Should this new spin-off in the Front Mission series be left alone?
Front Mission is a franchise that hasn’t been getting a lot of love in recent years. What was once a decently successful franchise in Square’s corner has been largely neglected, without an entry since 2010’s Front Mission Evolved. So it may come as a welcome sign to fans now that a spin-off in that franchise has finally come in 2019. But is this title really worth your time? Is Left Alive worthy to be in the Front Mission series?
"Gameplay in Left Alive is clunky in a way that hasn’t been seen much since the PlayStation 2 days."
Just like its Front Mission predecessors, Left Alive has a great narrative heart. The game’s story is decently compelling if you can let yourself get dragged into it. Left Alive tells the story of a bunch of people as they live through the battle happening in Novo Slava. Two nations are at war and the city along with its people are being crushed underneath the stress of battle. The narrative has you take control of various people in the city and even making choices that affect the story in small ways later on down the road. Since it’s in the Front Mission universe, expect to see some familiar sights like the hulking Wanzers. You end up seeing this conflict from multiple perspectives and it creates a pretty interesting narrative with lots of moral ambiguity.
If only the rest of the game were as polished as the story. Although you’ll probably be getting some Metal Gear Solid vibes from the character design and splash artwork, Left Alive is not so crisp a title. Gameplay in Left Alive is clunky in a way that hasn’t been seen much since the PlayStation 2 days. While the UI is acceptable and never obtrudes aside from toggleable tutorial prompts, the actual gameplay is pretty janky. The cover system is unreliable and does nothing to prevent you being spotted. The gunplay is serviceable but doesn’t engage the player much beyond just aiming at something and pulling the trigger five times until it’s dead. Stealth, a huge component of the title, is constantly undermined by the AI. Enemies in this game swing from blind stupidity to omnipotent awareness at the flip of a dime. Compounded with the enemies’ unclear range of vision, you have the recipe for a frustrating gaming experience.
For most of your playthrough, you won’t be heavily equipped. Although there are rare moments where you can find and commandeer mechs, you’ll mostly be scattering about picking up pieces of junk off the ground that you can then craft. You’ll be able to create various types of bombs, trip wires, smoke grenades, and a few other pieces of gear. You use these to set out traps for your hapless adversaries and this ends up being the main way that you’ll make your way through Left Alive. Although you have options when it comes to melee combat and firearms, traps are going to be your fall-back whenever stealth fails you. When it works well, you can feel like a mastermind, always one step ahead of your opponents. However, all of this relies on the AI. In order to set traps effectively, you must be able to predict your opponents to a certain degree. And when your enemies wig out and don’t approach you, all you can do is slink out of the situation with your head down.
"Ultimately, survivors end up being more trouble than they’re worth most of the time. What was a good idea is let down by its execution."
You also have other survivors to deal with. There are plenty of characters out there who are doing what they need to in order to survive in war-torn Novo Slava. You’ll run into them as you play through the game and will have to decide what to do with them. You’ll be able to immediately judge them on their actions and decide if you want to help them escape from danger or not. This is an interesting aspect of the game and it’s entirely optional as well. It weaves into the narrative of war-struck people and how their morals can change given the situation they’re in. In gameplay though, it amounts to escorting AI that is completely unaware of their surroundings to a safe zone. If you don’t manually stop them, survivors will run straight into an enemies’ face. This is made even more difficult do to needing to be right next to survivors in order to give them orders. Ultimately, survivors end up being more trouble than they’re worth most of the time. What was a good idea is let down by its execution.
With all that being said, Left Alive is a supremely punishing game. Though high difficulty is not a flaw in and of itself, when punishment is so heavily enforced in the face of small mistakes, it can feel frustrating. Whenever you are spotted, it’s almost impossible to escape detection, even with a few smoke grenades crafted up. You also can never effectively fight back due to your limited arsenal and you take a huge amount of damage even on normal difficulty. Left Alive’s checkpoint system is also tied to set save points that are laid out in the map, which are spaced way too far apart for such a punishing title. Sneaking through the same area over and over for fifteen minutes, hoping that the erratic AI doesn’t wig out and spot you again isn’t a rewarding experience once you finally get past it; it’s a chore.
Environments all take place within the ruined walls of Novo Slava. As such, a lot of environments have the same broken, flaming city aesthetic to them. This isn’t an issue so much as the level design is. Over the course of the 14 missions this game is comprised of, you never really get too far away from a sandbox area populated with buildings and with a few chest-high walls thrown in intermittently. While you may initially think that these open areas will allow for creative paths and playstyles, you’ll soon find that the game has not-so-subtle ways of herding you through the “correct” path. Drones and mechs will park themselves in one area, effectively cutting it off. Enemies will constantly stare in one direction, leaving only one avenue behind their backs open to safely traverse. Level design is only as good as enemy placement allows it to be in Left Alive. And enemy placement here turns this into a truly linear title.
"Level design is only as good as enemy placement allows it to be in Left Alive. And enemy placement here turns this into a truly linear title."
Graphically, Left Alive does some things well while fumbling in other areas. Character models are rendered nicely and environments look pretty good when you’re outside. Cutscenes look nice as well, with facial emotions being rendered cleanly. Though animation is pretty inconsistent and there are some egregious examples, such as swinging through windows. Although nothing on screen will really push your console, it can still have trouble keeping up at times. When there is too much action on screen, the framerate of Left Alive chugs. Even when I switched the graphical settings into focusing on performance I didn’t see much improvement. Overall, the graphics of this title are nice and even have brief moments of excellence. But in motion, the quality of the visuals can’t keep up and goes down quite a bit.
Left Alive is squarely set as a lower-budget title from a big studio. This isn’t a bad thing, but when Left Alive brings so little new to the table, it’s disappointing to see. From its gameplay to its presentation, there is not only a lack of polish but a lack of innovation that fails to grab the player’s attention. For those of you hungry for anything new from the Front Mission universe, I’m sorry to report that this title won’t fill you. Hopefully this spin-off means that other, more promising titles are in development, but for now, Left Alive does the Front Mission franchise a disservice.
This game was reviewed on the PlayStation 4.
Interesting story premise; Great visuals.
Unengaging gameplay; Erratic AI.
Left Alive won’t satisfy fans of stealth or of Front Mission. With unengaging gameplay, erratic AI, and a lack of polish across the board, Left Alive won’t be remembered in the years to come.