Jasper Byrne’s hit indie horror title has arrived for the third lap around its demon-infested motel. After hitting PS3 at the start of last year, Lone Survivor: The Director’s Cut has received a current-gen makeover. Fans might be disappointed to find that issues plaguing the game ever since its original release still remain. Yet, short of being an essential update, Lone Survivor’s latest iteration once more preserves Byrne’s unique brand of grainy tension.
Death, confusion and madness are just some of the myriad fancies that await you in the enigmatic world of Lone Survivor. The game follows the desperate questing of its titular protagonist. An undisclosed apocalyptic event has left this poor chap holed up in a motel block infested with ghoulish creatures. Colluding with twisted figures, popping pills and counting your blessings all become part of an average day in crazy town. As the days go by, physical trauma gives way to anguish that steadily wreaks havoc upon the lead’s already fractious mental state. Discovering the horrors that the motel block and, indeed, the Lone Survivor’s mind have to offer can prove truly intense at times.
The eerie aesthetic is just as mesmerisingly heart-pounding as it was two years ago. Blocky visuals make for apt comparisons to the most traumatizing of low-budget horror flicks. Gameplay unfolds from a grippingly limited 2D isometric viewpoint. Grainy audio and impromptu cutaways perfectly complement the title’s central riffs of insanity and ambiguity.
Exploration is Lone Survivor’s bread and butter. Players must scour the game world in search of preciously scant resources. Finding bullets, effectively utilizing items and guzzling food are musts as the player fights, inch by inch, for survival. Generally, this system is a robust one. Having to economise between light and dark in lieu of illusive battery packs makes traversing new corridors near-unbearable at times. Such mechanics add immeasurably to a sense of burgeoning horror throughout Lone Survivor.
Yet at times this same system can feel tiresome. The game accommodates a hunger mechanic throughout. Gone too long without food? Pop some beans and be on your way. On paper, this sounds solid. Yet in practice this system proves far too intrusive. A few minutes is apparently all it takes for the protagonist’s stomach to become as empty as his mind. Relentless rumblings for sustenance cripple the system entirely. There exists no pause, no reward; no relief in fullness. Expect to inanely backtrack constantly in the hope of stumbling across nibbles to keep you going. Hunger acts as an omnipresent frustration that works only as a barrier between the player and the experience.
Lone Survivor’s gameplay is not for everyone. Purposely constrained controls inhibit player proficiency. Something as simple as pulling out your weapon and laying a few rounds into an advancing ghoul feels like trying to teach a monkey to brush your teeth. But the clunky controls foster a sense of powerlessness that vitally intensifies the horror. Every enemy is a trial you’re never quite sure you can overcome; big budget horror games wish they could be this tense. Horror freaks who can look past occasionally irritating controls will find something truly special here.
With gameplay, however, comes Lone Survivor’s biggest flaw: its navigation system. An isometric viewpoint in a 3D map makes for clumsy navigation. Maps are woefully unclear; making disorientation a constant reality. This is far from ideal in a game which so fully embraces supply scarcity. Far too often would I end up using all of my batteries, bullets and food only to find I had taken a wrong turn. These mechanics only become more tiresome as the game progresses.
Saving is comparably inadequate. The game incorporates a mirror enabled fast-travel system – allowing for safe return to home base. From here the player can take a nap to save the game. Yet this infrastructure feels completely antiquated. Lone Survivor’s pernicious play demands constant saving. Fast travelling all the way home, going to the bedroom, going to bed and then travelling all the way back is a lengthy, finicky task. Saving devolves to one more task which forcibly and routinely ejects the player from the game’s fascinating mystique.
Demanding around seven hours to complete on a first play through, Lone Survivor offers a respectable level of value at $9.99. Though the game has four different endings, it’s tough to see this intriguing title warranting many replays. Enemies and the majority of item placements don’t change. It’s far too easy to memorize the handful of locations; in the process expunging much of what makes Lone Survivor so compelling: the unknown. This will only be truer for those who played Lone Survivor: The Definitive Edition on PS3.
Indeed, double dippers might be even more disappointed to find an absence of any new content in this PS4 port. Utilization of the PS4 controller’s light bar as a health indicator acts as the game’s only significant update. While handy, this solitary upgrade by no means justifies a second purchase.
Lone Survivor: The Director’s Cut is still every bit as good as it was when it launched 18 months ago. With this comes a caveat: Lone Survivor is still the same game as it was 18 months ago. Controls are just as exhilaratingly useless as before. Systemic problems still persist; threatening to muddy the experience more than ever. Previous players will find nothing new here; even the most diehard of Lone Survivor’s fans might be better off simply revisiting their PS3 copies.
But for the uninitiated, Lone Survivor is as worthy a purchase as ever. Waiting for horror fanatics is one of the most sickeningly unique gaming experiences available on console, in its best form to date. Without winning over any original dissenters, Lone Survivor: The Director’s Cut solidifies itself as another worthy entry into Sony’s rich PS4 indie lineup.
PS4 rerelease preserves Jasper Byrne's brand of gripping, pixelated horror.