Format reviewed: Wii U eShop
Other formats available: Windows, OSX, Linux, Playstation Network
Developer: Jasper Byrne under Superflat Games
Publisher: Curve Digital
Website: Lone Survivor: The Director‘s Cut
Best described as a psychological survival adventure, Lone Survivor: The Director’s Cut plays out its thing while glancing into a diseased mind of doubtable sanity. Based purely along 2D platforming sensibilities, without a jump in sight, you must survive and escape a city ravaged by disease and walking corpses.
I stated the main protagonist was ‘you’, and that’s the truth of it. Your character is referred to as “You” throughout the entirety of the adventure. This lends a feeling of your self being present throughout the waking nightmare that must be traversed. Deep, foreboding apprehension hits you as soon as the game has finished loading. The opening menu screen scrolls a desolate war torn cityscape past your eyes whilst an eerie lullaby with organic electric guitar riffs breeze through the silence. You wake up in an empty dimly lit apartment, and go to sleep at the end of the day in the same location. It really feels like an isolated solo experience. Not that all is so lonesome. There are characters that can be talked to, with plenty of dialogue to traverse, and they are hinted at in a dropped note as soon as you first leave your apartment. But, most of your hints and tips on what to do next and where to go are explained in hallucinatory blurs of a survivor’s fragile eggshell mind. I’ll not explain anymore about the plot of Lone Survivor as it’s best to experience the whole game spoiler free.
Lone Survivor plays like an old point and click adventure, think Monkey Island and Broken Sword, and you’ll be thinking in the right area. Movement is limited to scrolling left and right on a 2 dimensional axis. So, if an enemy is standing between you and your goal, attracted by your noise or light, then you’ll have to think of a way around it. This normally reverts to superior firepower or hiding in the shadows whilst the lumbering enemy is lulled into movement past you by a well positioned tasty piece of rotten flesh. In game inventory menus, that allow you to select, combine and use items appear with a quick press of the X button. As you progress throughout the adventure you’ll come across situations that require your imagination and brain power to overcome. A lot of these situations will be optional sub-quests, and others that push forward your ultimate destiny of your city escape plans. The game gives a wonderful feeling of what you choose to do being entirely your own choice, and the hard work of thinking about it and completing a said task is done in a way where the game itself gives no hand holding niceties. Most ‘puzzle’ elements along the story line are straight forward, it’s the off-path optional quests that may have you scratching your head a tad more and wondering what to exactly do with that irradiated orange.
The only downside about the style of button pressing item inventory navigation used in this game is that the Gamepad is relegated to mirroring the TV screen. It would have made a lot of sense to place the map and item menus on the Gamepad screen as ever present artifacts, but by not doing so, and letting the game run in real time behind the map and inventory menu openings, does add tension in a similar sense to how ZombiU dealt with the Bug-Out Bag. Lack of Gamepad integration can be seen as a negative and a positive at the same time. Personally, I would have loved the option to turn on an ever present Gamepad map screen.
The thing that makes Lone Survivor so engrossing is the atmosphere. This is firstly established by the simple and effective heavily pixilated retro-sprite based nature of the whole game. From still screenshots the game looks nice, in a retro way, but load it up and you’ll see the layered effect of mist blowing over everything, the way scratches and echoes appear when psychologically disturbing events occur, the way lighting effects certain areas, etc. Talking of lighting ‘You’ carry a handy torch, but are limited in its use due to the rapidly depleting batteries, of which some will be able to be picked up throughout scattered locations. Run out of this mobile electrical power though and it literally is lights out. There’s nothing so scary than wandering down a pitch black corridor, in and out of flickering wall lamps, and hearing the groans of a nearby diseased ridden corpse. Which brings me onto my last point of atmosphere, the music. It provides exceptional quality throughout the entire adventure. From the tune based opening theme, all the way through to the echoes and groans of enemies, the soundtrack truly is the master of suspense and at times light hearted melancholia. I particularly liked the many different apartment rooms that have their own theme music, as do non-player characters. It is highly recommended that this game is played in the dark, with a wonderful surround sound system, or as I did, in the dark, on the Gamepad with headphones.
Whilst the game plays in a 2D plane, the map, however, places your location in strictly 3D terms. So, starting off in the apartment block of egress, you’ll soon gain a map to the 2nd floor (1st floor in British terms), after passing through doors or branching corridors your movement remains exactly the same as the previous corridor (left to right), except look at the map and now your moving north not east. Sometimes this movement between different parts of the map can be disorientating and can have you looking at your map far too often to establish which is the general direction to be heading in. This is at its worst when a pressing matter needs to be dealt with, and a wrong turn can mean a chasing enemy catches you and deals its damage out. More often than not though, the game gives you plenty of time to extract your map and glance at it, just remember that whilst looking at your map the game continues in real time. The map screen cannot be used as a subsidiary pause menu adding another level of tension to the proceedings.
My first playthrough took a little over 4 hours, but due to the way you play affecting the many different game endings it really is a game that can be replayed numerous times, and I look forward to approaching the whole experience from a different perspective soon. Do you play it safe, dodge enemies, sleep lots, eat good food, or do you play as a loose cannon, downing medicines to perk you up, and blasting everything in sight.
Lone Survivor: The Director’s Cut provides an affecting and effective survival horror experience that stands up against other triple A horror titles and holds its own, if somewhat short-lived on a single run, hint: this game demands more than one playthrough to see what’s fully on offer. Wonderful use of pixel sprites, lighting, atmospheric graphics, and most of all the mood catching music, elevate this to one of the best games that the Wii U eShop has to offer.
Review by Lee Davis for Nintendo: Review