jayhitcher's Lone Survivor (Steam) (PC) review

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A Silent Hill love letter that sometimes shows too much love

The original Silent Hill trilogy may be the most influential survival horror games of all time. Games had attempted horror before then, but those games pushed the idea into the mainstream and had the most success (at the time) in the genre, both in terms of popularity and quality. And then it started to go downhill after The Room, and much of its critical reputation has been tarnished since.

But most fans of the genre still love the original three games (myself included), and Jasper Byrne is clearly one of the members of said group. After playing Lone Survivor, one gets a sense that the man has a strong attachment to those games, and Lone Survivor is, in many ways, a love letter to a series and a specific style of survival horror that is now long gone, with progressive additions that keep the formula fresh, as well as moments that seem to show over-reverence to what has come before it.

Lone Survivor opens with the unnamed protagonist (referred to as "You" in the text boxes) reflecting on his current situation. He's been huddled in his apartment for the past several weeks, since the building was quarantined due to a disease that's covered the city. He's running out of supplies, so he'll have no choice but to leave his room and gather more as he tries to escape the infected urban area. In the end, he says, he just doesn't want to die alone.

The apartment serves as the center of most of the game. Sleeping in your bed saves your game and keeps the main character from becoming exhausted, though sleeping too much or too little will reduce your mental health, and taking pills before sleeping can give you strange dreams that may help or harm you. Once you find items strewn throughout the apartment building, you can start gathering rainwater to drink and cooking foods to keep yourself healthy.

Once you leave, you encounter lanky white monsters roaming the halls. Early on, your only option is to hide from them by moving into small nooks in the background of the areas as they walk past or by placing rotting meats to distract them. Later you find distress flares that temporarily disable nearby monsters and allow you to quickly move by them. Not far into the game you find a handgun, your sole weapon. Ammo is about as limited as it is in a normal run of Silent Hill 2, so you're not starved for it most of the time.

Like the Silent Hill series, this gives you two main options: kill or don't kill. You can waste ammunition (and possibly your health) by killing the enemies you encounter, or you can use strategy and the much more limited distress flares to play the entire game without ever killing anything. Unlike in the Silent Hill games, enemies don't respawn, so using your handgun is a more viable option than just running past enemies. At the same time, sneaking past every enemy in the game would take much longer, and you're not ever in a situation where you really need to hoard ammunition.

You make progress through the world in much the same way as you would expect: there's a door you need to open, so you have to go around the world and find the item(s) you'll need to open it, sneaking around or killing enemies all the while, and then you complete that objective and more of the game world opens up. It's pretty standard fare, but since the game gives you more options for how you move through the world, it's much more entertaining than it is in the Silent Hill series.

What made that style of gameplay permissible in Silent Hill was that you were constantly encountering story beats and new characters and strange situations that kept you intrigued. Lone Survivor is not as effective as its influences at that, and its story is, overall, less coherent and more hands-off. It's still very effective, and the few other characters you meet and how you can interact with them are all very well-done (though sometimes not that well-explained), but it lacks the signature set-piece moments that we all remember about those other games.

Jasper Byrne's writing moves across many different tones throughout Lone Survivor, and they're all effective. He is excellent at getting across a sense of desperation and fear as much as he is at conveying humor. Like many games made by one person, the author's voice is clear throughout the whole game, and its idiosyncrasies create a sense of charm that many games (especially horror games) lack.

As for the plot's resolution, I will put that under a spoiler block since not knowing anything about it makes it much more effective. I'll just say that it is also heavily influenced by Silent Hill and that it doesn't make or break the overall experience.

There are multiple endings to the game, each influenced by the decisions you make previously. The mechanics that go into determining what ending you get are great; they encourage you to play the game more strategically and go along with the individual endings you can get. Unfortunately, the endings are not very original, and, despite there being three (at this point), two of them are so similar to each other that they're practically the same. The "Green" ending, essentially the "good" ending, is Silent Hill 2's "Leave" ending, with a doll instead of Laura. The "Blue" (neutral) and "Red" (bad) endings of the game are extremely slight variations on what is basically the "In Water" ending.

The game's ending also feels quite sudden. There are a few moments that indicate that you're reaching some sort of endgame, but what could've been a big finale, i.e. a full level in the hospital, feels wasted. Still, the endings, despite their lack of originality, make sense within Lone Survivor's universe and provide resolution to the protagonist.

Aesthetically, Lone Survivor is absolutely wonderful. Though pixel art is becoming more and more cliched in games (especially indie games) nowadays, Byrne creates a unique twist on it by applying filters that give the sense that you're playing the game on a broken CRT and by making the blocks larger than in most pixel art games, which adds to the game's sense of claustrophobia. The soundtrack, also by Byrne, adds to the atmosphere excellently, and the ending song is possibly the best original composition I've heard in a game so far this year.

Lone Survivor is by no means the scariest survival horror game I've played in a while (it's no Amnesia), but it's a sort of survival horror game that we don't really get anymore: the sort that gives you a protagonist you care about enough to want to prevent his death, the sort that can tell an excellent story, the sort that has an actual sense of charm to it. Not since Silent Hill 2 have I loved a horror game this much, but that's probably helped by Lone Survivor taking so, so much influence from that game. It is a game that wears its influences on its sleeve, for better and for worse, mostly for the former.

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