Lone Survivor / Lone Survivor: The Director's Cut - Windows, Mac OS X, Linux, PSN, Wii U eShop (2012)
You wake in the apartment you now call home, although it is not your apartment. As yet you have explored very little of the building or the surrounding city. There seems to have been a viral outbreak that has turned people into monsters. How this happened is never stated. One guess is as good as the next. All you need to know is that, as the title states, you are alone and you need to survive.
Lone Survivor operates at a fixed 160x90 resolution, which is then scaled up to fit the full-screen monitor. Low-res is a bold choice for a horror game. It's even lower resolution than the first Clock Tower. The effect is less than perfect - one would wish for more expression on the protagonist's face, for instance - but it is still delightfully creepy. Backgrounds move smoothly and characters are animated well. While heavily pixellated, the graphics are overlayed with effects such as mist and film static, creating a wonderfully creepy atmosphere. And as with Last Window, this game proves that graphics need not be top-of-the-line to have to have more than a fair share of terrifying moments.
Again uncharacteristic of horror, Lone Survivor is a 2D side-scroller. Aside from hiding in the shadows to avoid monsters, you are limited to moving left and right. This can be disorienting when changing direction: What was, from the player's perspective, east to west can turn into north to south after going through a doorway. Thankfully there is a convenient map function to help prevent confusion.
Gameplay actually follows through on the "survival" aspect of survival horror. You have many resources to manage. Your flashlight has a finite amount of batteries. Ammo is in short supply. You will get hungry and thirsty. You need sleep and need to maintain your sanity. This is done in a variety of clever ways. You can find plenty of dried food and snacks around, but these aren't very gratifying. If you search enough you can find canned goods and a can opener. If you search really well you can find gas for the oven, a pot, a pan, and unspoiled food that you can cook. You can also find fresh water from a leaky pipe, as long as you have some way of collecting it. You can stave off sleep by drinking coffee, taking red pills, or else by just going to bed, which functions as a save point. All this contributes to your overall mental health, which is positively affected by staying healthy, doing good deeds, and avoiding unnecessary confrontation.
Curiously, though, you will never die of starvation or lack of sleep. This is either a conscious gameplay choice, as it will decrease your sanity considerably if you do neglect to keep yourself fed and well-rested...or a hint at the nature of the protagonist. Perhaps a clue as to why he isn't "infected"? The world may never know.
Aside from the survival aspect, game progression is marked by exploring more of the apartment building and, finally, the surrounding city streets. As if this weren't stressful enough without all the resource management. You are lead by cryptic clues. Radio broadcasts and journal entries in particular will point you in the right direction. There are unfortunately a lot of tedious inventory puzzles. Lots of searching for keys and finding the doors that those keys open. Opening things with a crowbar, distracting a large monster, getting a bus engine to start running, etc. When you strip away the game's eccentricities, the core actions that mark progress actually aren't too sophisticated.
Those eccentricities, though. Man are they everywhere. Finding out what you do at point B once you get there from point A is relatively simple. Getting from point A to point B is the tricky part. Monsters are everywhere. Moreover, the game discourages the player from indulging in too much senseless violence. If not for your sanity, then for the awkward combat mode. Pulling out your pistol fixes you in a single direction, making it difficult to move when in a fight. Instead of fighting you may use stealth or, if no stealth options are available, you can use a flare to temporarily blind the enemy. There is also an infinite amount of rotten meat from in the fridge in your homebase, which you can use to distract the monsters. The enemies themselves are grotesque lumps of flesh, reminiscent of something out of Jacob's Ladder. While lacking in diversity, they are certainly freaky. They will rush you, puke on you, tackle you to the ground. The player might be tempted to get rid of them all to make navigation easier, but various letters scattered throughout the game warn of the implications of getting too trigger happy.
The developer Jasper Byrne is also the developer of Soundless Mountain II, the NES-style "demake" of Silent Hill 2. So Byrne is both no stranger to 2D horror and clearly a fan of the Silent Hill psychological style of horror. Byrne makes no attempt to hide the inspiration. The music in particular shares Akira Yamaoka's penchant for electric guitar and moody electronica with a brooding ambiance beneath it all. (There are also some nice Angelo Badalamenti - inspired pieces.) Even the menu sounds are nearly identical. In an interview with Indie Haven, Byrne sheds light on the comparison:
"I started work on [Lone Survivor] about seven or eight years ago because I wanted to make a game about dreams. I thought the idea of using dream logic meant that you were unrestrained by what you could show and I thought games suited that idea really well because they don't really have to have much narrative sense from A to B. It seemed really interesting, the idea of making a game about that logic. [...] [Soundless Mountain 2] made me realise that there was a lot in common with the theme I was going for and the Silent Hill games, because the idea of an alternate reality was a lot like a dream state. I found that really interesting and it effected how I saw [Lone Survivor]."
Understanding Lone Survivor as an exploration of dream logic helps immensely in trying to pick apart the plot, or lack thereof. Take, conveniently, the game's dream sequences. If you swallow a blue pill before going to sleep, you will dream of a man in blue sitting on a sofa on a stage. If you swallow a green pill, you will dream of a man wearing a box on his head standing on a cliffside. These men will speak in abstractions. There are technically "correct" ways to respond to them, although this is never evident. But the point is never to find out who they are, why they are visiting you in a dream. You just have to go with it, just as you would in a dream. Similar events will occur on your adventure. Who is Chie? Why does a white faced man keep appearing out of nowhere? How is the Director collecting so many convenient supplies, and why is he giving them all away to the player? You can deliberate on these questions if you like, but the game seems to suggest that you should just set the confusion aside and let it all play out.
After a playthrough you are shown a long list of actions done throughout the game: Enemies killed, times run out of food, times you've eaten spoiled food, times you've talked to the cat plushie in your inventory. This is a weird aspect of the game: It grades you on how well you performed, yet gives little indication on how to perform well. This awareness that the game is quietly judging you on every action you take only adds to the overall unease...and perhaps unnecessarily.
There are three endings in the original version, released in 2012, and five in the director's cut, released in 2013. These are largely dependent upon the player's mental health. And while no answers are ever directly stated, these endings do bring about a vague understanding of what the protagonist is going through. Survivor's guilt? Mental breakdown? Bereavement? A combination of all of three? Something like that. For better or worse it's all up in the air. In any case, Lone Survivor is a unique and enjoyable experience. It's offbeat, weird, disturbed, and panic-inducing - just like a good survival horror game should be.
Oh, and most importantly this is probably the first survival horror game with the option to adopt a cat.