When it comes to indie games, there's one word that always makes me cringe, and that word is interesting. Interesting is usually used as a substitute for fun or excitement, justification for ploughing through a sophistic art house game with a ham-fisted message, or an excuse for gameplay that'd have felt dated on the NES but, hey, the themes are 'interesting'.
So, it pains me to use the word interesting when describing Lone Survivor, a 2D pixel-art horror game from Silent Hill fanatic Jasper Byrne. Damn it, though, this really is the most interesting thing to happen to survival horror in years.
Remember when games actually used to be scary? Amnesia aside, modern horror games range from tepid (the new Silent Hills) to gruesome and tense (Dead Space), but rarely do they dare plunge themselves into our psyche and prod their sticky, gnarled fingers around our minds. Lone Survivor is a bleak call to the genre's heyday, though, where immaculate design and the untempered power of suggestion are infinitely more effective than bump-mapped beasties and clunky QTEs.
The core is familiar enough. You play as an unnamed protagonist, stuck in an apartment block after some unexplained pre-apocalypse, with nothing more than a bandana over your mouth and a bed to sleep in. Twisted, juddering monsters roam the corridors outside, baying for blood and attracted to anything with a pulse or a light. A message tells you to get to Chie's party in room 203, where she has something to give you.
And then you're on your own.
You might think Lone Survivor's rudimentary visuals would detract from its atmosphere, but it's actually quite the opposite. Byrne's a master of his form, loading suggestion and menace into every festering pixel, backing the whole thing up with an astonishingly accomplished soundtrack that could have easily come from the synthesiser of Akira Yamoaka himself. The Silent Hill heritage is obvious (and expected, given Byrne's own Silent Hill demake Soundless Mountain II), but Lone Survivor is far more affecting than any of Konami's recent efforts.
The basic gameplay is pure Silent Hill, too, with the ability to sneak past enemies or blast them with a clunky, slow-loading handgun proving one of the game's key choices, and you'll be slowly traversing the apartment building, crossing off locked doors on your map and dreading every one that does open. Unlike Silent Hill, though, Lone Survivor nods to The Omega Man or even Metal Gear Solid 3, forcing you to look after your character's frail body by feeding him, making sure he sleeps and keeping his fractured mind as clear as possible. This is a world where everything is absolutely not what it seems.
Perhaps the most successful parts of Lone Survivor come from its journeys into Lynchian disconnect, though. An early scene sees you stumbling upon that aforementioned party in 203, a surreal nightmare where guests smile vapidly and obliviously while lounge jazz plinks and plonks in the background. The room feels like every corner is being charged by a different class A substance, and it's as alien and unsettling as any monster or madman. The sequence is pure Blue Velvet, and an amazing achievement considering it's all constructed using a handful of different coloured squares.
Lone Survivor isn't just one of those interesting art games, though, it's a proper video game, one with mechanics and systems and gameplay backing up its copious ideas and abject nastiness. It's one of the freshest, boldest and most rewarding entrants in a genre many had left for dead, and anyone pining for a true Silent Hill experience needs to experience what Byrne has to offer. Lone Survivor deserves to be massive, because it might just be the most interesting thing I've played all year.
You can buy Lone Survivor from its website for $10.
Version Tested: PC