Front Mission is the perfect example of a franchise with a deep lore and quality entries that has been completely mismanaged. In the West, the Front Mission IP just can’t catch a break. The first entry released outside of Japan was 2000’s Front Mission 3. Unlike the Final Fantasy series, Square didn’t bother with the weird numbering scheme, and even as a kid I was confused by the decision for the franchise to make its English language debut on the third entry.
Square later released Front Mission 4 for PS2 and Front Mission 1st, a DS remake of the first game in the series in the US, then skipped Front Mission 5 entirely. Because of the erratic pace of English-language releases, it’s not hard to believe the series never really picked up outside of Japan. We got a few of the side entries too, but for the most part, Square seemed to have lost interest in the series after 2010’s Front Mission Evolved.
That’s why when Left Alive was announced I was ecstatic. Not only was it a revival of Front Mission after nine years without a game, but it’s also not a Final Fantasy or Kingdom Hearts game. Not to say I don’t love Final Fantasy and Kingdom Hearts, but those tend to be the only established Square franchises we hear about anymore. The teaser footage gave a great first impression. A survival game where you have to live through the opening stages of an invasion is a different idea compared to other games in the series, but it looked like it might be just the twist Front Mission needed to get it back into the public conscious outside Japan.
But, I was a damned fool, and I paid for it by playing 14 missions worth of time that I’ll never get back.
Left Alive review | Wasted potential
So, I’ll start with the good Left Alive has to offer. The story is fascinating. It takes place between Front Mission 5 and Front Mission Evolved in the year 2127. The country of Garmonia has invaded the Ruthenian city of Novo Slava which rests on the border that divides the two nations. In what is called the “One Day Incident” in-game, the Garmonian army has swept into Novo Slava and is gunning down pretty much anything that moves.
When the game begins you know practically nothing about why the Garmonians are invading. It’s alluded that Ruthenia and Garmonia haven’t had the best relations in the past, but it’s a mystery as to why they’re enforcing a scorched earth policy in Novo Slava.
Left Alive has three protagonists: Mikhail Alexandrovich Shuivalov, a rookie Wanzer (Walking Tank) pilot, Olga Sergeva Kalinina, a Ruthenian police officer and former Gamonian Wanzer pilot, and Leonid Fedorovich Osterman, a revolutionary who was sentenced to die but was instead thrown in prison. Each of the three has their own interests, pasts, and issues, all of which must be examined and overcome to live through the slaughter taking place in Novo Slava.
There’s some substantial character development here. Olga, for example, has to face her past as a Garmonian Wanzer pilot as the battle in Novo Slava involves her former commanding officer. Mikhail has to get past being a rookie and forge himself into a real soldier so that he can save the remaining citizens of Novo Slava. Finally, Leonid has to figure out just what the crime he was charged with actually was, and who set him up.
Along the way, each character’s motives wind and twist around what’s happening in Novo Slava, and the story has a Metal Gear feel to it. Unfortunately, as deep as the lore and plot in Left Alive is, it’s one of the only good things about the game, and it’s debatable whether or not having to play it is worth the playoff.
Left Alive review | Oh my God, what were they thinking?
The setting and plot of Left Alive are great, but unfortunately, the gameplay stands in the way of enjoying those aspects. Left Alive is a stealth/survival game and brings to mind Metal Gear Solid 4 in particular with how the mechanics are theoretically supposed to play out. In each mission, you find yourself in a large area, and your objective usually boils down to getting to a certain point on the map.
There’s a lot more Garmonians than there are you, so it makes sense you’d have to sneak past them. Unfortunately, pretty much every aspect of gameplay is broken in some way. Almost every stealth game ever made gives you:
- A) A way to sneak up on an enemy and score a one-hit stealth kill.
- B) A way disengage from an enemy if discovered.
- C) A system to see the area where an enemy can detect you.
These three systems are essential to having a fun stealth title. After all, you’re nearly always outgunned and outmanned in stealth games, so these three things balance the scale back in your direction and make the game fair.
In Left Alive you have none of these gameplay systems. The AI runs the gamut from being omniscient, master marksmen, to being braindead hulks. The problem is, you never know when that’s going to be. There’s no way to see how far their senses reach, so you might be blocked entirely from their sight from an obstacle and they still somehow detect you. Alternatively, you can sometimes cross open ground in the most obvious way, and enemies will just flat out ignore you.
I could deal with the crap AI if that were the only issue. After all, bad AI has become almost part and parcel with stealth games over the years. The greatest sin this game commits though, the thing that makes it almost unplayable is the lack of stealth kills. I can’t recall another stealth-centric game where I could not sneak behind an enemy and strangle them, knife them, or something.
Left Alive review | Enemy mine
In Left Alive, enemies are juggernauts. There’s not even one-hit kills with a headshot. If you sneak up on one, your best bet is to try to bludgeon them to death with whatever melee weapon the game has deigned to give you, but often they’ll just turn around, alert all their compatriots on the map with psychic precision and then start trying to blow you away. Even that wouldn’t be the worst problem in the world, and the game might be salvageable. However, direct combat is also laughably bad. The melee is a joke, but it somehow does more damage than your pathetic firearms.
While every enemy you face has the ruthless precision of a veteran sniper, your character has worse aim than Elmer Fudd. The crosshairs for your weapon, which is usually just a wimpy pistol, are more of a suggestion than any sort of real aimpoint. Not that it matters, because Garmonian soldiers can take full magazines of ammo to take down. This is in a game in which ammo is a rarity.
As if getting your ass handed to you by rudimentary AI wasn’t enough, you also have to deal with the friendly AI that “helps” you through your journey. Koshka is the Rutherian army’s command and control AI, and she jacks into the comm systems of all three protagonists to assist them in saving Novo Slava. She’s actually pretty okay most of the time, but it’s her function as the only alarm to enemy presence that makes me hate her with every flesh of my being. Instead of getting a vision cone or something useful, the only indicator of an enemy nearby is Koshka wailing “Caution, the enemy is approaching” over and over and over.
It’s like, no, Koshka, the enemy isn’t approaching. I’m walking toward them. I am approaching them. Shut the hell up, please.
More than once Koshka repeating the same phrase for minutes on end was so distracting I ran into a situation where the enemy was actually approaching and was killed.
There are also sections in Left Alive where you’re encouraged (read: have to) actually engage in combat with enemy soldiers. You might think this is a great time to get revenge, but it’s not. You usually only get maybe a pittance of ammo and weapons before once of these sections, so if you haven’t stockpiled enough crafting material to supplement the meager items the game supplies you with right before a fight, you might have to start the whole level over.
Left Alive | Crafting disappointment
There’s a reason the guns and melee weapons suck so bad, though; it’s because Left Alive has a crafting system that allows you to craft bombs, traps, and other gadgets out of trash you find laying about that you’re encouraged to use. Your character is a practical MacGuyver, and you’ll spend much of the game crafting IEDs out of soda cans and the large amount of explosives that are left about Novo Slava for some reason.
Crafting is somewhat interesting but is stunted by several factors. For one, your crafted gadgets are almost as impotent as your other weapons. Your soda can bombs can sometimes kill an enemy in one hit, but then others it doesn’t. The same goes for IED mines. You can plant these suckers in a foe’s path, but there’s no guarantee they’ll step on it. More than once I sneakily planted a landmine only to have an enemy skirt it. You can go back and pick them up if they haven’t detonated, but that usually means crossing paths with a soldier, and so you’ll find yourself wasting traps often.
Again, wasting gadgets wouldn’t be a huge deal if it wasn’t for item scarcity. You only get so many crafting items, and once they’re gone, that’s it. Even if you do have things to craft with, the crafting screen doesn’t pause the game, so if some chucklehead is chasing you and you need a quick grenade or mine to take them out, you have to open the screen and have your character crouch in place. More than likely you’ll get shot before you can craft anything, but even if you manage to rig a tin can into a high explosive, there’s a chance that just the one grenade won’t kill who’s chasing you. Depending on how the game feels, it might not even knock them down.
Instead of giving you a vast catalog of means which you can defeat your enemy, Left Alive‘s emphasis on crafting is an anchor that is detrimental to other aspects of the game. The crafting itself is run of the mill, but the way it interacts with the rest of the gameplay systems is frustrating.
Left Alive | Rescuing the dumbest people on the planet
Besides the overarching story centering around the three protagonists, Left Alive typically has several people you can rescue in a level. These side stories give you a chance to hear the stories of the survivors of Novo Slava and help add some background to some of your mission objectives.
Your objective when you find these lost citizens of Novo Slava is to make sure they get to a marked shelter on the map safely. After you hear their little spiel and convince them not to sit in one spot and die, you can command them to either go or stay put using the map. Unfortunately, these people have no self-preservation instinct. They will walk towards the shelter like an automaton until they get there or meet their demise.
Along the path survivors need to take to their shelter there are invariably enemies, traps, enemies in Wanzers, and it just sucks so hard. It might take you 10 or 20 minutes during these side missions to clear their path. However, even if you manage to kill all the regular enemies in the way, there are often things you can’t deal with, like Wanzers, patrolling the area. This means you need split-second precision to get your ward across safely.
However, their commands can only be given through the map. Which means you can be watching on in horror as the stalwart citizen of Novo Slava you’re protecting rushes headlong to their death from 40mm rifle rounds from some errant Wanzer because you couldn’t pull up the map in time to tell them to stop. Also, often it doesn’t matter if you are in time to tell them to stop, because they rarely seek out cover. They’ll just kind of stand in place until the enemy sees them and they’ll be shot to death.
Left Alive | There are robots but who cares?
The weird thing about Left Alive is that you don’t actually get to pilot Wanzers all that often. These hulking bipedal robots have been the primary means of fighting throughout the Front Mission series, but they’re more of an accessory in Left Alive.
Sure, the Garmonians have tons of Wanzers, but you’re not allowed to touch except for very specific story moments. When you do get to pilot a Wanzer, it’s pretty cool. You finally have a bit of power against your enemies, and you can bring the pain. If the whole game were just segments where you piloted a Wanzer, it would have been a lot better.
Unfortunately, you never really get full reign of a Wanzer. You always pick one up to accomplish one or two objectives and then the ride is over before it got a chance to begin.
Left Alive | Dead on arrival
With how little marketing Square Enix gave Left Alive, it is evident that they had no faith in it. And, they were right. This game is just not good. I feel as though the team behind it had to have like a year or so more development to go or something and they just got told to ship it. It’s broken, unfair, unfun, and is just a bad experience.
It’s a shame too because outside of actually having to play the game Left Alive is really good. It has a rich background, I liked the characters, and it made me want to know more about the world. However, the price to pay to enjoy the setting and plot are too high to pay. I really hope Square Enix doesn’t just write Front Mission off after Left Alive. This was a poor attempt at reviving the franchise, and Front Mission deserves better.
We reviewed Left Alive on a PS4 Pro via code obtained from the publisher.