Lone Survivor: The Director’s Cut [Review]
I was worried going into Lone Survivor: The Director’s Cut. Jasper Byrne, its developer, had been very quiet about the things he was adding into the game, only saying that he was adding the endings he hadn’t been able to include before. The rest he was keeping a secret, speaking frequently about how he would keep the trophies hidden for as long as he could. He was designing the ultimate version of his game, but without a lot of exploration and care, I might not have even seen what he had changed. Luckily, Lone Survivor is a deep game, and offered me a completely new play style without my even accessing any of the Director’s Cut content. It was time for a pacifist run.
I talked at length in my review of the original game about the combat and how satisfying it was. I’d tried to play passively in that first run through, but the easy temptation of being able to put bullets into my enemies soon overcame me. Playing through without the crutch of my handgun was something that had me a little scared right from the beginning. I’d remembered walking through some parts wondering how in the world I was supposed to get through without killing anything. My mind had already settled into violence in my first run, and I wasn’t looking with the will of someone who refused to kill the creatures. A pacifist run is very possible, though, and it’s honestly not that bad to do. I had a brutal time of it at first, but the game slowly teaches you how to do it if you’re willing to try. Just the same, the temptation of using your gun will never go away.
The game highlights things you can interact with as you play. It’s pretty handy, as you might not have known that you could interact with chunks of the background where you can hide from the creatures. These are indispensable for most of the game, and are the first thing players will need to learn to use properly. They’re typically placed in fair locations near a monster’s patrol route, so it soon becomes obvious that you just slip into one and start creeping along. You can walk along while inside one of these areas, so it lets players sneak by the monster by walking in the opposite direction of its patrol. As long as you stay behind the creature when you pop out, you should be fine.
It doesn’t sound all that hard, does it? Well, not every monster keeps close to a hiding spot, or even has a hiding spot nearby. The game equips you with rotting meat to lure monsters to new places and flares to stun them, although the latter are in limited supply. You’re expected to use these items in order to sneak by a lot of the more challenging spots in the game, and considering you can only save back at your apartment, you’ll often have to get through a lot of areas and make it back again without screwing up. Mirrors will let you teleport back, but you still have to play well for long periods of time and use the limited tools you have effectively if you want to survive a pacifist run. All the while, that gun is sitting on your hip, always offering the promise of an easier time while never hinting at what it will actually cost you as a person.
There is one more mechanic the game doesn’t do the best job of explaining, though. You can lure monsters into other rooms using the rotten meat so long as there is no door over the entryway. If it’s just an open room with no door, you can place rotten meat inside of it and the monster will leave their current hallway to get to it. There are some spots where you need to know to do this on a pacifist run, and the game doesn’t really show you how. Much of the game asks that you self-teach yourself how it works, though, and it does hint it’s possible in an early room by showing you the enemy walking by outside. You have to be paying attention and thinking outside the box to figure it out, though. I can’t really fault it for not making it obvious, but I almost didn’t pull off my run because I couldn’t figure it out.
That’s really my own problem, though, as Lone Survivor has never been focused on making things clear to the player. In fact, if you haven’t played it, you may want to take a hike for a bit. There are aspects of the game that will be spoiled by learning too much about it before you try it yourself; aspects that surprised me when I finished the game. It’s impossible to really talk about all the good points about the Director’s Cut without going into them, though, so just move along if you don’t want to know.
The reason you would want to do a pacifist run is that the game factors how many enemies you kill into your general mental health over the course of the game, and that health affects the ending you get. Killing a lot of these creatures lowers your mental health considerably, so leaving everything alive goes a long way toward keeping you sane. That’s not even close to everything you can do to help out your mental state, though — how you eat, when you sleep, and your interactions with other characters will all be factored into how the main character ends his journey through the game.
You have the option to eat whatever you want throughout the game, assuming you even feel like bothering to eat. There is no food meter on the screen telling you that your hunger means anything, and you can technically let your character pretty much starve if you don’t feel like feeding him at the time. Food restores health, so you’ll usually feed him when he’s hurt. If he’s not hurt but complaining about hunger, though? Screw him, right? Why would I waste the resources? Well, feeding him keeps his mental state in check. Not only that, but what you feed him is also an important factor, meaning you have to carefully keep an eye out not just for food, but good food, and you also have to use it on him when it’s a waste from a strictly gameplay perspective. That’s like having to use herbs in Resident Evil every once in a while when you’re not injured, and it was hard to overcome my desire to hoard healing items. If you want the better endings you need to overcome them, though; something that made the game a little uncomfortable for me as a player, but in a good way. I was forced to take risks with my life if I wanted to keep my mind healthy, and it made for some scarier runs through the game.
Sleep is another factor you have to watch. The character will complain that he’s tired at times, but again, there’s no sleep meter that kills you or does anything when it drains. You are just expected to deal with it when he says he needs sleep, and if you don’t, his sanity begins to trickle away, all without the game ever telling you. That’s probably the most interesting effect in the game, as it never clearly tells you if you’re doing the ‘right’ thing to keep him sane. Eating and sleeping seem pretty obvious, though, so it’s not that interesting, is it?
Well, there are other little things you can do. You can trade pills to someone in exchange for handgun bullets. The guy asks for the pills, but your character doesn’t think it’s a good idea. Will that make him less sane? What about when you find yourself getting asked if you know someone in a dream? Which answer is the saner one there? The game is extremely devious with how it gauges your sanity, and while doing obviously good things will help keep it high, you will have to really think about your actions and pay attention to what your character says if you want to keep your mind in shape. One bit of skipped dialogue could lead you to making the wrong decision and drag your mind down a little closer to insanity. Don’t expect a good/bad meter to show up to show you the way, and even at the game’s end when it tells you every significant thing you’ve done, it never outright says which things you did were the good or bad ones.
A lot of what is good about Lone Survivor is that it is open to interpretation and there is no hand-holding. If you establish that you want to be passive or aggressive, the game makes no obvious attempt to help or judge you. Wanna shoot everyone? Go for it. You won’t hear what the game thinks of that until the end, although your character may hint at how he feels when he looks in a mirror or peeks into a fridge filled with rotten meat. Want to go passive? Well, better figure out how to best dodge around the monsters, even the ones that seem impossible to get around. Think taking sleeping pills is a good idea? Well, who knows, it could be. Everything you do is just an action, and part of the mystery is in using your head and figuring out for yourself what works or what doesn’t. The result is the best morality meter I’ve ever seen in a game, one where good and bad become blurred instead of obvious black and white choices. What is good or bad in Lone Survivor? You can honestly play it dozens of times and never find out.
All of that could be done in the original game, though, so what’s different? Well, the ability to play it on the Vita made a huge difference for me. The graphics, which I’d already loved the first time, look so much sharper on that little OLED screen. Detail is still creepy and vague, making the monsters look sickening and mysterious, but everything just pops on that screen. Also, there is something that feels very personal about the game when you’re playing it in the dark with your headphones on. It simply doesn’t feel the same leaning back in a chair while playing it on a monitor or TV screen. There is this sense of closeness with the game when you play the handheld version, really driving home this feeling that you are all alone in the world with the game. It sounds silly, but the decision to play it on a handheld really helped me feel immersed in the game, and is the definitive way to play this game.
There are two new endings that have been added to the game, and were the main draw for me. Getting to them required me to play the game in new ways, something that got me interested in the main game again. That’s not something that can often be said for a director’s cut, as I typically play or watch them while just looking for the new content. Sure, I usually only replay stuff I liked to begin with, but the new endings really made me interested in experiencing the pacifist route of the game and trying something new with it. The new endings need players to really play the ultimate good playthrough, so doing so will push players to do their absolute best while giving players who’ve played the old version to death a new reason to bust out their skills again.
The only unfortunate part is that you have to play through the game one time before you can access a lot of the new content. It’s a silly idea for those of us who wanted to access it quickly, but I guess it gives new players something to look forward to. It seems like a bad decision that wastes the time of the long-standing fans of the game, but I was pretty happy to play through it again and re-teach myself how to play the game. I can see it being a sticking point for many of the game’s buyers, though.
What absolutely won’t be a problem is experiencing the game’s story all over again. If you aren’t willing to think about it, it will confuse you to death. You might even pass it off as a bad story that is full of holes. There are holes in it, I won’t argue that, but each of those holes have been cut on purpose, creating openings for critical thought rather than just being things the writer forgot about or didn’t deal with. The story of Lone Survivor, even after three playthroughs with different endings, is still not any closer to becoming clear than it was when I first booted the game last year. I’ve spent a lot of long drives and longer showers thinking about it and have my own theories about what happened to the main character, but it’s the kind of game that is open to your own interpretation. There doesn’t appear to be a right or wrong answer to the events of the game so long as you can support it with evidence. It’s the extremely rare sort of game for someone who likes complex literature, ranking among games like Limbo and Anodyne. You will not get a Point A to Point B story in this game, so if you’re not willing to put your brain to work on this, you might need to pass on it.
Even lacking a full understanding of what had happened, I was still shaken when I finished the game. I had tears in my eyes even if I couldn’t explain why, as if a part of my mind understood things on an emotional level that my logical mind couldn’t. I could feel how the story ended without knowing it, an experience that sounds like I’m just spouting artsy crap when I type it out here. This game has a power within its storyline and through how it asks you to treat the character. It is an experience more than just a set of buttons you have to press in order to complete. I have not felt this way about a game since Silent Hill 2, but even that game’s story reads like a children’s book compared to Lone Survivor.
The addition of an extra two endings and some gameplay elements shouldn’t have amounted to much of anything, but giving more incentive to play this game right has made it the definitive way to play. The personal, almost claustrophobic gameplay on handheld combined with the incredible story make this one of the greatest gameplay experiences I have ever had. Lone Survivor: The Director’s Cut is not just shooting for game of the year this time; it is gunning for best horror game of all time.