Lone Survivor:The Director's Cut seems to have arrived on the Wii U eShop as a sudden apparition; creeping unnaturally under the radar during a slew of indie title announcements that emerged from E3 this year. Now, Jasper Byrne's twisted horror is ready to infect your mind just in time for the Halloween season, and it will not go silently any longer.
Originally released for PC in 2012, the Director's Cut edition has been ported onto Wii U by Curve Studios, and features an impressive number of changes to fine-tune the experience. An entirely new lighting engine has been used, as well as updated or entirely new locations from the original, added music, and perhaps most importantly — additional endings. This is a survival horror in every sense of the term, as the player's chosen methods of keeping alive will have an ongoing effect on the protagonist's psyche. Multiple endings will tell different sides of the story, but the weight of these answers will rely on your every decision...
Waking up as an unnamed survivor only ever referred to as 'you', the story flows about as smoothly as the organic gore covering the walls of your apartment complex. What little you do know — that a terrible disease has ravaged your entire home city and left you isolated in your own room — is revealed quite early on, but the full extent of this epidemic is an ever-changing concept that rarely seems clear. It's a simple setup that's defined by the actual title of the game, but so much is left unsaid that questions will begin to pile up almost immediately. Initially this provides some welcome focus, as the first objective is simply to make your way down to the bottom floor. A seemingly straightforward mission such as this does a good job at allowing the player to get to grips with the gameplay mechanics.
Unsurprisingly, survival is at the forefront for the duration, and the individual needs that must be met just to keep going are a constant concern. Your character is scraping by in an immensely hostile environment, so will need to make sure he gets enough food and sleep to keep his strength up. On top of that, you'll need to stock up on very limited provisions for both your torch and a handgun, as well as investigate potential signs of other survivors hiding somewhere out there in the darkness — it's an exciting example of the genre that almost never lets the player feel like they're in control of the situation. Your surroundings can be scavenged and explored at your own pace, but there's an interesting duality between progression and keeping stock of supplies that doesn't ever allow you to take a breather.
While the radio and diary in your room will update to give the player a steer, for the most part you'll be left largely to your own devices. Much like in the popular Silent Hill series, the atmosphere is the main draw, and the claustrophobic hallways wreathed in darkness do an appropriately unnerving job at creating a foreboding environment. There are times when the only light is created by your personal torch, just barely picking out the disturbing details of your surroundings; similarly disturbing are the corpse-like monsters that now drag themselves around the building in search of meat. These faceless horrors need to be dealt with directly at times — as they often block your path — and this requires yet another decision to be made.You can either take care of the problem head-on and open fire, or do your best to sneak by, taking advantage of the shadows and using a limited stash of raw meat as a distraction.
Some stellar sound design really helps to make encounters like this memorable, as the creatures' mumbling erupts into a piercing roar once they've caught your scent. Even while merely traversing the city, ambient sounds wreak havoc on your nerves without apology. The hauntingly beautiful music composed by Jasper Byrne himself is also worthy of note, but the visuals are perhaps the most noticeable aspect of Lone Survivor's presentation. Rendered in a 2D, pixelated style, everything comes across as blurry and indistinct in all the right ways. While the retro graphical style has been seen countless times before, particularly with indie titles, here it's used effectively to convey a world that has become entirely alien and unfamiliar. The game will actually bend the rules of its own stylistic choice quite often, by bombarding the screen with otherworldly effects that stand out chillingly as a result.
It's safe to say that this all takes a toll on the sanity of our hero, and this has a startling effect on how the game plays out. To make another comparison to a genre icon, Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem featured an ambitious mechanic that accounted for how well you were coping with the events of the game. Reminiscent of that, Lone Survivor adds in the survival elements and very little combat to draw focus to the protagonist's mental state. Everything can whittle away at your confidence, be it spending too much time in the dark or overworking yourself in a single day, and while drugs can help sharpen your mind, they can also worsen the inevitable hallucinations. Rooms will shift and change throughout the game, characters can vanish in the blink of an eye, and it's never certain just what exactly is real.
The game world isn't particularly large, but you'll likely be revisiting areas as new information is revealed, mysterious figures demand meetings, and new paths are opened. Though everything operates on a 2D plane, the map system displays the building from a top-down perspective, and this can be confusing at first. Trying to visualize a flat corridor as anything more than simply that isn't immediately intuitive, but luckily your character will mark off locked doors and points of interest as you proceed, making it a bit easier.
You'll operate out of your own apartment, which can be accessed via a sort of fast-travel system, where peering into mirrors will cause you to arrive back home. It makes a strong case for the Wii U GamePad, which could have displayed the map at all times for reference, but sadly this isn't the case here; it could be argued as a design choice in this case, but the option would have been welcome. The controls work fine, with the possibility of assigning inventory 'hotkeys' a particularly nice feature, but with no other control options readily available it's a shame that the GamePad screen wasn't put to better use than simply mirroring the television.
That being said, playing at night in the total darkness of your room is a harrowing experience made possible by off-screen play, and as the game only lasts about 4-6 hours, it's something that could be experienced all in one spooky sitting. While this may seem disappointingly short, it can't be stressed just how worthwhile a second or even third playthrough can be, especially when everything is such a variable. A New Game+ mode adds in new items, dialogue, and of course additional endings as well, so this nightmare might just be one you revisit night after night...
With its 2D visuals and seemingly flat environments, Lone Survivor might seem like a simplistic take on the horror genre. Ultimately however, it's under the limitations of this simplicity that the game really shines, leaving just enough to the imagination without seeming too bare. Through the blurred lens of it's admittedly tired pixelated graphics, environments drip with atmosphere, creatures shamble along menacingly, and the search for answers is always compelling. Though it takes some getting used to, partly due to a baffling map system, the psychological horror of Lone Survivor can extend far beyond the confines of the television screen.