Review: Left Alive

You could argue that games with clear potential and/or missed opportunity are a lot more resonant than through-and-through duds. Herein lies a product with some good ideas, some thought put in, some things that overall, in better circumstances, could have shined more positively. Though technically the first entry in the Front Mission IP for nearly a decade, even if it may deviate from the series’ strategy-focused leanings, there was potential here for Left Alive to be viewed as its own unique take. A game requiring little (if any) knowledge of the series’ past lore and as a result, one that might not have run the risk of living up to some established expectation or formula. But it’s the experience behind the scenes that would have led you to believe that Square Enix were a little more apt in hiring those with credentials to make the game feel far more complete and stand-alone.

Reading off the cast list, it appears to show promise; renowned Metal Gear Solid and Kojima Productions artist Yoji Shinkawa (whose distinct character art is easy to recognize) and Armored Core director/producer Toshifumi Nabeshima at the forefront. Individuals whose past work speaks for itself, and on paper, looks to be an easy sell that, regardless of its future setting, manages to ground things through character-led storytelling, despite its futuristic backdrop and arching suggestions of deeper, political conspiracy. Left Alive was an interesting proposition to jump into…was. After slogging through its repetitive, uninspired and fairly bland single-player campaign, what we have instead is something that fundamentally betrays any and all hope one might have held when reading through the initial staff credits. Ultimately revealing Left Alive as a crass, unpolished and wholly misjudged mess of an execution.

To say Left Alive doesn’t know what it wants to be, however, or that its identity is inherently the culprit of its own downfall (and the many woes that hide within its trojan horse of a set-up), wouldn’t necessarily reveal the truth of the matter. If anything, it’s that squinting glimmer of something more engaging that leaves Left Alive‘s end product feeling even more regretful and painfully inadequate.  Buried somewhere beneath the mire of technical, structural and presentational woes that persist from the word go, Left Alive‘s core premise of an action-stealth game — where you are the underdog, far from well-equipped for the horrors of warfare, approaching things in a guerrilla-esque fashion  — does admittedly have all the hallmarks to satisfy a market whose big players are, for the time being, evidently absent in 2019. A deviation from the traditional stealth conventions, where crafting on-the-go items and booby-traps atypically survival-orientated are your only real source for progression — combat not only discouraged but almost guaranteed to signify failure. Requiring one to make the most of the materials they scavenge (are required to scavenge) and of the semi-open maps the mission structure uses, only to then re-use many a time later.

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All of this could have worked to the game’s favor. There’s some discernible tone and thematic aspiration Left Alive is aiming for here and consistent with to some minor degree, even if the main story beats are dispensable, its villains jarringly caricatural and its out-of-place inclusion of dialogue choices not holding as much weight as they might initially imply. Had, you might think, the game have perhaps doubled-down more on its core mechanics present, there may have been an argument here to dismiss the vacant narrative or deprived lack of character development as unfortunate, but not wholly damning on the overall experience. No, Left Alive is so much worse than that. Much, much more.

It’s telling when after a few chapters, one becomes almost numb to the game’s many inexcusable problems. Low-quality texture work mistaken for pop-in but signals itself as the final render; technical hitches a plenty (sound files cutting/jolting back mid-game, cutscenes skipping frames now and again) and a sluggish control scheme for all three protagonists that has no right to persist in this day and age. And this is before you get into the shooting/aiming mechanisms that are some of the worst ever witnessed/wrestled-with in a modern day video game. Left Alive doesn’t rest on its seeming need to one-up its own failures with the presentation — it doesn’t even feel apologetic or accidental with its utterances. If anything, the constant offering up one issue or annoyance after another feels almost deliberate, intentional even.

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Namely, the enemy AI — a poignant negative deserving of its own separate paragraph — whose namesake “intelligence” constantly skirts from one extreme to the next. One minute, enemy soldiers lack the point-blank visage to notice your character not a few feet away, the next moment they can shunt into alert/attack mode, having spotted you from several hundred yards in the distance. AI can run straight past you and not register your presence — by contrast, curious/cautious units can begin surveying the same, specific plot of ground you’re in, despite genuine efforts to remain unseen. The latter may not be exclusive to this game alone — instead being a common nuisance in a lot of stealth-orientated games — but its sheer unexplainable cause is no less intolerable. One perfectly summed-up instance of the game’s AI (as literal a description as one can make) having a soldier begin attacking after spotting a character through a metal pillar, having been looking in the entirely opposite direction none-the-wiser the other way.

To admit the horribly low-resolution textures, stiff movement and bland level design became almost, weirdly, acceptable in the long-run, is not only depressing to note, but is perhaps the biggest red flag you can raise when referring thereafter to the shoddy implementation of its difficulty. Even the sole notification of enemy presence via the vague glare of red lines on-screen and repeated spouting of “caution, the enemy is approaching…caution, the enemy is approaching…caution, the enemy is approaching…” over and over again can’t rival just how broken and unfairly modeled the game’s perception on challenge really is. This is without referencing the erratic difficulty spikes throughout and the fact that the easiest difficulty still does not counter any of the myriad of issues pertaining to dismal and unfair enemy AI.

An annoyance that only grows more and more due to the sparse and unforgiving restriction on save points and autosave checkpoints. Thirty/forty minute progress — particularly for players who like to take it slow and steady — gone in an instance. A notable highlight coming roughly at the half-way mark; requiring your character to steal an enemy mech and engage in not one, but four enemy mechs at the same time — limited by ammo and none the wiser as to how well you or the enemy are fairing. The fact the game doesn’t even offer the grace to get you accustomed or suited to the intentionally heavy and weighty feel of piloting a mech, outside of one fairly-short segment in a mission prior, speaks more about the general lack of gradually introducing its players to the systems in place.

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By the third or fourth chapter, Left Alive eventually and quickly runs out of steam and you realize the game has by this point already played all its good cards without much cause for care. Its crafting interface, and further to that the menu/UI structure in general, is perhaps the only real lasting impression that is good and the only consolation of a positive Left Alive has going for it. To its credit, given the number of items and materials scattered throughout, the game does a surprisingly competent job at relaying information pertaining to crafting recipes without over-complicating the process. Further to that, out on the field of battle, the inclusion of rare and more effective weaponry — such as a sniper rifle or mini-gun that are rendered useless once all ammo is depleted — do provide some welcome levity in a game that seems to oddly punish you, via its Fallout-styled weight system, for wanting to acquire more than a solitary pistol for protection. The presence of an assault rifle or submachine gun taking up too much weight/inventory space and rarely feeling like a promising alternate over the many spare materials one has already accumulated.

Ultimately, Left Alive steadily devolves thereafter into a rinse-repeat slog of getting from point A to point B with none of the mechanical nuance that games ranging from genre staples like Metal Gear Solid’s sandbox enticements, or even smaller-scale newcomers a la Aragami — with its unique inclusion of shadows as a mechanic — have so wonderfully offered in the past. The game does try to offer optional deviation through the inclusion of secondary survivor objectives, but this distraction, in reality, is little more than [even more] a mundane take on the begrudged escort mission, to a pre-determined end goal. Only here, not only can the automated path of NPCs not be altered — forcing you to constantly, anxiously keep telling the civilian units to move/wait/move/wait — but the investment in time and resources needed to ensure survival is rarely matched by the reward other than the baited allusion that this will impact the story in some capacity. It doesn’t.

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Closing Comments:

Even with its exhaustive, laundry list of issues, it’s telling when a broken game of this magnitude still manages to rustle up some semblance of potential. But that’s perhaps why the end result of Left Alive is as depressing as it is and why the disappointment in its execution is matched (colossally so) only by the frustration in its perceived notion of competency. Left Alive is as close to as abysmal a delivery as you can get without denoting it as some utter failure through-and-through, primarily due to the most minuscule of good intentions and half-baked ideas that litter its mostly generic and uninspired game world. But with so many narrative, technical and gameplay issues that pop up at almost every turn — all wound up within some of the worst third-person stealth mechanics imaginable — Left Alive is both a horridly-conceived experience and a fundamentally unenjoyable product to even attempt to immerse one’s self in.

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Left Alive