LoneSurvivor 3 1333706113 000 One is the Loneliest Number: An Analysis of Lone Survivor

Lone Survivor has made its way to Steam and I had a chance to take a look. Billed as a 2d Survival Horror, while it may look simple from the outside, there is a lot under the hood to make it stand out.

The story is that you play as … well, you. A disease has hit the city you live in turning everyone into horrific monsters; you’ve taken shelter inside your apartment. But with no food left you have no choice but to leave your little safety nest to find food and perhaps a way out.

Gameplay is pretty straight forward, to get around you’ll need to either fight or sneak your way past the strange monsters in your way. Using maps that are found on each floor, will give you clues as to where you have to go. Light puzzle solving comes into play with getting around certain obstacles, but the puzzles are pretty simple.

That is actually pretty much the whole game-play and if it was just that to the game, Lone Survivor wouldn’t get much praise. But where the game lacks complicated gameplay, it makes up for it with atmosphere. First is that this is the only game I’ve played that deals with the “survival” aspect of survival horror. Every day you need to eat and sleep to keep your strength up, and the entire reason the game starts is that you’re just trying to find some food.

Unlike other games where food just matters  as a way to raise a hunger stat, here food comes in different qualities. Cheese crackers aren’t going to taste as good as a cooked ham. Your character prefers to have a full belly before going to bed, which also acts as the save function. This also forces the player to limit how much they eat over the course of a day, as their food supplies may be dwindling.

The act of dealing with a limited quality of items is a constant theme of the game. Batteries for your flashlight and ammo for your gun are not infinite. There are ways of getting more items, but the player will have to weight those costs.

The path and ending of the game are determined by the player’s actions. From whom they talk to, to what items they use, how many times they eat and many more. Everything gets factored in and after the ending; the game pulls back the curtain to show you exactly what you did to get that ending.

The way the player influences the story is a great touch and adds a lot to the game and atmosphere. Designer: Jasper Byrne shows his understanding of atmosphere and tone and how Lone Survivor goes back to the basic concept of survival horror. This isn’t a game about saving the world, or being a hero, it’s just you, completely alone trying to survive in an unimaginable situation. Something that Resident Evil has moved further and further away from with each new game. I like how the simple fact of having a good meal, lifts the spirits of the character. I would love to give more examples of how the game changes, but that would ruin the game.

While I did enjoy the game, I do have a few complaints and nitpicks. First is the map system, while the game is entirely 2D, the map is shown from a top down view. This makes it very hard to get your bearings going in and coming out of each room, as going left could mean going south on the map. There’s one section near the end of the game where the player is being chased that this becomes very annoying.

Second, while I can understand his design decision around limited use mechanics, I’m not a big fan of them. The reason is that it usually renders the first and sometime second play-through impossible for the player as they are trying to figure out where to go and when to use their items. To be fair, the game does make special concessions regarding the items. But there are some parts that are harder just because the player may not know how many flares to bring or bullets to have.

Lastly, as I mentioned near the top, the game features light puzzle solving. However it also uses adventure game design in item placement. That one door you missed in that corner tucked away, will usually have an item that is needed to progress. Once again, not so bad on repeat plays, but can be a pain your first time through.

Overall Lone Survivor is an interesting experiment at getting back to the basics of survival horror. It will no doubt be a polarizing experience for some, as the hands off exploration system can rub some people the wrong way. For fans of storytelling who remember the old days of the survival horror genre, Lone Survivor is a game to check out.

Josh Bycer

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For those that visited Quarter To Three for my series on horror posts, you may have noticed that they were shorter then my usual posts here. The reason was that they were edited down to focus specifically on each game. However, there was a larger theme that was discussing atmosphere and game design and how they come together to create horror.

This is why I feel that the postings only told half the story, and that the original message and theme got lost. So, I want to see how many people would be interested in seeing the unedited versions of the series.

The unedited version would include:

More witty comments
A deeper look at each game.
A missing entry discussing horror tone.

If you’re interested please leave a comment, and if I get a large enough turn-out. I’ll post the unedited versions here for your viewing pleasure.

Josh Bycer.

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Arcen Games have so far swung between the two sides of hardcore and casual design with their immensely intricate 4X RTS AI Wars, and their puzzle game Tidalis. Their latest title: A Valley Without Wind attempts to bridge the ground between the two extremes with something new. However after spending some time with it, I’m having a hard time figuring out who is the right market for this.

A Valley Without Wind is a procedurally generated 2D action-adventure platformer with rogue-like elements… that is one hell of a mouth full . The plot is that the planet of Environ has been devastated for centuries by wind storms and monsters ruling over the people. The world is a mixture of magic and technology with dragons in one place, and tanks in another. The land has become fractured with different time periods coexisting next to each other and very few survivors left. Your mission is to strike out and attempt to reunite the survivors into settlements and try to bring some order to the now chaotic world.

At the start, you choose from one of the survivors in your first settlement to take out into the world. Each person has a different rating for the three main attributes: health, mana pool and base spell attack strength. Once you’ve decided you can arm yourself with available spells, each belonging to a different school of magic: fire, water, earth etc. Then it’s time to go exploring.

Once outside your settlement the world map is open to you. Missions of various types will pop up giving you a focal point of where to go. Players can also explore any of the open tiles which are important for getting supplies. Each time the player enters a new tile, building or cave, the game generates a new map. Inside buildings, players can find stashes that can give them enchants (the game’s version of equipment). More importantly, they can find upgrade stones, which when the player has enough can upgrade any of the three attributes. Each person can only be upgraded a total of 10 times, meaning that you’ll never have a super powerful character.

Spells can be either upgraded or research once the player finds the necessary materials. Said materials are either found in the form of mission rewards, or in caverns. Caverns are filled with gem veins that can be broken for materials. Upgrading spells are important as they improve the base values of them, allowing your character to do more damage or use less mana to activate them.

The rogue-like elements comes into play with the fact that each survivor only has one life. If you run out of health in the field, that character and their upgrades are gone. However, any items, enchants, and spells are persistent. You can recover your health by returning to the settlement, and killing enemies drops a few points of health. But ultimately you’ll have to decide how far you want to go exploring the world before going back to rest, which plays into the progression system.

Progression works in two ways in AVWW, first is the continent status or CS. CS represents the level of rewards you can get, along with the danger of enemies. Starting out the CS will be tier 1 which matches your spell level at the start. Completing missions will earn you points that count towards the CS. Once you’ve earned enough points the CS will go up and now both enemies and rewards will be considered Tier 2.

As you explore you can find areas where the tier is higher than the base tier, making these sections harder then most. To effectively “beat” the continent you have to defeat the overlord who is always at the highest tier . Once you’ve beaten the overlord, the continent is saved and the game generates a new continent for you to explore.

The other way progression works is through the achievement system. The game is chocked full of achievements: from killing X # of an enemy type, exploring certain areas, and so on. Every time you complete an achievement, something new is unlocked to be generated. This could be a new boss type, a new mission type, and materials for crafting spells or new survivors to appear and more. To be frank, it’s going to take a long time before someone unlocks everything and given Arcen Game’s track record of adding more content to their games, who knows if anyone will ever get 100% unlocked.

So far all this must sound really great, however when you start to play it, the different systems don’t feel as enriching as they should. To examine the problems with AVWW we need to break the game down into each of its three main systems: Platforming, Combat and Exploration/Achievement.

The platforming lacks that tight gameplay we see in games like Mario or Super Meat Boy. There is a floatiness to everything, no doubt needed due to the game generating each map on the fly. The problem is that because the environments are generated, you don’t get that refined level design seen in linear games. Also it means that the game may not generate enough platforms for the player to get around. The only other option is to use wooden platforms and crates from their inventory to create the necessary steps.

This slows down the proceedings and prevents the platforming from both being rewarding and challenging. Compounding this issue, the backgrounds in many areas are brightly colored while the platforms are a dull brown color that makes it hard to keep track of them. Some of the best platformers like Mario or Super Meat Boy reach the point that the player can enter a state of flow as they move through the levels. With AVWW, the fractured environments keep that from happening.

Combat is hit and miss. Because of the variety of enemies and resistances you can go from one area of killing everything easily, to having to spend time slowly wearing down an enemy. The physics makes it hard to dodge projectiles and with enemies having an unlimited supply, can turn sections into a scene from a bullet hell shoot-em-up. Some enemy shots linger while others dissipate on hit, meaning that the player can easily take extended damage.

Killing enemies the further the player gets, will not return as much health as they could have lost from combat. Compounding this are what are considered “melee spells” which requires the player to get right next to the enemy to attack. With the physics in play it’s very to gauge how close you should get and if the enemy survives, chances are you are going to get hit as well.

Lastly the progression system lacks that necessary sense of constant progression to keep people motivated. The use of an achievement based progression system is not something usually seen in game design. The only other two that come to my mind are Viva Piñata and The Binding of Isaac. To talk about the problems with AVWW’s system, we need to briefly go over the other two examples.

In Viva Piñata, the game starts out with very little content unlocked. Each time the player does something productive it fills up the experience bar, when the bar completely fills, something new is unlocked and the bar empties out. This allows the player to always see how far along they are, and know that something good is right around the corner. Also they know that everything they’re doing is in some way working towards unlocking content.

With The Binding of Isaac, a lot of the content is already made available. The player can technically beat the game on their very first play-through, granted it would be hard but doable. Each time the player gets an achievement, something new is added to the randomization. This becomes a big deal when additional bosses and levels begin to appear. The important point is that the progression is the icing on top for the content, instead of being the meat of the experience.

Going back to AVWW, only specific acts will make progression in the world, such as completing achievements or missions. The problem is that the progression is not persistent, and there are many times that it will feel that nothing is unlocking. For example completing a mission may give you resources, but that doesn’t mean you’ll be able to use them right away to unlock a new spell. The world is very empty at the start both in terms of available materials and missions. And the only way to open it up is to start completing achievements.

Exploring the world, unless its achievement focused, will not yield new content. You lose that sense of exploration, knowing that only specific actions will count, instead of being able to go out into the world and making things happen.

Because enemy types are also unlocked, it means that you could unlock harder enemies before finding the materials to make your spells better. So far in my play through, I’ve unlocked more annoying enemies then I have spells.

Since AVWW doesn’t have a true “end” it leaves it up to the player to decide how far they want to go. But with so little content available at the start, it can be hard to be motivated to continue. Let’s say that you have  a 1000 piece set of Legos, and being told that you can only use the red square blocks until you create a 5X5 Lego cabin, then the blue square blocks will be available and so on. Eventually you’ll have a huge amount of choices and content, but would you be able to stay interested that long?

A Valley Without Wind is a hard game to classify. The separate elements aren’t fleshed out or refined enough to stand on their own. But together, the Frankensteinish design almost works. The problem is that depending on the type of gamer you are you’re not going to get the gameplay you want.

Imagine being a vegetarian and getting a 5 star salad, but it also comes with a piece of steak on top. Even if you take the steak off, all the juices and sauce have already leaked onto the salad meaning, you’re going to have that meat taste no matter what. Someone who wants a refined platformer or a refined action-adventure title may be disappointed with the game. But if you’re looking for something different, I would definitely suggest trying out the demo to see if the game scratches that itch.

Josh Bycer

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Recently Atlus announced that after 3 years, Demon’s Souls‘ servers for online play would be turned off this May. This means that the co-op function, hint system and being able to view player’s deaths will be effectively removed from the experience.

While I am sadden, this is not the first time that a game I played has had its functionality diminished. EA is notorious for turning off servers for both their sports and strategy games. I haven’t written about this topic yet, but as online functionality becomes commonplace, gamers could be seeing a new problem of the digital age.

Online interactivity has been one of the major growths of the last decade in the industry. Early on, multiplayer games were the primary use for online play, such as Madden or Team Fortress 2. As designers saw how much online play and new content could extend the life of a game, now single player games are getting the online treatment. This can come in the form of new content updates (DLC), patches or simply online integration for friends or social sites. However while all this sounds great so far, it does raise some questions about the future of game longevity.

With sports titles, it’s to be expected that fans upgrade to the next iteration each year. This is how EA makes a lot of its profits and why their sports divisions are so popular. No one blames them for not supporting online play for Madden 08 in the year 2012. But when EA took down the servers for Battle For Middle Earth 2, a game that I enjoyed, they effectively killed it.

There were no new sequels to the series meaning that for people who wanted to play that type of game online, BFME 2 was their only option. But thanks to EA, no one can play the game online anymore, either on console or PC. If a publisher cuts online support for a game with multiplayer features, what does that bode for single player games?

More and more single player titles are released with DLC and content that needs to be downloaded. However what will happen to those games when the servers are no longer supported and that DLC becomes unobtainable? In ten years, will we still be able to play the DLC from Dragon Age or Fallout 3? This fear is something that critics of digital retailers have been saying for years: video games these days come with an expiration date.

I’m going to sound real callous here, but whenever I hear publishers cry that they can’t keep paying money for servers to support their games, I have to say “tough shit”. They knew full well when they were developing the game that there was going to be additional content or just online services. In some cases, they knew explicitly what content would need to be downloaded. They made their bed, and they should have to sleep in it.

There should be some kind of regulation in place or third party to continue support. At this point I trust Valve with Steam and Blizzard with Battle.net to continue support. But other companies I’m still leery of. As a case in point, I’m really excited about the new SimCity game coming from Maxis. However the two points that have me really nervous are A: it will require Origin and B: It will require online connectivity for single player.

Given EA’s track record, what promise do I have that I’ll be able to play it in 2, 4, or even 10 years from now? Last month I played SimCity 4, which is 9 years old without a hitch as it didn’t require any online connection to enjoy. Ubisoft’s system also needs to be mention, requiring online access for single player content; we haven’t yet seen their stance on long term support.

Personally I think that this is an oversight that publishers did not think about. More games with online features= more servers needed to maintain which also means more money to support titles. This is why I like Valve’s stance with Steam. They have gone on record stating that if there was ever a point that Steam would be shut down, they will still provide servers to allow people to keep downloading their games.

Going back to Demon’s Souls and the end of its online features. The other causality is that there is an item that can only be earned while online that after May, will become unattainable. This also has me really worried about the long term plan of Dark Souls. Dark Souls has a lot more online content in the form of factions you can join, unique invading situations, and more items available from online play and of course all the features from Demon’s Souls. If Dark Souls’ servers go down at some point, that would effectively be the nail in the coffin for a good portion of the game.

There are several spots in Dark Souls that are just plain annoying and frustrating to play solo and the summon-able AI partner may not be enough. While expert players will probably scoff at that statement, but people who are new or returning to play could use backup. As I mentioned in my 2 part analysis, there are several hidden areas that no one would know about without being online and getting a tip. If I wanted to return to play Dark Souls in a few years and there are no servers, I doubt I would have the patience to relearn all of it without the co-op features in place.

Once again I get to end a post saying that I wish I had a perfect solution for this, but I don’t. I do know that we will have to deal with this problem sooner rather than later. I’ve talked about in the past as a supporter of game preservation, and online integration poses a valid problem. We may someday lose access to our favorite games, not because of the game itself, but because someone flipped the off switch on a server somewhere.

Josh Bycer

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