Allow me to posit a bizarre theory: Square Enix traveled back in time, allowed a team of novice developers to put together a game loosely based on an established series, retrieved the game upon completion, return to the present day, gave the graphics a bit of polish and the ol’ HDR treatment, and then released it upon the unsuspecting masses. As outlandish as this may sound, I can think of no other reason why Left Alive feels dated, clumsy, and poorly realized. The end result of Square’s decade-jumping journey: a frustratingly and needlessly complex stealth/action game that can’t seem to pull everything together. And when you throw in countless bugs, hiccups, and the clunkiest gameplay I’ve seen in ages, you get a poorly executed title that genuinely feels far removed from the likes of Square Enix. Then again, the studio did deliver The Quiet Man last year, so perhaps I shouldn’t give them too much credit right now.
Although the game takes place within the Front Mission universe, don’t expect any major mech-related shenanigans. Wanzers, for the most part, spend their time wandering in the background, as though the developers needed to say, “Hey, look! It does take place in the Front Mission universe. See? Wanzers. So, Front Mission!” The decision to make this “spiritual successor” an on-the-ground stealth experience never really makes sense. Sure, you’ll take part in a few mech battles, but most of the game occurs on foot as you dodge baddies and craft junk. I doubt fans of the franchise wanted an entry like this, where you roam about in stealth mode to avoid bad guys who can apparently see through solid objects and levitate over anything using superhuman abilities that even they didn’t know they possessed. I probably spent more time pondering this game’s genesis than I did actively playing it; as I tried my best to overcome the villains and stealth my way to victory, my mind would ultimately jump to a conference room filled with designers tossing around one bad idea after another.
Left Alive’s story unfolds during a war between two European nations in the year 2127, and you can tell from the get-go that death, disorder, and chaos reign supreme. To my surprise, I quickly became engrossed in this tale, which involves three different protagonists (a pilot, a cop, and a guy with a troubled past), whom you’ll control at various points throughout the campaign. Players will make various decisions during the story, allowing them to shape the narrative in a number of ways. A lot of these moments involve helpings (or not helping) survivors you encounter during your adventure, and these moments helped keep me engaged. In fact, I felt kind of sorry for the story, as it seemed wedged inside a game that most people will either give up on out of sheer frustration or avoid altogether.
During this excursion into aggravating wonkiness, you’ll encounter shades of other, more competent games — including the vastly superior Metal Gear Solid — though Left Alive never comes close to achieving anything remotely enjoyable or entertaining in terms of mechanics. No, everything about the game seems to work against players, from the janky controls, framerate hitches, and absolutely abysmal UI. I hope everyone enjoys digging through tiny, complicated menus, as you’ll spend a lot of time with them as you try to craft the numerous gadgets and weapons needed to survive the onslaught of unfairly overpowered enemies. Oh, and that crafting menu? It doesn’t pause the action when you need to use it. So, if you’re up against three or four soldiers and you just ran out of exploding cans, you’ll need to hightail it to a safer spot; otherwise, prepare to die. Left Alive, I’m beginning to think you don’t like me. Or anyone.
As you wander the ruins of Novo Slava, the city where you’ll spend the majority of your time, you might find yourself eager to explore the narrow streets and busted buildings that pepper the landscape. And with all this open terrain, you might foolishly believe Left Alive wants you to experiment with how to handle mission objectives or the elimination of the bad guys who stand between you and, say, a save point or a survivor who desperately needs your attention. Bad news, folks: Left Alive doesn’t want you to find unique ways to solve problems and overcome objectives. Try as you might, almost every situation requires a solution the developers seem to push you toward, despite the fact that you may have found another way to achieve your goal. Unfortunately, to make matters worse, the autosave system doesn’t have your back, which means you’ll probably lose a fair amount of progress when you die. While fumbling through the early parts of the game, I had to re-read the same tutorial screen several times because the game kept kicking me way back whenever I died.
If the wonky crafting, janky autosaves, and limited experimentation don’t destroy any hope of you have of enjoying Left Alive, the combat will put the final nail in that coffin. The game warns you up front that barging into combat will result in your untimely demise, but I didn’t have a problem with that. Although I struggle with stealth in many games, I do enjoy the thrill of the challenge — but not like this. As mentioned, the AI occasionally demonstrates the uncanny ability to leap over objects in a single bound, leaving you exposed and vulnerable in a very unfair way. Additionally, these randomly superhuman soldiers can often see through objects and spot you creeping a good distance away from the corner of their eyes. When the game frequently bungles the AI in such a devastating manner, it becomes clear that either Square pushed this game out way ahead of schedule or they simply do not care about giving Front Mission diehards a competently constructed game. At the end of the day, I suppose it doesn’t matter which theory holds true — this game feels broken and completely unloved.
Speaking of unloved, Left Alive’s presentation needs some TLC. Everything looks drab and outdated, and the half-hearted attempt to toss in HDR makes somehow things look much, much worse. The way your characters move also adds to the game’s overall ugliness; every protagonist shuffles around in a vaguely inhuman way, from the way they crouch-walk around the map to the sloppiness of their melee attacks. I simply cannot adequately express how extremely dated this game feels — Left Alive has all the hallmarks of a mid-tier PlayStation 2 game during the console’s early days. I don’t have a problem with budget games as long as they’re fun — I own a few Earth Defense Force games, so I can definitely deal with jankiness — but Left Alive aimed too high. As a result, you often get punished for playing the game, whether you’re sticking to the linear path or trying to find a unique and satisfying solution to the problem in your path.
Although Left Alive comes packaged with an enjoyable story that allows you to somewhat influence the tale by the decisions you make, I wouldn’t waste your time on it. After all, the combat and stealth systems will effectively ruin any hope you have of enjoying the narrative. And should you die or run out of the things you need to win a battle, back you go to an autosave point that forces you to lose whatever progress you made before your death. Unacceptable. Everything about the gameplay either feels unfair or completely broken, which makes for a frustrating experience from beginning to end — assuming, of course, you actually make it past the game’s opening moments. Unless you have an undying love for the Front Mission universe or simply want to play a stealth game that seems designed to promptly kick you square in the face for simply existing, find something else to play. Left Alive doesn’t deserve your attention — or your money.
This review is based on the PlayStation 4 version of the game. A review copy was provided to us by Square Enix.
With the exception of the story, everything about this ill-conceived Front Mission spin-off feels totally broken, horribly dated, and entirely unloved. Left Alive works better as an unpolished frustration simulator than an action/stealth game.