and you will sneak past enemies as well as shoot them in the face, making use of simple stealth and combat mechanics. The whole time, you will be more unsettled, disturbed, unnerved and genuinely terrified than in any other game released in the past ten years.
Lone Survivor is another one of those retro inspired, chunkily pixelated games. Although the graphical style works well for the game, the text can be hard to read and you wish they hadn’t committed quite so fully to the retro theme for this one aspect of the game. Despite the difficulty I had in reading the text the rest of the visuals suit the tone and atmosphere perfectly. In particular, the pervasive darkness and the eery glow of your flashlight are very evocative and some of the darker, more horrifying scenes later in the game are made all the more unnerving as your mind fills in the blanks left by the limited visual fidelity.
The key component in setting the scene and establishing the tone of the game is the soundtrack. While Akira Yamaoka remains the greatest videogame composer of all time (to me at least), this soundtrack pays homage to his work on Silent Hill while never feeling derivative. From the grinding industrial noise to the soothing piano and riffy guitar, Lone Survivor blends all the elements that made the Silent Hill games so aurally impressive. The game mixes context sensitive audio effects with music too. The end result is something I can’t enthuse about enough. If the classic survival horror games like Silent Hill successfully frightened you then it was probably because of the amazing sound design, and to see a tiny indie game like this rival and even surpass Konami’s classics is a stunning achievement. I could go on, but your best to simply listen for yourself.
Apart from the soundtrack, the other distinguishing feature of Lone Survivor is its story. The game takes place in a world where Silent Hill and Twin Peaks are both located in the same place. Taking the psychological, existential horror and survival elements of the former and combining it with the wierdness and off-kilter black humour of the latter, the result is a game that sucks you in from the opening moments.
At the start of the game you awake in a world where strange creatures that are reminiscent of the monsters from Jacobs Ladder are everywhere. You seem to be barricaded in your apartment block, but you must go out and search for an escape as well as food and supplies to allow you to survive. The world has become perpetually dark. There’s almost no one else around, and the people that you do meet often appear and disappear like they are part of a dream or speak in riddles and nonsense. In fact there has never been a game that’s felt quite so much like a nightmare to me. At times the oppressive atmosphere almost gets too much. You feel very connected to your in game avatar, and when he says he wants to sleep or tells you he is starving you feel a very real panic as you try to keep him both alive and sane. Every time you get back to the relative safety of your home and get some sleep you feel palpable relief, and as your little protagonist says, “I feel a little better”, you feel better as a player too for keeping him alive and safe, both mentally and physically.
Spiritual health seems as important as physical health throughout the game. You often feel that you may have seen and experienced too many horrors for your mind to contain them. To that extent the main character often resembles a Lovercraftian hero, and if the horrors of the game weren’t so clearly rooted in the heroes own experience I would suspect some foul Fungi from Yuggoth was behind it all.
Despite the fact that the game involves a great deal of backtracking and object hunting it somehow never got frustrating to me. The razor sharp design is to thank for this. Clever short-cuts open up (via such methods as mirrors that you crawl through) to prevent you retreading your own steps and there are always multiple methods the developer uses to point you in the right direction. Whether its a friendly neighbour who broadcasts on the radio or a big X on your map, you always know where you should go next. At one point, when facing a situation that I could not overcome with the equipment I had the game cut away to some mysterious figures who commented on the difficult situation I was in and offered some help, like omniscient, 4th wall breaking games directors. Brilliant stuff.
While hopefully all of this makes Lone Survivor sound like something you’d like to play, there’s something that can’t be emphasized enough and is hard to be conveyed in words: Lone Survivor is scary. Not just scary for a videogame, its scary scary. Occasionally the oppressive atmosphere is lifted with some black humour, but its well judged and makes the whole experience more bearable rather than detracting from the scares you will encounter.
I realised I’ve lavished quite a lot of praise on what might appear to be quite a simple wee indie game. To me though, this little indie game is absolutely full of personality, great design and originality; just what is missing from the modern Silent Hill games. What I’m saying is you don’t need to keep buying Silent Hill games in the hope that Konami will finally release one as good as the originals. Someone else has already done that, and his name is Jasper Byrne.
9 games reviewers, too scared to play when its dark out of 10