Superflat Games is a relatively obscure indie-game developer that deserves more mentions than it gets. Jasper Byrne, sole developer of Superflat Games, has been creating videogames since the age of 8. He started off writing games on the ZX Spectrum, an 8-bit home computer released in 1982. Today, aside from developing games under Superflat Games he works for Frontier Developments on Xbox games such as Kineticmals and Kinect Disneyland Adventures.
To be honest, I did not really expect much from a game that is described as a 2D side-scrolling survival-horror. Lone Survivor was nominated for a Golden Joystick under the category ‘Best Downloadable Game’ alongside games such as The Walking Dead, Minecraft, Trine 2, Dear Esther and Legends of Grimrock, to name a few. Considering this, I was not entirely sure that the genre 2D side-scrolling survival-horror developed by one person could keep up to par with games like those. However, considering its seemingly limited genre, Lone Survivor delivers innovative gameplay, a stunning and effective soundtrack, and a well written narrative.
Lone Survivor is set in a post-apocalyptic world ravaged by a disease that turns people into hostile, blundering mutants. The player controls a character wearing a surgical mask that is referred in-game as simply “You.” “You” seems to have a very unstable and fragile mental condition and frequently hallucinates due to his constant isolation. Food supplies are scarce and it is unknown whether there are other survivors. You must then venture outside to gather food and look for possible survivors while having to deal with faceless zombie-like mutants wandering the halls.
The game progresses by solving puzzles and unlocking new areas in the world. The player must eat regularly or he’ll starve to death. You can either survive on small snacks picked up around the map or you can invest some time in looking for gas and cooking utensils for your kitchen so you can cook. You also cannot go for extended amounts of time without rest or the screen starts to warp and distort (although I’ve never actually had the balls to go past this stage of exhaustion). However, mirrors are placed throughout the map that enables the player to teleport back to the apartment where you can save the game by sleeping in your bed. The player is equipped with a flashlight that runs on batteries and must scavenge the map for replacements. Areas of the map are often darkly lit but some are absolutely pitch-black so it is important for the player to conserve power. You must also gather different maps of different areas. Obstructions, accessible areas, points of interest and quest markers are automatically placed on the map upon discovery. Accessing the map does not pause the game and leaves the player vulnerable to attack. When in dark areas, the map appears hard to see if the flashlight is not turned on initially.
One thing that bothered me about the map system is that while it’s easy to map out a route, it’s very confusing to translate it into a 2D side-scrolling environment. It always appears that you can only go left or right, so navigating to places where the hallways are more complex gets quite frustrating especially when you’re being chased by a bunch of mindless flesh eating mutants.
You can choose to either eliminate threats using a pistol found later in the game or to avoid threats in order to conserve ammo such is the basis of survival-horrors. Later in the game, you also acquire flares which temporarily incapacitate the monsters. There are only three ways the player can get past a monster: shooting it down, distracting it with a flare, or by distracting it with rotting meat. Basically, you can place a piece of rotting meat on the floor while he hides in a recess in the wall until he can bypass the monster. These recesses in the walls, however, are not always present so unless the player is willing to spare bullets or a flare then the area ahead of the mutant is inaccessible. You can only aim the pistol in three directions: up, middle and down; if a mutant is shot in the legs it backs away. It takes three shots to the head for a mutant to go down so if you panic and start shooting the mutant’s torso it becomes a waste of ammo.
The visuals offer retro-style 2D graphics. It plays on a 160×90 resolution that’s been stretched to fill up the screen. The environment is very murky, bleak and mysterious with graffiti and blood splotches littered throughout the map. The player often hallucinates but finds it hard to discern hallucinations from reality. He often squeezes through weird fleshy tunnels scattered throughout the map that may or may not be hallucinations considering the situation he is in.
I’d say it’s pretty unlikely to get absolutely freaked out by a 2D pixelated survival-horror game, but Lone Survivor has a very eerie charm to it. It’s not the type of game where monsters sneak up or even walk right up to you flailing their arms and screaming at you while you panic and reload your flamethrower. No, it’s not the type of cheap scares games like Dead Space delivers. The horror here lies in the player’s mind. The player often questions his sanity as he cannot quite tell the difference between reality and dream. He comes across hallucinations of people that seem to know who he is but can’t recall who they are. He is haunted by a past that he does not remember, so he wanders around with seemingly no absolute final objective, scrounging for squid sticks he finds on bloody floors and taking pills that mysteriously appear in his bathroom overnight. This person has clearly gone absolutely insane, which makes the game great because you know you cannot even rely on your own self-reflection; there is no indication as to how long you have been starved of human contact. The closest social contact you get is from what may or may not be hallucinations and shady figures that may or may not even be human or real. The horror of this game is of a visceral nature. It’s deeply more of a psychological thriller than anything else.
The sound design as well as the soundtrack is brilliant. The mutants make some very bizarre and otherworldly noises that make it more thrilling as you approach them. Muffled fleshy noises scatter the environment which make you worry about what might be in the next door you’re opening. The soundtrack, composed by none other than Jasper Byrne, is brilliant and memorable. It offers a haunting and eerie backdrop to a bleak environment. I wouldn’t describe the music as menacing but rather more tranquil, very reminiscent of Silent Hill 2.
Despite seeming to have a very limited market, Lone Survivors has proven its worth with a thought-provoking narrative, polished and consistent art-style and a soundtrack that is just so appropriate and appealing. Lone Survivors has paved the way for Jasper Byrne and Supergiant Games to create more thought-provoking works of art for the gaming world. I look forward to seeing more from this developer in the near future. If you want to just sit back, relax and appreciate a work of art then I highly recommend you pick up this game.