Developer: Superflat Games
Survival horror has lost its way. As I lamented last Halloween, developers are increasingly keen to emphasise action rather than focusing on vulnerability, unpredictability, insanity and loneliness: the key criteria that separate the genre from more traditional shooters and hack & slash titles. With the biggest studios enraptured with guns, chainsaws and roundhouse kicks, it falls to independent studios to pick up the slack, such as Frictional Games and Intoxicate Studios.
But there's a problem. Horror typically goes hand in hand with zombies, and we've witnessed under a veritable deluge of derivative undead shooters from indie developers and big-name publishers alike. Jasper Byrne of Superflat Games makes no bones about the fact that Lone Survivor is a post-apocalyptic zombie game, and thus, you might be tempted to pass it over in favour of something more innovative.
Don't you dare. Appearances can be deceiving, and Lone Survivor is infinitely more than another zombie game. It's something quite remarkable: an open-ended exploration of what survival horror is really about, and what it means to truly survive.
Players assume the role of a sole survivor in a zombie-infested apartment block. His name isn't important. Neither are the reasons behind the apocalypse. 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 world 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 loneliness-inspired insanity becomes increasingly difficult to discern, indeed, they're often indistinguishable.
Lone Survivor present its action from a side-scrolling perspective, and we've seen several zombie games (lately Deadly 30) successfully take this tack. But Superflat obviously realises that vulnerability is the key to making a players feel scared and alone. Your fragile everyman character shuffles through the levels, unable to perform great feats of barbarism or agility. Combat is clunky and imprecise, actively encouraging you to root out hiding spots or create distractions to evade a small but throughly 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.
This stressful vulnerability sets the scene for an incredibly tense and crushingly oppressive experience, which is hammered home by truly exceptional presentation. The visuals may run at a preset 160x90 made up of big pixels and crude lighting effects, which can sometimes obscure important doorways or items, but 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 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.
And Superflat's survival horror masterclass continues. Unpredictability is just as important as jump scares and other contrivances, so Lone Survivor delights in hitting you when you least expect it. Surreal, creepy and preternaturally unsettling hallucinations kick in without warning, making you question every action and analyse every stimulus for fear of being trapped in a night terror. Is this person real? The small selection of enemies, though occasionally palette-swapped, vary up their abilities and attacks on a seemingly random basis, meaning that you never know exactly how to approach any given foe. Long periods of total and complete isolation allow the atmosphere to gradually work its magic, seeping into your subconscious and convincing you that slavering monstrosities hide behind every shadow and scene transition. Lone Survivor proves that imagination, vision are more important to crafting a survival horror game than flashy visuals and unending piles of gore, and once again, the indie scene is showing up the big boys at their own game.
You will surprisingly encounter a fair few characters during your journey, most of whom deliver dialogue that's not entirely in sync, and that doesn't make any sense at first. As well as adding to the undeniable wrongness of the experience, working out what's going on becomes a compelling drive, further hampered by the protagonist's questionable sanity.
"Survival" is more than just a suffix to Lone Survivor. Instead, the practical realities of living in apocalpytic aftermatch are explored as deeply as its nightmarish themes. Go without food for too long and you'll starve to death - with an abundance of tinned delights tempered with the horrifying realisation that you can't find a single can opener (there is one, but you'll need your wits about you). Sleep deprivation leads to blurred screens and hallucinations, forcing you to rest frequently to avoid debilitating side-effects. Lone Survivor becomes all about the little victories that make post-apocalyptic life just a little bit more bearable, such as finding a gas stove to cook real food on rather than scavenging cold cuts, just as it would be in such a desperate situation.
Byrne's steadfast focus on survival can get a little exhausting, even potentially frustrating. Having to slog back to a mirror every time you need to save the game or drop whatever you're doing to find some food won't resonate with fans of immediate gratification, and a number of arduous inventory-based puzzles certainly won't be everyone's cup of tea. Violence junkies won't enjoy the (purposefully) clunky controls and combat system, hell, some might actually be disappointed that Lone Survivor isn't a traditional shooter. And as mentioned, the visuals frequently obscure doors or items you desperately need, which can become intensely aggravating considering a relatively high level of difficulty.
Yet you'll keep plugging away regardless, and many will likely complete it several times. Lone Survivor's ultimate triumph is its open-ended gameplay and storyline, which never reveals anything it doesn't need to and puts the onus on your own brainpower. Just what are those pills that keep appearing by your bedside? What do they do? Who put them there?! And why do I keep hallucinating about a man wearing a cardboard box? Why doesn't anything make sense? The plot is both thoughtfully-presented, deeply complex and cheekily self-aware in parts, featuring an ending that changes depending on your play style (but always pulling the rug out from underneath you). Superflat has created the thinking man's zombie game, and it's an experience that I'd recommend without hesitation.
- Excellent and open-ended survival horror gameplay
- Oppressive atmosphere created by impressive art and impeccable sound design
- Thoughtful, complex and satisfying storyline
- Massive learning curve, awkward save system and controls, tough challenge
- Some arduous inventory puzzles
- Pixelated art design can obscure doorways and items
The Short Version: Lone Survival is a masterclass in effective survival horror design, which expertly shoehorns vulnerability and insanity into its open-ended gameplay. The strong storyline and exquisite 2D presentation overshadow its few flaws, resulting in a thoroughly impressive indie breakthrough.