Review: Lone Survivor: The Director’s Cut

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Indie horror returns to the Silent Hill well so often, it’s a wonder any water is left. If you can believe it, though, there was once a time when games that picked up where those classic rusty chains and faceless nurses left off were a welcome sight. Lone Survivor dates back to the days before Silent Hill nostalgia infected everything, and even then managed to strike out in clever ways from the classic formula. With evocative pixel graphics, bold imagery for its themes, and more active survival mechanics, it’s held up as one of the ways to do psychological horror right. What hasn’t held up as well, ironically, is the gameplay that supports it all.

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A mysterious disease has ravaged the city, leaving only faceless horrors haunting the otherwise silent halls. You have survived this plague somehow, holed up in a dingy apartment with dwindling supplies. Not content to die alone in such squalor, you set out in search of food and perhaps survivors. What you find sets you on a path of discovery through a city of endless night, choked with fleshy abominations large and small. It won’t be a very straight-forward journey either, thanks to the dismal state of the city and the unnatural developments therein. But if you can keep yourself healthy and lucid, you might just find what you’re looking for, and the meaning that makes it all worthwhile.

Parallels to Silent Hill won’t be hard to find here, starting right from the suspiciously familiar menu sounds. The meaty beasts you face, the cacophonous radio screeching you hear when you draw near them, the rusted walls, all of it clearly hearkens back to the ubiquitous series. But there are important differences here, and I’d say chief among them is the tone. Silent Hill protagonists are always thrust into the town to be shocked at what they discover, but your little fellow in his sick mask has been marinating in this hell for awhile. There’s some truly unearthly stuff going on here, moreso than you see in Silent Hill, and his reactions do a lot to push the feel of the game into a fever dream haze.

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You’ll also find a much greater emphasis on survival here than in most survival horror. Rationing bullets and coveting healing items will come as no surprise, but you’ll also need to keep yourself fed. All kinds of food has been left laying around, from shrimp chips to canned soup, and you’ll need to hoard it to sate your seemingly ravenous appetite. Honestly it can get a little trying at times, especially when you run out of pre-packaged snacks and haven’t found a can opener yet. Sleep is another necessity, meaning you’ll have to hoof it back to your apartment pretty regularly to snooze. There’s a basic fast travel system in the game, but much like mashing food into your forlorn face it does less to immerse and more to annoy.

Really there’s a lot about Lone Survivor that feels out of tune, like just how thin your margins are on food and bullets. Finite food means you have something of a time limit on your wanderings, though with how linear most areas are that’s not a huge deal. Bullets are far more concerning, because there’s no way past some monsters without gunning them down and you’re not going to have many to spare. Gunplay is basically just shooting straight, upwards, or downwards, like in the old Resident Evils, but you need headshots to conserve ammo and letting enemies get close enough to top them can land you in hot water. And some enemies are just plain annoying, either being hard to kill or too fast to easily manage.

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The atmosphere does a lot to redeem Lone Survivor though, as those first few encounters in the gloom are going to be tense. There’s a stealth system that lets you flatten against walls to creep past enemies, and if it had been used more in lieu of gunplay I think this one would be a lot more effective. Still, I can’t deny the moody pixel art and excellent sound design come together to create a rare atmosphere that makes even a 2D game chilling. Between the presentation and the creepy, melancholy story, Lone Survivor has a lot going for it as a pixelly alternative to Silent Hill. Just be prepared for the gameplay to drag in parts, and you’ll have a fine horror adventure to creep through the rest of the time.

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