Platforms: PS3 | PS Vita (Cross-buy, £9.99)
Developer: Jasper Byrne
Publisher: Curve Studios
Survival Horror isn't dead. Though the titans of the genre may have risen and fallen (and are perhaps rising again), the indie community seized the mantle and are delivering all the scary we need. Last year, a one-man project called Lone Survivor leapt out of left field and utterly floored us, delivering an expertly-honed horror experience that was as thought-provoking as it was horribly tense. Grimy, surreal and relentlessly compelling, PC gamers found it to be one of the most impressive sleeper hits of 2012.
A year on, and Lone Survivor is now available on PS3 and Vita as a cross-buy Director's Cut version, sporting a few improvements and tweaks to suit its new platforms. Though we're spoiled for choice by the likes of Outlast and Amnesia: A Machine For Pigs, Lone Survivor is still as sharp, harrowing and clever as it ever was, and deserves to be met with open arms by a brand new audience. You lucky, lucky people.
Players assume the role of a sole survivor in a zombie-infested apartment block, the world now gone to hell following a zombie apocalypse. His name isn't important, nor immediately forthcoming. Neither are the reasons behind the calamity. All you know is that he's stuck in a nightmare situation... and he's slowly going mad. Plagued by surreal night terrors and playable hallucinations, you'll sortie into the broken remains of the apartment complex to scavenge for food and weapons, staring deeply into mirrors to access new environments and fighting the onset of starvation and psychosis. The line between reality and insanity becomes increasingly hard to discern.
Our fragile everyman shuffles through the 2D levels, unable to perform great feats of brutality or agility beyond clumsily aiming a few pistol shots down a darkened hallway and struggling to reload. Combat is clunky and imprecise, actively encouraging you to exploit hiding spots or create distractions to evade a small but thoroughly inhuman set of prowling horrors. These mechanics aren't expressly explained by anything more than a brusque explanation on the door of your fridge; Lone Survivor teases you, gives you the tools you need and waits, patiently, to see if you can discover how to use them.
To explain exactly how Lone Survivor triumphs so emphatically is to rob you of the surprise, but suffice to say that you'll see and do some utterly bizarre and strangely mundane things over the course of 4-6 hours. Taking clear inspiration from David Lynch and Silent Hill, this is a world where nothing is quite as it seems, where you'll suddenly find yourself experiencing surreal hallucinations or whisked away into unpredictable non-sequiteurs. Whether you're befriending a cat who may or may not exist, or trying to work out what a man sporting a cardbox box is trying to tell you, nightmarish imagery and the very real threat of complete insanity constantly keeps you guessing, questioning everything you see. Everything is slightly off and uncanny, a very Lynchian feeling that stops you from ever settling into a comfortable rhythm.
Alongside these insane diversions and fighting/sidestepping the unconventional monsters, you'll also have to keep fed and rested (tough since there's only one can opener in the entire game if you want to eat properly rather than scrounge for mouldy scraps), scavenge for supplies and experiment with an array of pills mysteriously appearing in your room from time to time. Surviving and thriving are both very different things.
Snappy self-aware writing, the depths of which I actually didn't fully appreciate the first time round (a sequence in an arcade made me put my Vita on standby and pace around my lounge as I thought it through), seals the deal. Lone Survivor isn't just a survival horror game, it's a genuinely innovative way of delivering a player-driven storyline. Everything you do or don't do, every choice you make, is important in ways you'll scarcely understand until the credits roll, followed by another totally different playthrough with unique results. Survival is important, but what about the little things that keep you sane? How far will you go to preserve them? The Director's Cut version contains even more text and some new endings, but I'm not convinced that the £9.99 price tag makes this a particularly attractive purchase for existing fans.
Lone Survivor presents an incredibly tense and crushingly oppressive experience, both thanks to and in spite of its truly unique presentation. It resembles a flickering cathode ray tube telly that you're sitting far too close to, a jarring and uncomfortable aesthetic that helps lend an uncanny air to the proceedings. The superb minimalistic art direction adds an uncanny, inhuman quality to the monsters, with your imagination filling in the fine detail behind their blurred-out faces and grotesque animations.
Light and shadow are handled brilliantly, with a tiny flashlight radius never illuminating quite enough of a room to make you feel secure. Better still is the sound design, which presents an atonal selection of scratches, clicks and thumps that gets in your head within a couple of minutes. For the record, it's rare to see any survival horror game create this sense of isolation and imminent threat, regardless of budget and calibre. You'll rarely jump out of your seat, but you'll always feel that you're just about to. Be sure to plug in a pair of decent headphones when playing on Vita.
Speaking of the Vita, it's high time we discussed the Director's Cut version compared to the original. New dialogue and endings notwithstanding, you'll also get 20 helpful new items scattered about the apartment block. The visuals (previously locked to a 160x90 resolution) have also been considerably smartened up, looking great on the Vita's OLED screen -- what doesn't? -- without losing the grungy and grimy atmosphere. As previously mentioned, a single cross-buy unlocks both PS3 and PS Vita downloads, supporting cloud saves across both platforms. Though a neat feature that might tempt you into continuing your game during the morning commute, be very aware that Lone Survivor loses much of its impact if not played in a dark silent room under optimal horror conditions. It's less scary on the bus, somewhat obviously, so don't ruin your first playthrough by taking it out and about.
A few niggles are still apparent, and come with the territory. Perhaps a few of the backtrack-heavy inventory puzzles can get a little annoying, and maybe the map could be a little more helpful. Some players may tire of the purposefully clunky combat, even though it's a thoughtful and beneficial design decision. But considering the price and humble origins, Lone Survivor is nothing less than an indie masterpiece.
- Sensationally effective survival horror experience
- Unique aesthetic and masterful sound design
- Surreal and unpredictable atmosphere
- Fiercely compelling gameplay and storyline throughout multiple playthroughs
- A few tedious inventory-based puzzles
- Awkward map perspective can make navigation a chore
- Requires headphones and dark room for full effect on Vita
The Short Version: Lone Survivor: The Director's Cut allows a new audience to experience this sensational survival horror masterclass. Short yet perfectly formed, chilling, surreal, thought-provoking and replayable, Lone Survivor proves that the genre is safe in independent hands.