Left Alive is a stealth-based action/adventure from Square Enix featuring ambitious ideas held back by a myriad of design and technical problems.
Left Alive offers a slew of innovative and creative ideas, but a myriad of technical and gameplay weaknesses hold it back from greatness, or even mediocrity. The Front Mission series was a cult tactical RPG series about giant robots fighting to the death in a world filled with geopolitical strife. The games were massively popular in Japan, but never found a strong footing in the United States, but the last decade hasn't been kind to the once venerated franchise. The last entry in the series, 2010's Front Mission Evolved, was a critical and commercial failure, and the series went into hibernation... Until now.
With Left Alive, Square Enix aims to take the franchise in a brand new direction. In Left Alive, the perspective changes from that of the pilots behind the controls of giant mechas, called Wanzers, to the POV of soldiers on the ground in a battlefield dominated by giant robots. The idea of a "boots on the ground" approach to a series defined by over-the-top gigantic mecha is a promising one, and Left Alive is at its best when it juxtaposes intimate stealth action with the frightening scale of the giant robots who keep a vigilant eye on the battlefield.
Left Alive is clearly trying to capitalize on the success of Konami's Metal Gear series. From the menus to the sandbox stealth mechanics, Square Enix is positioning Left Alive as a title which can fill the gaping void left by the ending of the Metal Gear Solid saga (heaven knows the maligned Metal Gear Survive did little to satisfy fans). In fact, they even went so far as to team up with Metal Gear Solid's character designer, Yoji Shinkawa, to design the characters, who resemble the cast of a lost Metal Gear title, but with a more distinct anime influence.
On paper, Left Alive sounds promising, and as the game begins, the initial impressions are positive. The opening cutscenes offer a healthy dose of characterization and geopolitical intrigue, even if the English voice acting is only passable at best. The initial playable character, Mikhail, is a classic anime pretty boy with perfect hair and a youthful naivete, and the energy level is high when control is finally handed over to the player.
The atmosphere of Left Alive is oppressively bleak; every level is littered with the dead bodies of civilians and soldiers alike. There are multiple scenes depicting the occupying force murdering innocents in the streets, and the game frequently reminds players of the horrors of war. It's as intense as it is unsettling, even if the bright red blood stains which litter the landscape feel a bit cartoonish and overdone.
Left Alive has a ton of unique and innovative ideas to offer a twist on the sandbox stealth popularized by Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain. The game encourages replayability, with branching storylines depending on how quickly the player completes core objectives, dialogue choices during cutscenes, and optional side quests which can be tackled or ignored. Left Alive features a robust New Game Plus mode, predicated on the idea that the player can finish more and more of the game on subsequent playthroughs. Unfortunately, one would be hard-pressed to muster the strength of heart to complete the game just once, let alone multiple times.
For all the good ideas Left Alive brings to the table, it fundamentally fails on basic mechanical levels. At its absolute best, Left Alive faintly resembles a fraction of the greatness of its obvious progenitor, Metal Gear Solid V. At nearly all other times, the game is a mess of crippled controls, broken A.I., and confusing level design. Stages look like reasonably-sized sandboxes, measuring a handful of city blocks each, but despite appearances, there are only a couple of paths to take throughout the levels; invisible walls and insurmountable piles of knee-high garbage keep players constrained, while pathfinding A.I. is often hilarious, running around in arbitrary circles like concussed lemmings.
The difficulty in Left Alive is unforgiving, but not in a righteous Dark Souls kind of way; whether or not enemies spot you feels arbitrary, and the game is constantly frustrating at every turn, from moving around, to shooting, to sneaking, to simply navigating menus. Left Alive also gleefully commits the cardinal sin of stealth games: forced alert sections in which combat is the only option. Sadly, unlike fellow stealth titles Metal Gear, Sniper Elite, and even Far Cry, the combat in Left Alive is wholly terrible. Enemies have a ton of health, and bullets just bounce off them like a child firing a slingshot at a tank, while aiming sensitivity makes lining up shots way too much of a hassle. Headshots aren't one-hit kills, so the best offensive option is to toss craftable explosives and IED bombs, but even those aren't particularly effective at quickly killing enemy soldiers. However, enemies really like closing the distance between themselves and the player, frequently making explosives an unenviable option. There is a rudimentary cover system, but the button used to stick to cover also functions as a dodge roll button; there's nothing more infuriating than trying to dodge a barrage of gunfire only to accidentally take cover in plain sight and get shot to death through no fault of your own.
Though the game forces players into shootouts more often than it should, fighting is of secondary importance to stealthily sneaking around an occupied cityscape. Unfortunately, the stealth mechanics are painfully outdated, and not in a charming, nostalgic way. Most objectives simply involve going from one point to another while scrounging up as many resources as possible along the way. Distracting enemies by throwing empty cans and bottles works well enough, though it's hardly inspired in 2019, and yet I still found myself surprised that throwing an object to get enemies to look away actually worked in this game.
The player can sneak up on enemies and take them down with melee hits, but there's no dedicated "melee takedown" button. Instead, like a PS1-era title, you are forced to hit unaware soldiers with a three-hit combo and then perform a follow-up when they're on the ground. However, if the player's shovel or metal pipe is in less than pristine condition, then the bad guy will just get back up and shoot you to death. If the player doesn't have any melee weapons on hand, then they cannot take down enemy soldiers at all, and will have to either hide or resort to ranged weapons or traps, which are even more unreliable. The game postures on encouraging use of traps like IED bombs, but in practice, it's a ridiculous hassle to lure an enemy into a trap, and ultimately not worth the effort.
Left Alive is a monument to wasted potential. There are so many good ideas at play here, from the dialogue choices to the art design and the survival focus, which could have offered Left Alive the resource scrounging excitement of the best Battle Royale games. Unfortunately, every single positive element is completely squandered on a gameplay foundation which is barely playable and utterly devoid of merit. On a fundamental gameplay level, there's nothing in Left Alive that wasn't done twice as well fifteen years ago. It's bad enough that Left Alive is mechanically anemic; the true crime is how, with more time and budget, this could have been a great game, or even, possibly, a genuine successor to the legacy of Metal Gear. As it stands, Left Alive is a disaster which can't be recommended to anyone.
Left Alive is available on PC and PlayStation 4. Screen Rant was provided with a PS4 code for this review.