Dead in the Water
Amidst the legendary blowouts of its contemporaries Anthem and Fallout 76, it is the relatively under-the-radar Left Alive that has been given the bomb beneath the table approach from its developer. Between the three games, Left Alive is the newest and the only one that has already been committed to stasis. A wince-inducing drop from $60 to $10 at physical storefronts in the span of four months was staggering, outpacing even the deflations of Homefront: The Revolution and Rogue Warrior. The lone confine protecting me from scrutiny on behalf of my local GameStop employee was him not recognizing the game at all.
The prospect of a major leap forward for the Front Mission franchise, with renowned names on hand for every facet of its creation, is no doubt the most hopeless flop of the year so far. With no patch in sight since April and a marketing campaign that seemed to gradually de-escalate even before the game’s shuddering reception, Left Alive is little more than a decommissioned vessel with no one at the head. So why don’t we beat the dead horse one more time and figure out where the supergroup that should have formed together like Voltron went wrong.
Lore, What is it Good For?
The fallings of Left Alive are deceptively simple. The game successfully implies a sense of scope, its campaign playing out from three perspectives forming the corners of a war-torn republic. In respective chapters, players control the vaguely stoic police officer Olga Kalinina, the further emasculated Raiden replicant Mikhail Shuvalov, and husk of a man Leonid Osterman. Gameplay is the same amongst them all, an amorphous mix of by-the-book stealth, over-the-shoulder shooting, and NPC interactions giving way to side errands that aim to make the most of the semi-open landscapes.
The abundance of lore lands like a series of dull blows to the head but occasionally gives way to odd diatribes about abandoned hamburger restaurant receipts and hammy wisecracks delivered with a baseline charisma. The protagonists at least go through the basic motions of characterization, distinguishing themselves from each other through various apprehensions and principles. An expectedly hollow choice system is grafted onto conversations between players and other survivors, but is so entrenched in the progression of dialogue that you would be fooled into thinking it’d impact the narrative. There’s a faint attempt at world-building strewn throughout via the optional escort missions taken from civilians, preoccupied with details but bereft of inspiration.
Window-dressing for a Hollow Vessel
The bizarre contradiction directly carries over to Left Alive’s visual design. Left Alive boasts the technical clarity of a professional AAA studio product, yet it is cheapened by an unrelenting devotion to dire textures and vacant landscapes. Much of Mikhail Shuvalov’s campaign may as well take place on a single extended neighborhood, shaped into lusterless corridors, indistinguishable to the point of abstraction. With the combination of the disheveled nature with which you hop between perspectives and the homogenous architecture entrapping you, I was rather convinced I was playing the same level repeatedly as Mikhail, barely alleviated by the time spent as other protagonists.
Nonetheless, Left Alive distantly looks the part. For all the kneejerk accusations touting its graphical resemblance to a PS3 game, the lighting is radiant to a degree only made possible in recent years, doing its best to outshine the volleys of beige texturing raining down elsewhere. And despite animations that would only seem to stem from severe rigor mortis, the character models are fairly photorealistic. The intricate designs of the all too sidelined mechas tower over any human character in terms of lasting impressions. The game is prone to some gnarly textural pop-in (hardly noticeable at points with how murky everything is) but runs at a stable 30 FPS and lacks clipping or screen tearing.
Presented through carefully crafted promo videos, the worst thing you could accuse Left Alive of is desperate genericism. The dilution of the Front Mission IP into a belated Metal Gear Solid 5 competitor, padded out with the same arbitrary survival mechanics Metal Gear Survive was instantly scrutinized for. And yet, the general cynicism orienting Left Alive’s conceptual stage shrinks when compared to a much more damning fact.
Not a single element of the core gameplay in Left Alive works.
Despite boasting the ambition to take on stealth, third-person shooting, and occasional mecha interjections, the game does not possess the skill set to make any aspect playable. Left Alive is profusely boring on its lowest difficulty and nearly unplayable on the other four. It is less a product of missed opportunities that it is a result of missed essentials. It is strictly the parts spent in conversation where players are safe from a game that combusts upon interaction. The divide between stealth and third-person shooting has produced an imbalance that benefits neither side.
Enemies are oriented in packs, tightly compressed into impassable mobs armed measurably more extensively than you. Ammo is sparse and dings pathetically, asking for multiple headshots to kill a single grunt, further bogged down by a robotic aiming system that drags mercilessly. Sound effects are also the weak link of Left Alive’s presentation, saddling you with a minigun appearing to suffer from indigestion as well as careening sound panning that far overshoots the margins of realism. More torturous than that is the Siri voiced reminder informing you that “the enemy is approaching” chiming in constantly, often when you are approaching an enemy that is directly in front of you. This runs counter to the barely intelligible red-lines traced across the borders of your screen, an intangible radar system applied no better here than it was in Square Enix’s performance-art meltdown from last year, The Quiet Man.
You can’t even trust the reliability of blunt force. There is no devoted stealth takedown, your only option is to beat enemies from behind with gradually deteriorating pipes, an approach that will raise their alert almost instantly. It is a head-scratching emission, not seen since its absence from Deus Ex: Invisible War, and it dismantles any possibility of stealthy melee beyond repair. The last ditch decision to scatter enemies by tossing bottles in an opposing direction is more likely to direct the frenetic AI towards you and away from where the bottle lands. Enemies possess a near-telepathic sense of your location and are keenly susceptible to informing every single engulfing squadron of your presence at once.
Left Alive devolves into its third-person shooter tendencies more frequently than not, and with a shortage of ammo and finicky cover system, it is more painful than the stealth mechanics. Even beyond the irreparably bizarre frequency of aiming from behind cover taking you out of it entirely, there’s an achingly sluggish pace to shooting that drags the whole experience down. There was no excitement provoked by my time spent with Left Alive, only relief. Not too far off from its late-stage MGS aspirations, Left Alive plays like Metal Gear Survive, only transplanted to the late 00s as a contemporary to the shovelware Codemasters was preoccupied with forcing out. It is a direct challenge to players to mine some sort of enjoyment from the void of gratification Left Alive releases you into.
My approach was fairly unorthodox. To account for the broken AI and narrow ammo supply, Left Alive overwhelms you with health pickups, a personal favorite being the omnipresent vodka bottles around the battlefield. On lower difficulties, your health bar is so inflated that it is most efficient to sprint through enemy factions, bypassing any combat encounters and healing yourself as needed. Naturally, the vodka you intake gradually accumulates contributing to a hallucinatory screen filter that dominates the entire screen, the closest example to visual flair across the entire experience. Only in this passive, game-exploiting approach could I gleam a sort of laughable sense of enjoyment from the title, and it fueled my persistence through the campaign.
Left Alive asks for a lot of patience from you, but can only offer a sense of reward when you seek to defy it. As reluctant as the game is to let you pilot any mechas (at one point the core of this franchise), overriding any conceits of stealth in favor of piloting the mechas stationed in the occasional level gives way to the only gameplay that could be deemed mildly satisfying. You are still forced to wrangle with a confining level design that limits mobility here more than ever, but your time spent in the Wanzer is the only tangible reminder that what you’re playing is an offshoot of the Front Mission universe. Mech gameplay is painfully abridged and not especially flashy, but works at a baseline, the only section in the game giving you any semblance of power.
Yet, Left Alive is borderline apologetic for these moments and what for? The game is staunchly narrative reliant, yet the only thing cinematic about its presentation are the feature-length loading times. Any one gameplay mechanic is too clumsy to sustain the strategizing it aims to foster, and any sense of levity outside of cursory dialogue can only be embraced by defying the game’s design. Left Alive is indistinguishable pomp without a purpose, grasping for mechanics that have long been realized and setting them back a decade and change. Mission failed.
Left Alive presents a nadir of Westernization, through desperate and derivative trend-chasing that conceals any of the distinct charms of the Front Mission IP and saddles it with a series of problems that are plainly unacceptable.
Enjoys paying less than 20 dollars for a game, especially when it is one people have forgotten about. Wants to be a character in the next Jet Set Radio and hopes you enjoy the site. Has a pet rabbit he nurtures and takes photos of. Still pushing for a Stuntman Ignition remaster 11 years later. Still hasn’t played Fortnite.