Square Enix has had a strange time lately, often finding itself under scrutiny due to its development troubles over on the Japanese side, and some equally weird stuff happening with its western properties. That said, it’s easy to forget Square Enix has a long history of experimentation, although its smaller fare used to quietly slide in-between more frequent, AAA-level content. Now, Left Alive, a strange, stealth/survival action game set in the Front Mission universe, is dropping at a time when Square Enix doesn’t really have anything else going on, landing directly under the spotlight. While it’s obviously a lower-budget game from the moment you boot it up, this title has a lot of things going for it under the surface. It’s a brass tacks, trial and error stealth game that isn’t afraid to punish you severely for messing up, and doesn’t bother with much of the annoying, fluffy babysitting so many other survival games do. Despite all the jank, Left Alive is a fascinating experience you won’t find anywhere else.
As far as the story is concerned, Left Alive immediately reminded me of another strange but notable Japanese military action series, Ace Combat. Here we have fictional representations of real life territories, molded from what we’re familiar with in the real world and explained via drastic socio-economic shifts. There’s a lot of mumbo jumbo about proxy wars and shaky global alliances, strained to the tipping point by the emergence of Wanzers, the mobile suit weapons Front Mission fans are all too familiar with. The storytelling here reminds me of “real robot” mecha drama, and I’m totally here for it, especially the way the game hides and ultimately disperses its lore.
Much like the various characters you play as in the story, as a Left Alive player you’re really just in the thick of the mess, a pair of boots on the ground that is more concerned with surviving than digesting all the abstract, geopolitical nonsense unfolding around you. Sure, you may be interested in what “Ruthia” is doing, but you’re also surrounded by fire and death and maybe that’s a more pressing concern. However, you may pick up some local newspapers or other documentation along the way, or help move a survivor to safety who may in turn impart some knowledge. But you won’t get all of it on your first run.
Left Alive is a super intriguing hybrid of stealth action, roguelike progress, and like… a board game? Each level is its own, large space. A board, if you will. Scattered throughout the board, which you will spend ample time studying on the map screen, are enemies that take up deliberate spaces, have strict rounds, and often congregate somewhere in-between you and your goal in “heat zones.” Here you’ll often find corpses of other players, because those are the spots where you’ll die a lot.
This is not like a Metal Gear game, in which you can generally make your way out of being spotted as long as you play it cool and smart. Usually, being spotted in Left Alive means you’re better off reloading your save, because you will be hounded and slowly murdered nine times out of ten. You may survive, but at the cost of precious resources and likely, your crucial place on the board/map. These spaces are crucial because not only can you run into “sidequests” such as civilians in need of rescue, but there are also save points spread out in key locations. Often, survival in Left Alive means trying to make your way from one save point to another, because as long as you can make it to the next one in one piece, you can breathe and plan the next phase of your exit strategy.
Left Alive is not a feel-good action game. While occasionally you’ll get the wonderful contrast of jumping into a Wanzer and lighting things up, most of the time you’ll be carting around an ineffectual pistol, or a fragile melee tool such as a metal pipe. Even basic enemies take several bullets, and while you can pick a security drone out of the sky with one shot, anyone nearby will hear it and come looking. Instead, your best bet for making it out lies in what tools you can craft based on materials you can scrounge together, such as bits of cloth, empty bottles, and pieces of tech. These are your Molotov cocktails, your makeshift grenades, your crappy landmine traps. Almost none of these are good enough to rack up kills, but they all serve as crucial distractions that will make or break that choke point between you and the next save point. I almost always ignore tossing things like empty bottles in most stealth/action games, but in Left Alive they were my bread and butter.
Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger
Earlier I mentioned roguelikes, and not just because Left Alive mercilessly kills you often. While making your way through all the chapters and boards can take upwards of 15-20 hours, this is, lowkey, a run-based experience. You will most likely not make it through your first run with all the side content cleared, but when you do win, you’ll get some points you can cash in for permanent upgrades. The idea here is that eventually, you’ll get through enough times to really get beefed up, and as you go you’ll uncover more and more about the game, its story, and more combat nuances. It’s like, anime military Pathfinder or something. I hope I’m conveying this properly, because to me it’s wild to even think about.
Left Alive Review - Front Mission Survival Edition (PlayStation 4)
Of course, Left Alive is far from a polished video game. You will battle against the controls, such as the time I tried to sidle up against cover only to do a loud cartwheel in front of an enemy soldier. That sucked. Visually, it’s kind of blurry and stale, although the design work from the Metal Gear-famous Yoji Shinkawa gives Left Alive a certain energy to it that helps sell the universe and desperate vibe. Make no mistake, this is a janky-ass game, and one that demands a lot of patience to get the most out of it. But there are people out there I know will eat this up, especially those out there who saw potential in concepts like Metal Gear Survive.
I cautiously recommend Left Alive, readers, especially if things like “gritty and janky, but unique low budget Japanese genre game” makes your rolodex light up and scream at you. This game demands patience, both for its glacial pace and unforgiving difficulty. It requires digging a little underneath what seems to be available at face value, and a rejection of AAA game design conventions. But I often found myself willing to overlook all the obvious flaws in favor of engaging with what sits at Left Alive’s messy core, a sort of ultra hardcore, Metal Gear-looking-but-not-really, room escape-slash-solo-board game sort of deal that really got my brain juices flowing.
Left Alive review code provided by publisher. Version 1.02 reviewed on a Standard PS4. For more information on scoring please see our Review Policy here.