There’s no doubt that the Front Mission saga is a decidedly mistreated one. If once you could define a franchise of quality and moderately successful (although still mismanaged, as we have already explained in our retrospective of Front Mission), in recent years has suffered a reckless attempt to relaunch “modern” through spin-offs that have taken it away from its kind of origin making it sink even deeper. After the mediocre Front Mission Evolved it’s now the turn of Left Alive, a title set in the same world as the main series, but which attempts a formula that brings war to a more human dimension.
Despite the perplexities, the title that Square Enix entrusted to the unknown Ilinx still attracted our attention. It’s hard to ignore the participation of personalities like Yoji Shinkawa (character designer of the Metal Gear Solid and Zone of the Enders series), director Toshifumi Nabeshima (former director of the very first Armored Core and then supervisor and producer of the sequels), producer Shinji Hashimoto (who edited several historical productions of Square Enix), and composer Hidenori Iwasaki (former author of the soundtracks for Front Mission 4 and 5).
With such talents to assist development, it was difficult to make a mistake, and yet it was.
The game is set in the year 2127, so following the events of Front Mission 5: Scars of the War. The world of the future of Left Alive is divided into supernatals consisting of economic aggregations of different countries. With such an advanced globalization, diplomatic relations between the powers are even more cautious, and open conflicts on a world scale have been overcome. However, this has only increased the so-called proxy wars, especially in those territories that still represent grey areas between the macro-blocks. The game is set in the geographical area that today corresponds to Ukraine, and begins with the invasion of the Republic of Garmoniya in the city of Novo Slava, in the Republic of Ruthenia. In a few hours the city becomes a troubled battlefield filled with Garmonyan soldiers, tanks, drones and of course wanzers, the emblematic mechs of the Front Mission series. In this critical situation we will have to play three protagonists who survived the attack, each with a more or less personal purpose that will push them to make their way among the enemy troops.
Although the main characters are not masterpieces of characterization, the game has the merit of giving us three perspectives on a story that deals with delicate and interesting issues related to the war and its horrors. The real problem is that the plot remains confused until the end, the narrative struggles for almost the entire duration of the game and can not involve and excite, also because of the cutscenes too sporadic and not very incisive between the sessions of the game. Not even in the final stages you can fully understand where the plot wants to go to reverse, and the player finds himself with an ending that does not explain many, too many things.
You can optionally help some survivors of Novo Slava to slightly change the ending, and talking to them we can discover additional details of the plot, but (as we will explain later) the game does not do much to spur us on to these missions. In some cutscenes you can also make dialogue choices that will have effects later on, but you almost never feel the pressure of an important stake in the game, nor the desire to start the game again just to make different choices.
The purpose of the protagonists that we impersonate in rotation is to move within some macro areas of Novo Slava trying to reach certain positions to continue in history. Considering that we are in a war zone manned by enemy troops, the stealth component is of course the focus of the gameplay, also because loading head down opponents by being identified often has the understandable effect of being targeted by all units in the vicinity leading us in a few seconds to the Game Over. It is therefore necessary to advance with caution without being detected by soldiers and drones, limiting the clashes to a minimum. Unfortunately, the stealth mechanics themselves have been roughly constructed. The first disappointment comes when you realize that, despite our alter egos should have a military training on their shoulders, you can not sneak out an enemy soldier coming up behind him, the quietest solution available is to hit him several times with a blunt weapon, trying to shoot him down quickly without giving him a chance to alarm others. This is not taken for granted, since the movements and collisions leave much to be desired. The imprecision of the controls seems to have regurgitated directly from the titles of the 90’s, and will be felt above all in the passages from the normal movement to the crouching behind the covers and vice versa, making it difficult to move easily and even less to face the shootings to which we will sometimes be forced.
The artificial intelligence of enemies is something extremely fluctuating and inconsistent. You can find yourself in absurd situations such as running behind a soldier or passing in front of a handful of meters away without being seen, but also being inexplicably discovered behind a cover, and once the alarm goes off find that all the soldiers in the vicinity instantly learn our position by starting to shoot at us.
Unfortunately, even in the level design Left Alive shows a guilty inadequacy. Although the environments are fairly large, there is very little room for the creativity of the player. Very few buildings are explorable, the verticality is under-exploited, but even worse in many cases it is clear that the levels have been structured with barriers and barricades of enemies so as to push the player to find a certain path ideal to continue, rather than putting him in a position to continue choosing from multiple possibilities. This translates into frustrating trial & error sessions that are decidedly uninspiring. In this does not help the fact that the various missions in which the game is divided are all set in the same few macro areas in which we will be brought repeatedly with a different objective and a different disposition of enemies.
Scattered around the locations you can find raw materials to use in a crafting system to assemble healing items, bombs, traps and more. Objects no doubt useful considering that the ammunition for weapons that we will find will be scarce, and in any case during the game will be inevitable to have to survive firefights against waves of soldiers. Too bad that their management is cumbersome and really uncomfortable to use in the excitement of combat.
Even in shootings we are always accompanied by a feeling of clumsiness and inconsistency. The targeting system is inaccurate, the hitboxes also, and all this results in frustrating firefights in which soldiers often cash more bullets than is reasonable (we happened to shoot down some after 3 or 4 shots to the head), and the thing is nerve-racking because they continue to shoot us as if nothing was despite them sieving bullets.
There will be some occasions when we can pilot a wanzer, and in these situations the gameplay will change radically into a more arcade shooter in which we can mow entire troops of enemy soldiers and face other wanzers dodging their attacks and unleashing the deadly weapons equipped. The fights on board the mechs could disappoint for their extreme essentiality of mechanics, but perhaps thanks to this simplicity also know how to entertain allowing us to discharge the tension accumulated in the hours of concentrated infiltration.
In addition to continuing in history, we can undertake side quests to rescue survivors stuck in Novo Slava. These assignments are totally optional, but rescuing civilians will also have an impact on the story. What would actually be an interesting aspect of the game is however totally dismantled by the characters’ bad artificial intelligence. They will just run on a predetermined path to a refuge in the game map, without any attention or regard for the situation around them, so they are able to go to meet the enemy soldiers without any hesitation if we were not there to stop them, and to do so we must also be very close to them. This clumsiness will make it even more difficult to advance between the enemy ranks, and will often force us to use our resources to resolve the situation, resources already normally valuable to complete the main missions. Saving the survivors is therefore more of a nuisance than an exciting challenge, and after a while it comes natural to ignore them and pass over.
Ultimately, the gameplay of Left Alive has good insights and an effective setting in making us feel under pressure in the middle of an oppressive environment in which to move with great caution, but in the execution shows more flaws than merits. The game is difficult for the wrong reasons, too often related to the limits and distortions of the game itself rather than being demanding of the skills of the player. It might please those who don’t mind the kind of difficulty of times gone by that the player required patient trial & error sessions.
Even on the technical side unfortunately Left Alive can not surprise. The developers used the Orochi 4 graphics engine and Yebis special effects (used by titles like Final Fantasy XV, Dragon Ball: Xenoverse and Bloodborne) from Silicon Studio. At a glance the visual aspect has a certain style and is pleasant, especially for the atmosphere of the environments. Surely the touch of Yoji Shinkawa is noted, but not enough. The problems become more evident when you approach and you notice low-resolution textures, polygonal patterns certainly not processed and animated roughly, even in the cutscenes the characters are very little expressive. Although the visual aspect is quite essential, the frame rate suffers more than a hiccup when the on-screen action gets particularly excited.
The soundtrack of Hidenori Iwasaki itself is good, though not very rich, but it’s absolutely not enhanced by the game itself. Most of the time we will play without musical accompaniment, and when we are discovered will start assiduously the same track accompaniment that after dozens of times will be more annoying than anything else. Unbearable also the voice of the AI of our digital device that every time we approach an enemy will repeat “Caution, the enemy is approaching” continuously, leading to nervous breakdown. Other tracks surround non-interactive scenes that unfortunately are not so exciting as to lend themselves to exaltation. A work of composition more than discreet but ends up not being incisive.