Before April of this year, horror games were a dying breed. Silent Hill had lost its direction and teeth, showing glimmers of its original brilliance that had been marred by clueless gameplay and design. Resident Evil had decided that it wanted to be an action series with horrific enemies. Even Dead Space, a game that showed so much promise during its first outing, decided to go slumming with multiplayer instead of worrying about whether its monster appearances were getting predictable (Gee, wonder whether something is going to come out of the air vents AGAIN). It seemed like I was going to be playing the classics for the rest of my life, as the genre was pretty much dead.
Along came Jasper Byrne’s indie horror game Lone Survivor. It had none of the graphical power of the big boys, no symphony orchestra on call to fill in the sound, no team of thousands of developers creating the code. It was just one man with a vision, one that resulted in the best new horror game I’ve played in years.
The vague 16-bit art style of the game should have made it difficult to convey sickening monsters, but Byrne managed to squeeze a lot of terror out of every pixel. The monsters he designed looked humanoid, but because of the limitations of the graphics they didn’t look quite right. They appeared to be covered in sores and walked with a stunted gait. Every time I saw them, it was like my brain was trying to piece together what was wrong with them. That inability to identify the monsters or make sense of them lent them a mysteriousness that set my heart up to start pounding the second they looked my way.
It took me a while to come up with this theory while facing down the game’s monsters, but that’s mainly because of the horrible sound they make when they see you. That sound would drive every conscious thought from my head when I heard it, and it was all I could do to aim the gun while I fired it. Part scream and part distortion, that noise just seems to crawl into the animal part of my brain and demand that I start running. All of the other sounds in the game are top notch too, with many sickening slurping sounds and stray noises to keep your hands from ever steadying.
Those monsters don’t screw around, either. Fighting more than one at once is typically suicide unless you start shooting them from far away. The game also has the bad habit of giving the monsters new abilities every once in a while, so you might feel pretty confident in how a fight is going just to have the creatures do something you aren’t expecting. This challenge makes every fight more satisfying, but also makes the monsters more frightening. Each one is an event that needs to be planned for with care, and when you one of them catches you by surprise it’ll make you jump from your seat. Then again, you could always be a complete pacifist in the story and avoid all of the monsters if you like, too. That’ll only make things even scarier, though. Enjoy ducking in a corner and timing your escape so you’re just far enough away from the creature to avoid it without notice.
The story of the game is what really shines, as it is never all that clear what’s going on in this world. There’s been some sort of outbreak and everyone has died, but the main character has a tendency to hallucinate, or at least I think he does. He’ll see whole rooms filled with people and interact with them, only to have them disappear a moment later. Many odd characters will just show up, only to walk off-screen and be gone forever. It all happens so often that you question every single NPC that you run into, wondering if they actually exist in the world or not. I never felt like I could trust that anything was real, and to this day can’t figure out how much of this was all in the main character’s head.
There are multiple endings to keep things confusing, too. Many of them are earned based on how well you take care of your character, as you’re not forced to get decent sleep or find anything good to eat. The game doesn’t say anything when you avoid monsters or kill them, or when you hurt people to get something you need. The game presents the player with a surprising amount of choices without making a big deal about it, all of which come together to build the game’s endings. It’s a fantastic system that felt far more fluid and interesting than any other good/evil system that had ever been made before, and I was shocked to find out just how terrible I can actually be when morality isn’t as obvious.
Morally ambiguous, beautifully unsettling, and with the main character’s mental state in question, Lone Survivor is easily one of the best games of the year. It provides a dangerous world with an unclear objective, leaving the player to wander its corridors and wonder what happened. Byrne has worked dark magic with the 16-bit graphics, building a place that feels more real than any Triple A game released this year. It’s a frightening game despite all of the things that should set it back, and its completion only leaves more questions about what happened. It’s a true masterpiece, screaming out to the whole world that horror is not dead.
Lone Survivor is available on Steam.