The Front Mission universe has a lot of promise, and Square Enix was hoping that despite the enigma that was Front Mission Evolved, the next installment will be the catalyst for a revival of the franchise. But that is seemingly on hold as their latest game, Left Alive, struggled from Day One.
Reviews of the game were mostly negative, as wonky controls, disjointed story-telling, lack-luster VA, unreasonable difficulty even on the lowest setting, and other problems were cited as the main reason why the game left a lukewarm reception among western gamers. The game did receive a respectable 31/40 from Famitsu but that was not enough to stem the tide.
That said, I wanted to give it a chance. As a long-time Gundam fan, I am dying to play a game that can give me my mobile suit fix as the current crop of Gundam games just wasn’t doing it for me.
The game’s graphics was the first thing that stood out to me. While not spectacular, it was nevertheless strong. I was on familiar territory, being a fan of Mobile Suit Gundam and Metal Gear Solid. Yoji Shinkawa lends his skills as the character designer, so the characters looked like they just left Mother Base. Takayuki Yanase designed the Wanzers – the mecha in the Front Mission universe – after previous stints in Ghost in the Shell: Arise, and Mobile Suit Gundam 00 (my beloved alternate universe in Gundam). The Wanzers even reminded me of Gundam 00’s Tierens, and I felt a rush while piloting it.
The settings were moody, and perfectly capture the dirt, destruction and confusion that accompanies invasions. But it is not really as immersive as I thought, rather, it felt like I was watching anime. Perhaps, it was because the character animation wasn’t up to the task. It felt cartoonish, unnatural, and canned. It’s a shame because the characters look so good. Effects like fire, explosions and the like are also okay, nothing spectacular.
A huge part of my frustration came from the controls. The control scheme felt wonky, and – due to poor animations – awkward, and that has an averse effect on my enjoyment in playing the game. Because the controls were unentuitive, it can get difficult to play especially in the tighter levels where there are waves of enemy soldiers blocking your way. Most especially since the game seems to be difficult by default.
Left Alive is HARD, and I’m not saying this as a compliment. Naturally difficult games like Dark Souls aren’t as frustrating as this. In a game that has survival elements in it, controls and mechanics need to be refined because they can mean life and death (or relief and frustration) for the playable character.
A good comparison would be Metal Gear Survive. It shared the same game engine as the stellar Metal Gear Solid V, but somehow, the movements in Survive didn’t feel either solid or responsive. That’s how it is in Left Alive. Now, if you happen to like Survive’s controls, then you’re in luck as you may have a better time here. The catch is that I actually liked Survive, and I am still struggling with the controls in this game.
Perhaps what is aggravating about it is that I found that the mech sections are actually very satisfying. Controlling Wanzers has always been unwieldy since Front Mission Evolved, but the joy of fulfilling your Mobile Suit Gundam dreams more than makes up for it. It almost seems like the on-foot and wanzer mechanics were made by two different teams.
Director Toshifumi Nabeshima is no stranger to these types of games, having been involved for a long time in the Armored Core series. This is partly the reason why I was excited for Left Alive, because I enjoyed Armored Core. But the game feels and plays anything but: as if it has a fractured personality that is good individually, but taken together simply could not work as well as expected.
This is probably one of the better things in Left Alive. I certainly loved the score, which reminded me of the video game Freedom Fighters, which was also a game about an invasion. The sound effects too, are great especially in Wanzer fights using a head-set. The booming sound effects of exploding ordnance, the scrap of metal against metal, is recreated in vivid glory.
But even this, too, had a downside. The voice-acting was sub-par, like 90s anime. It’s as bad as the voice-acting in Metal Gear Surivive. While I can consider it still “playable”, there are moments where the voice acting really grinded my gears.
After all I said, I still think it is still possible to enjoy Left Alive. The game has flashes of greatness underneath all the bad elements. I love the concept of surviving through an invasion as the setting. Under the right hands, it could have made for a compelling game that can span from surviving the actual invasion, enroute to fighting back the invader.
I also like the wanzer gameplay, which I feel is one of the game’s strengths. We barely have any sim-like mecha-games these days that actually playing one – albeit in the middle of a mediocre game – was an experience I will cherish.
I also liked the fact that the game gives you the ability to choose your responses, although their impact won’t be felt until later on. Again, the whole “survival” mechanic is also a nice idea, even though the execution was flawed. Giving the players limited ammunition, and forcing them to utilize traps was really nice. As someone who hated having to set-up traps, it forced me to adjust my style of play. It felt refreshing even though minutes later, I am cursing through my teeth as I get overwhelmed yet again with bullets because my character stood when I was trying to make him hide.
If you break down Left Alive to its bare essentials, you’ll see that it actually has the elements for a big hit. The character designs were stellar, the graphics is superb, the mechs were amazing, the music really sets the mood, the concept and the setting were interesting.
But together, they simply did not work as well as I hoped, as they lacked refinement. One wonders if a few more months of development might do the trick, but I personally think that it’s not more development time that the game needed, but the right utilization of game assets and the optimization of its systems and mechanics. For example, if you are making a game that emphasizes stealth, they should have intuitive controls, a good stealth mechanic, an even better close-quarters combat system, and smarter AI.
Left Alive’s parts are good individually or at least had promise, but the game just can’t make it to work. It had an interesting premise, great character design, fun Wanzer gameplay, and a musical score that gives you goosebumps. But they can’t harmonize them to make at least a good game.
Left Alive can be enjoyed, but it will take a lot of patience and determination to achieve it. The wanzer piloting are still the best parts of the game that I feel they should have built the game around it. But it is what it is, and we’re left to wonder what might have been.