Lone Survivor manages to concoct a tier of fear that many contemporary horror titles have been struggling to achieve. Through exceptional use of sound and visuals, this indie title creates a tense and uncomfortable atmosphere, and furthers its psychological minefield with compelling dialogue, unnerving sequences, and a constant battle against what's real. At its tamest, this is merely an eerie release – but at its most intense, it's downright terrifying.
Perhaps most impressive is that the title manages to portray such a horrific ambience with rudimentary visuals. The game's eight-bit aesthetic looks comically old-fashioned from afar, and the side-scrolling gameplay is more reminiscent of Monkey Island than Resident Evil. However, the muddy textures and basic shapes, barely fathomable at times, provide an added sense of mystery. On-screen prompts encourage you to examine interactive objects, and you'll find yourself scrutinising the world in order to better understand your surroundings. As you do so, you'll also learn a little more about the protagonist, as he shows an affection for certain objects – or engages in full-scale conversations with plush toys. The game wants you to interact with its world, as that's a pivotal part of the immersion.
As you'd expect, the lighting is subdued throughout, with shadows pierced only by the glow of your torch – assuming that you have enough batteries to run it. When entering a new area, this limited visibility rewards a slow pace, as you'll often need to dodge the decaying flesh of foes that wander the gloomy environments. These creatures are horrifying, the vestiges of the human form following the spread of a deadly infection that has plagued the ravaged city in which you reside. They're clearly inspired by Silent Hill, and operate in a similar manner, viciously charging at you should they catch a glimpse of your torch light. Their appearance is not their most frightening asset, though: that belongs to the crazed, unintelligible screams that they unleash once they spot you.
In fact, the audio design is one of the most unnerving things about Lone Survivor in general. The game is packed with haunting melodies and ambient noises, and the presentation coalesces to submerge you into its lonely and frightening world. However, it's the psychological elements that are the greatest takeaway. At first, your unnamed character is seemingly just trying to survive from an unspecified outbreak, while mutants wander the halls of the apartment building that you're currently hiding in. You're soon coaxed away from safety to investigate radio signals, though, and it becomes evident that your character's grip on reality is severely compromised.
Dreams featuring a man in blue, a girl that you recognise but can't quite remember, and another mysterious figure – this time with a box on his head – all plague your consciousness. When you're awake, rooms change when you revisit them – sometimes in truly horrific ways – and hallucinations are a common occurrence, ones that only get worse if you don't sleep and eat often enough. Magic mirrors allow you to return to the safety of your apartment, while other portals lead to otherworldly areas. Much of the appeal stems from the fact that you're never quite sure what's real – and neither is your character.
The balance between scares, mystery, and genuine narrative development is expertly crafted, and it will keep you pushing forward in the hope of learning more. Unfortunately, the overbearing sense of disorientation can be a little overwrought at times. While you traverse a two-dimensional plane, the map adopts a bird's eye view of a three-dimensional environment, so figuring out how it all translates can be a touch tricky. This also proves a challenge when you're learning how to play. Your character needs food and sleep, so after exploring an area, you'll need to return to your apartment for rest and nourishment – even though it's very easy to waste your waking hours exploring the world and not finding any provisions.
You'll eventually get a feel for the game, though, and will discover items that help you to survive. You'll find a mixture of food to just about stave off the onset of starvation, and pills to help send you to sleep. Simple items such as the can opener and stove really help your plight, and reward you handsomely once you uncover them. Batteries can be found to power your torch, while rotten meat and flares can be used to distract the creatures. You'll even find a pistol on your travels, though ammo is so rare that you'll still need to avoid confrontations at all costs, saving the few precious bullets for only the hairiest of encounters. It's true survival horror, where low resources encourage extensive exploration.
The campaign lasts for about five hours, but features multiple endings. As such, the title is geared towards replayability, with a New Game + option allowing you to restart the campaign with new items, locations, dialogue, and the various other conclusions to pursue. It's hard to resist the lure of multiple playthroughs, meaning that the slender length of each individual session is more than forgivable.
Lone Survivor is an exceptional horror game that captures the sense of isolation exceptionally well. While it won't be for everyone, the game's quirky artistic direction will lure you into its mysterious world, and trap you inside. There are some minor design frustrations – its map is particularly problematic – but the game's immersive and unnerving narrative will leave a lasting impression. It's worth enduring the nightmares for a chance to experience this survival horror gem.