Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Lone Survivor Review

If the zombie apocalypse was at your doorstep, what would you do? Pick up some strange plants, a veritable arsenal of weapons, and spend hours putting gemstones in statues’ eyes like in Resident Evil? Or would you hole up in your room until the last possible moment and then try to find survivors? Let’s face it, as much as we all want the former, we would most likely indulge in the latter.

Lone Survivor is about that side of the zombie survival paradigm—the one where you’re searching in terror for food and desperately hoping to find another life form before you go absolutely mad. The monsters aren’t really zombies per se, but you are presumably the last human in this apartment building and notice your food supplies are running low, so you must venture out to try and escape the city and find any other possible survivors. By taking an approach of mostly sneaking and psychological horror, could this indie adventure game rival the horror or zombie games it’s bound to be compared to?

This game puts you in the shoes of a nameless, masked man trying to find his way out of his apartment building and to the safety of other humans. The problem is that his building and city are swarmed with infected monsters and he’s running low on supplies. I rather enjoy the feelings of helplessness and terror that the game instills with short cut scenes, the noises the monsters make, and how limited your supplies and options are. You’ll often find yourself hiding from and distracting monsters to inch by them in an attempt to run into a door before they catch you, and that’s quite fun.
The gameplay has standard adventure/puzzle type controls with arrow keys to move and an interact button. Lone Survivor sends you on fetch quests to different areas to unlock puzzles and progress the game primarily by finding the widget to unlock the doodad to summon the whatsits and escape from the dreaded boogityboo. Some may not enjoy this type of game, but it is right in my wheelhouse as I grew up on games like Day of the Tentacle and Grim Fandango. Adding in the horror aspect is new to me, but certainly not unwelcomed as the genre brings with it an emotion rarely seen in this genre—frightfulness.

Lone Survivor does a wonderful job of building tension by making you feel human. By that, I mean that most titles in the horror category—Resident Evil, Dead Island, Resistance—put you in control of  people who seem to be demi-gods that aren’t scared in the least of the horrific creatures surrounding them and whose weapon selection rivals that of the U.S. Army. This game puts you in the shoes of a man with one pistol, low ammo, and a backpack full of rotting meat to distract the monsters. That’s it. And four or five hits kills you, so remaining hidden is absolutely essential, and you can feel every mistake you make, raising the stakes and, by proxy, the fun.

A small but incredibly clever mechanic in the game is the way in which mirrors are used. Using a mirror will take you back to your home, while using the mirror in your home will take you back to the last place you used a mirror. It’s a portal wherein you can go back home to save, collect rotting meat, or cook some food before running back into the monster-infested hallways of your apartment complex hell. Though such a feature has the potential to be relied upon as a crutch, the restrictions and usefulness are such that it is really nothing more than an enhanced savepoint. I’m sure there’s something to be said about the symbolism of using a mirror to save yourself, but luckily this is not a literature class.

The graphics in this game did their job, but just barely. The pixelation is very nostalgic and harkens back to the days of yesteryear, but seem mildly out of place for a horror game. I couldn’t really tell what the creatures looked like, what I looked like, or what some of the more gory rooms looked like. The lighting changes, noise, backgrounds, and filters over the graphics were enough to keep me slightly unnerved, but I only found myself genuinely scared with the startling, Dead Space-esque moments where something suddenly appeared or disappeared. If this game was trying to genuinely scare me, it failed, but if it was trying to consistently keep me two degrees from comfortable, then bravo.

Though most of the gameplay elements work well, shooting does not. This may or may not be intentional, as the game does try to make you use stealth, but I found myself in more than one situation where using firepower was almost compulsory. In order to enter firing mode, you must first press the C key, then X to fire. Since the game is dark, it’s oftentimes difficult to tell if you’re in firing mode or not after you press C. I’ve died more than a few times because my weapon was undrawn but I was still pounding X like a fiend. Even when you’re in firing mode, you had better hope no enemy comes behind you, because you have to exit firing mode to turn around. Yes, there’s no simple way to turn around whist firing in Lone Survivor, and that can actually get you killed far quicker than just running into the monsters.

The game has multiple endings depending on how you played. I won’t spoil anything, but suffice to say there’s a good ending and a bad ending. Unfortunately, the criteria for how to get this ending are not laid out in straightforward terms. I would be fine with this if the bad ending did not result in me not understanding what the game was about in the slightest. I actually had to spend twenty minutes searching for what my ending meant before just watching the good ending and having it all click. I understand that good work should be rewarded, but I believe the criteria for good work should first be clearly laid out. Not rewarding me for not doing something I didn’t know how to do makes about as much sense as this sentence.

Verdict: Lone Survivor is worth the money, but I would choose many games over it. There are better horror games, zombie survival titles, and mind-bending narratives for the same price point. It’s good enough to merit playing, but only barely. You’ll enjoy this game if you like adventure puzzlers or psychological thrillers. Lone Survivor is certainly not the king of the hill, but it’s not the bottom of the pile either.
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