Also On: PSN for PS3, PC
Publisher: Curve Publishing
Developer: Superflat Games
Considering how widely beloved the PC version of Lone Survivor was, I’m a little hesitant to say this, but here goes: I’m not a huge fan of it.
Or, to be more precise, I’m not a huge fan of it now that its “Director’s Cut” has arrived on the Vita. And, just to be even more specific in my dislike, I’m not a fan of it as a game.
See, there’s an important distinction that — at least in my mind — needs to be made. Going by gameplay alone, I didn’t find Lone Survivor to be a very enjoyable experience. Inventory management was a bit of a chore. Combat was a little awkward. There weren’t any kind of health indicators, which meant your character could die at any time, and you never knew how many hits it would take before a lurching monster would die. Dialogues scrolled annoyingly slowly. The objectives were rarely totally clear. And so on, and so forth. There were a few positives, I guess (I liked the game’s save system, if that counts for anything), but taken as a whole, I just don’t understand why so many people loved Lone Survivor the game.
Lone Survivor the experience, though? Why people loved that, I understand. I mean, it’s just flat-out scary, which means that it totally fulfilled its purpose as a horror game. From an aesthetic perspective, everything about it works perfectly. The graphics may be rudimentary and retro, but at the same time they’re so effective they’re able to imbue even things like plush dolls and pills with a sense of menace (which means that those lurching, creeping monsters are just too scary to describe. Likewise, the music is sparse, but — much like Hotline Miami’s woozy soundtrack (which, not coincidentally, Lone Survivor mastermind Jasper Byrne also created) — it still makes everything feel frighteningly claustrophobic. And the story is engrossing; the game knows how to parcel out information at just the right pace, striking a good balance between keeping the narrative flowing and making you feel like you’re a couple of steps behind.
Above all else, though, there’s the atmosphere. There’s the way all those aformentioned pieces come together and make Lone Survivor a genuinely scary experience. From the moment the first graphics flicker on screen and the opening chords creep in, I felt a chill run down my spine, and I kept feeling that every time the lights flickered or I had to enter an unknown room or…well, pretty much any time anything happened.
It’s a shame, then, that this feeling was broken every time I had to contribute in any meaningful way to moving it forward. I know, this probably comes off as a little crazy: someone complaining about a game that expects you to play it. But if you compare Lone Survivor to, say, the Corpse Party series, then I think my point of view becomes, if not widely shared, then at least (hopefully) a little more understandable. Those games succeeded not just because of their inventively gory ways of offing school children (though those undoubtedly help), but also because they embraced their visual novel aspect more fully, and only gave players limited input into how everything progressed.
Here, by contrast, it feels like players are given too much agency, and the end result is a story that has all the right pieces, but comes off as disjointed when you’re expected to make them all work together. I never thought I’d say this, but in the case of Lone Survivor, a little less freedom would’ve gone a very, very long way.