"What ensues is a clumsy attempt at using stealth that ends up making players feel largely powerless."
Piloting Wanzers is nothing new to audiences, as Front Mission released on the Super Famicom in 1995 and has spawned various games in the series since. The most recent to bear the name in its title, Front Mission Evolved, received largely poor reviews. Fans hoping the latest spinoff, Left Alive, might turn the series back around may be disappointed.
As humanity continues to advance into the future, the lines between nations have blurred, replaced by economic blocs which put an end to the concept of global war. Despite that, conflict persists in the form of proxy wars, leading players to the Republic of Ruthenia, where the border city of Novo Slava has recently been invaded by the country of Garmoniya. Players take control of three survivors as they attempt to escape over the course of the game's many chapters. Play begins with Ruthenian Wanzer pilot Staff Sergeant Mikhail Alexandrovich Shuvalov, a young rookie that starts off obnoxiously petulant and seems to have slept through basic training. Players are later introduced to the noble and fiercely independent Captain Olga Sergeyevna Kalinina, a former Garmoniyan soldier turned Ruthenian police officer tracking a case that leads her into the heart of the conflict and offers a chance at redemption. Finally, cold and hardened Leonid Fedorovich Osterman is a ghost from the city's past who helped lead a rebellion and has recently broken out of jail to pursue the truth. The three navigate Novo Slava, united in an effort to survive and assisted by the helpful (if liberal) AI Koshka, but interacting only briefly before the game's final moments as they struggle along their own paths. Stepping into different minds and plots does a lot to keep the game fresh, as each hero has a past and foes both new and old to contend with.
As you progress into the deeper story of manipulation, you find it peppered with a lot of standard JRPG drama, with each character's thread tying into the whole by journey's end. Each significant story beat offers choices, many of which shape the outcome of the game for each character. As the heroes attempt to rescue survivors, many of the NPC's stories have choices that determine success or failure. If anything is going to bring you back for another playthrough, it is seeing how differently the story plays out because of your choices. While it is somewhat predictable at times, Left Alive remains true to Front Mission's tales of political intrigue and offers some significant drama, with a little heart, along the way as it explores the fragility of our humanity in times of crisis.
Unfortunately, things break down as players attempt to muddle through sluggish gameplay. Deviating from the series' strategy RPG roots, Left Alive puts players in the midst of the fight. Upon stepping into the conflict, you are bombarded with a lot of mechanics and a steep learning curve. To mitigate this, the opening moments are consistently disrupted with tutorials, for everything from drawing a weapon to jumping obstacles or using stealth. Beyond all these complex mechanics, you can work through the fairly large maps with a modicum of freedom, and there are often several ways to reach an objective. While it's clear the developer wanted players to experience survival in a loosely open-world setting, the stiff mechanics will likely thwart most players from orchestrating anything too complex.
To help navigate the various encounters in Left Alive, your AI, Koshka, offers insight in cutscenes and gives you a constant heads up in battle. When I say constant, though, I mean it. You are persistently badgered by Koshka's warnings that "the enemy is approaching," even if you're the one moving closer. I will admit that her cautionary voice called my attention to the odd patrol that I didn't see coming, but for all the "help" it offers, the fact that the voice cannot be toggled on or off leaves a lot to be desired.
To help combat your foes, Left Alive offers miscellaneous items strewn about the world. Empty cans or glass bottles can be tossed to pull enemy focus, while recovered grenades help to thin enemy numbers. Additionally, the game incorporates a rather robust crafting system which allows players to construct their own hand-thrown gear, healing items, and traps. While having these handmade tools at your disposal seems fun, things gets more complicated in practical application. When you throw something, the game shows you an arc to indicate the object's trajectory, but when you are crouched against cover, it cannot be used unless you are in a specific spot. If you exit cover, the camera view is often blocked while crouching, making it hard to mark a target while leaving your character more exposed.
Laying traps seems sensible, and they work well if you can analyze enemy patterns and place the traps in their path. However, many enemies cannot be lured far from their patrol area, so guiding them into a carefully laid trap is nearly impossible. This forces you to lay more obvious traps that, once triggered, call every nearby enemy into the fight and put you at risk of being overwhelmed. Attempting to create chokepoints will result in foes leaping walls or cars as if they already know a trap has been placed. It's frustrating and renders the majority of the more crafty traps, like smoke wires that obscure movement when triggered or wire traps that electrocute and stun a foe, useless. The exception to this are the few battles where troops attack in waves, which creates the opportunity to trap stairwells and multiple points of ingress in an effort to avoid getting overwhelmed. Aside from those brief moments, however, I found myself sticking to the simplicity of mines or luring enemies with cans and glass bottles to bombard them with grenades.
Players can acquire various weapons throughout the game, should they have the inventory space to house them. Each firearm has stats for damage, accuracy, fire rate and range, and the five different weapon types offer variety to suit each situation. Players can also acquire armour that reduces damage as long as its durability holds out. For most of the game, you will not be a one-person army, as inventory space is limited by how much weight you can carry. You can find larger backpacks to upgrade space for each character (on a one per character basis), but you will be playing a game of weight management through most of Left Alive.
Combat itself can be exhilarating and rewarding, but there are so many minor irritants with the system that these moments of "fun" are few and far between. Although a recent patch is meant to rectify this, enemy AI seems to have nigh unerring accuracy regardless of distance or weapon. There is little need for them to close with you because of this, rendering many traps laid in pathways useless. Should you hold out long enough, one or two enemies may come in to investigate, or the entire group could just lose interest and return to their patrols where they stand. You can often be knocked out of cover by gunfire, leaving you further exposed as you stagger from crouching. In close combat, it often takes a single blow to knock your character sprawling and helpless while your own melee attacks merely stagger foes for a moment unless you succeed in knocking them down with repeated blows. These frantic moments are further exacerbated by poor camerawork that makes it difficult to sight an enemy right next to you and the dissonance between line of sight and line of fire in third-person view. Unless you put yourself into cover behind a small obstacle or against a corner, you will frequently find your own bullets ricocheting from the very obstruction keeping you alive. I found this most frustrating when utilizing some of the game's limited use weapons: the sniper rifle, gatling gun, and mini rocket launcher. These weapons cannot be stored in your inventory, so you must use them when found until their ammo depletes. I found many of the instances where I could use them were in wave encounters where a low wall meant the difference between whom I could and could not shoot. I understand there is a certain risk/reward with these highly effective weapons, but they already prevent players from using cover mechanics, so the further penalization due to the awkward lines of fire seem like a poor design choice.
In the first mission, players are treated to the game's big draw, as a damaged mech presents an opportunity to light up the night. Controls are hampered as the Wanzer cannot move, and despite Mikhail's enthusiasm as he hops in, this initial introduction is underwhelming. A few missions later, when players can enjoy fully functional Wanzer combat, the struggle to learn new controls while multiple mecha bear down on them is overwhelming. Despite the pedigree behind this game, including talent that worked on the famed Armored Core series, mech combat is every bit a clunky, hot mess of lumbering around and spraying the cityscape with rounds of ballistics in the hopes of hitting something. Tracking the status of your Wanzer is limited to warnings from your helper AI, which often come too late. Almost every mech encounter boils down to an all or nothing situation of trial and error. Unless you succeed, you are forced to vacate before the Wanzer is destroyed. This puts you in the problematic position of needing to finish the fight with remaining enemy Wanzers on very unequal ground. Like ground combat, fighting in a mech can be rewarding once the controls are mastered, but the game's main attraction shouldn't be such a struggle. If anything, though, Left Alive succeeds in making Wanzers the "walking tanks" the series has constantly described them as, and launching repeated volleys of shoulder rockets into foes is a very satisfying experience.
Knowing the combat was a mess, I initially attempted the stealth mechanics, as the game suggests. However, for a game that touts itself as being a stealth shooter, the benefits to sneaking about are minimal. In many games, carefully sneaking up on foes rewards players with a chance to easily subdue them. Wielding a melee weapon is the quietest way to take down enemies in Left Alive, but you need to land three blows before they fall to the ground. Once downed, you can attack them once more for an instant kill, assuming your melee weapon is at full durability. With this method, it is possible to slowly take out enemies one by one, but this often leads to scrambling away and hiding for a length of time until enemy vigilance subsides. Rinse, repeat, and before you know it, you've killed five enemies and about an hour of your time. Additionally, even when a story beat reminds you that engaging the enemy would be foolish, you are often faced with situations that cannot be bypassed with stealth, no matter how many empty cans you throw to distract your foes. It's technical decisions like this that stop the game from being a fun challenge because success is determined more by luck than by your skills or tools.
One would hope that a game touting key members from the Metal Gear series would at least offer some tactically interesting boss encounters. Unfortunately, Left Alive falls flat here as well; each climactic engagement feels artless, boiling down to a mere shootout with the enemy constantly bearing down on you interspersed with dodging when the damage gets too intense. There is no satisfying pattern recognition or interesting use of the terrain to lay traps. It's like the developer forgot to integrate their own elaborate systems into many of the game's key moments, which would have made these battles more fun. Because of this, the final moments of Left Alive are rather anticlimactic when coupled with the plot questions left unanswered.
Should you successfully navigate a mission alive, a screen debriefs you on the survivors rescued, archives containing lore found, and a summary of the choices made, allowing you to replay the mission and navigate a different course. While the benefits of returning to the mission immediately are obvious, successful completion of Left Alive rewards players with a hefty New Game + option. New Game+ allows you to bolster stats via Enhancement Points, which are earned by achieving certain goals in the previous run of the game. Before starting your next playthrough, you assign points to things like decreased enemy detection rate, increased shotgun damage, or improved armour. Once you select your Enhancements, you cannot change them for the remainder for the playthrough. In my initial run, I played on the then easiest setting, Light (a patch has since introduced a new Casual Mode that allows players to largely forgo stealth and charge in guns blazing). Upon completion, I decided to give New Game+ a shot on the highest difficulty, Hopeless, to see how laughably overwhelming it would be. To my surprise, the Enhancements make a meaningful difference, and even the hardest setting only seemed as challenging as the lower difficulties. After the struggle of completing the game for the first time, New Game+ is a welcome reward.
Despite the plethora of gameplay issues, Left Alive at least looks good. On many levels, the game is richly textured and rife with fine detail that brings the destruction of Novo Slava to life. The impressive lighting really sets the tone in this title as you explore dark sewers lit only by the odd raging blaze or witness a glimmering sunset that highlights the hauntingly quiet streets. The characters themselves are well detailed and feature unique designs that still leave them grounded in this gritty setting. Despite how much life they show in cutscenes, however, I find they move and animate a bit stiffly in the hands of the player. The real treat, though, is seeing the weapons and mecha of the Front Mission universe rendered in full 3D glory. The developer definitely created a tangible world, one that rarely feels barren (when it isn't supposed to) and is interesting to explore.
As much of the game offers no music, sound design is important in punctuating the tense stillness of the war-torn city. This means the shuddering steps of Wanzers, the squeal of tank treads, and the distant report of gunfire forms the majority of the game's soundscape, effortlessly immersing players in the world. When Hidenori Iwasaki's music does stir to life, it is well composed but doesn't stand out by any means. The repetitive nature of combat does not take away from the few pieces of music on offer, as they seamlessly blend into the action and do not get old beyond the first few notes. The music also brings cutscenes to life, which amplifies solid performances by the voice actors. Their work creates believable characters who are largely grounded despite the convoluted and sometimes unbelievable tale. However, the lack of context for much of the voice mixing can take players out of the game. For example, distance or walls pose no obstacle for crisp sound, and soldiers wearing face masks seem to have no issues being heard. Despite this, and the lack of any truly memorable music, Left Alive's sound work does its job setting the tone for the title.
Unfortunately, despite all the tutorials, sorting out the complex tools at your fingertips is a slog as you fight against the stiff control scheme. What ensues is a clumsy attempt at using stealth that ends up making players feel largely powerless. There is a reason the most recent patch introduced a "Casual" setting and other elements that make the game an easier, more palatable experience. I struggle to imagine anyone on the development team walked away from this one entirely satisfied with their work. I don't mean to make light of the countless hours and effort put into the game, as executing so many of these concepts cannot have been an easy thing. It's simply unfortunate to see so much effort and heart fall horribly flat, as Left Alive contains a lot of great ideas that fail to deliver. In this way, I would argue Left Alive is the purest survival game ever: if you can play to the end, you can survive anything.
This review is based on a free review copy provided to RPGFan by the developer. This relationship in no way influenced the reviewer's opinion of the game or its final score.