I miss Front Mission. I've missed it for a long time, given that it'sa synthesis of two things I love: strategy games and mecha. The last Front Mission game was Front Mission Evolved, a shooter released on PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, and PC in 2010. The last proper release was Front Mission 2089 in 2008, but that only released in Japan. North America has been hungry since 2004, when Front Mission 4 was released on PlayStation 4.
So I approached the announcement of Left Alive with some confusion and skepticism. The first trailer didn't even mention Front Mission by name, focusing instead on a war-torn city and mecha carried Osprey-style aircraft. The marketing has generally downplayed the connection, probably save the game from rabid fans; if Left Alive carried the Front Mission name, there would be more rage about what it isn't, rather taking it for what it is.
What we were shown instead looked a lot like Metal Gear Solid, and it even included former Metal Gear Solid character designer Yoji Shinkawa on its staff. In fact, the staff on Left Alive hinted at something potentially exciting. Shinkawa was joined by Takayuki Yanase, mecha designer for Metal Gear Rising, Metal Gear Solid 4, and Xenoblade Chronicles X. Director Toshifumi Nabeshima produced several games in the Armored Core series. Sure, it wasn't a proper Front Mission game, but at least it could be interesting.
Sadly, Left Alive has all the charm and polish of a mid-range PlayStation 2 game.
The core idea of Left Alive is great. It's a stealth action game that takes place in the middle of an active warzone. The Garmonia Republic has declared war on the country of Rutenia, starting with a surprise attack on the city of Nova Slava. Given the lack of warning and the military might of Garmonia's Wanzers, the city easily falls. Left Alive picks up in the ruins of the occupied city as three survivors try to stay alive.
You jump between three perspectives. Mikhail, who I lovingly call "Russian Leon Kennedy", is a young Wanzer pilot in the Rutenian army. Olga is a former pilot of the Garmonia Republic, turned police officer in Nova Slava. Finally, there's Leonid, a battle-hardened mercenary who uses to work for a resistance movement in Novo Slava. Unlike the other two, Leonid has a less nebulous reason to survive: he's trying to get revenge on who framed him for an assassination.
These three stories are probably the strongest part of Left Alive, focused as they are on showing the outcome of the war on the average person. They're a bit heavy-handed, sure-the Garmonian soldiers shoot innocent civilians for no reason and then just go about their business-but they largely get their point across. And this ties into gameplay, where you have to decide who lives and who dies. While you're playing as each character, scrounging for materials to build makeshift first aid and traps, you also have the chance to save survivors. Areas on your map show hotspots in the ongoing occupation, which are probably best to stay away from due to increased enemy presence. You'll make story choices that will also decide who lives and dies.
I can also offer some praise to the environments. Left Alive's graphics prowess aren't completely up to snuff-the textures look bad in places and some objects simply float above the ground-but a once-vibrant city reduced to rubble in the midst of some sort of Christmas-like festival? That's a great setting. And the maps are generally pretty open, giving you freedom to sneak around and cause some havoc while you make your way to your objective. The muscles of Left Alive have some life in them, it's the bones that are brittle.
At heart, Left Alive straddles the line between stealth action and a survival game. The B-grade Metal Gear feeling is only added to by the character designs and the general user interface. If you squint just right, it looks like Metal Gear Survive with no base building and a stronger story. You hunt for resources, build traps and weapons, hide from overwhelming enemy force, and generally try to get through the next area.
But Metal Gear Survive, for all its faults, lifted its combat and play from Metal Gear Solid 5. That was a decent base to build upon. Left Alive has nothing like that. Stealth here is a clumsy affair. The animations are stiff, your character is painfully slow, and the roll isn't big enough for a quick entrance into cover. Cover is a huge part of stealth games, but in Left Alive your character will sometimes snap to objects that look like cover, and other times you'll vaguely flail around near them. There's no readability about being in cover, the players needs to reliably know if they're hidden or not. In Left Alive, the enemies are variable: sometimes they'll miss you, even though it feels like they should've seen you. In other cases, they'll spot your head peeking out from yards away.
There's no instant kill stealth in Left Alive, which feels like an odd omission, but is seemingly there to push you towards alternate weapons. If you have to hit a guard with a pipe, or shoot them, you've already failed. Instead, the developers seem to want you to use explosive cans, land mines, and shock wires to take foes down. Left Alive wants you to trap your enemies, not kill them directly. The problem there is the crafting system doesn't really offer enough items for players to get more creative. In this case, offering more than motolovs, sensors, and mines was needed, something mechanically closer to Koei Tecmo's trap-heavy Deception series. Enemies can end up clustered together enough that you don't have any intriguing options to take them down, outside of just throwing an explosive can in there. And the controls pop up to stymie you again, as you have a single button to use first aid, throwables, and traps; in the heat of battle, you will use the wrong item.
Occasionally, you will find yourself sneaking into a wanzer, where you'll go from simple man to temporary god. You're amazingly powerful in a wanzer, but it also lacks any weight to it. When you're on foot, the wanzers in the background feel meaty, from their slow movement speed to the heavy thumps of their footfalls. When you're inside one, it feels like you're a step removed from the action. It's all fury, no sound.
There's a game with this setting, this concept, that could be great. No, it wouldn't be Front Mission, but I'm willing to allow developers to explore new ideas within the confines of old properties. But as a stealth action game, Left Alive is poorly executed; as a trap-focused game, it lacks interesting choice, and as a Metal Gear Solid wannabe, it doesn't have the verve or insanity of Kojima. Left Alive reaches for concepts, but it doesn't execute on them. I'd be happy to play the game that executes on these idea properly, but Left Alive isn't it.