Impressions from PAX
Left Alive‘s debut at last year’s Tokyo Game Show was bewildering more than anything. The Front Mission franchise had been in hibernation since the misguided Front Mission Evolved, and in an era where many long-time franchises are returning to their roots, this series would go in an entirely new direction. It was cause for concern for some fans, but with the pedigree behind the title — Shinji Hashimoto, Yoji Shinkawa, Toshifumi Nabeshima, and Takayuki Yanase — there was reason to be hopeful.
Set in the Front Mission universe, Left Alive is a survival-based shooter where everything is scarce and your decisions affect everything that happens in the game. The campaign is level-based and players will switch between three characters as they try to escape a war-torn city while saving as many innocent citizens as they can.
It sounds compelling on paper, but seeing it in action presents two very different games: one that looks good and one that does not.
Make no mistake: though this game is set in the Front Mission universe and features Wanzer mechs to pilot, Left Alive is primarily a 3rd person cover-based shooter. The majority of the presentation is spent showcasing how players will fight, craft, and save people from certain death. Three of the four videos I’m shown don’t have even a hint of a mech in them. It’s only in that fourth and final video I get to see what it’s like to pilot and Wanzer, and the only time this game looks interesting.
The first video focuses on the female protagonist of the game. She needs to get outside of the building she’s in but she’s low on bullets and there are around six armed soldiers preventing her escape. I’m given a quick look at the crafting system as the character creates a suite of bombs to use in her mission. It seems simple enough that most players should be able to figure it out quickly.
The first set of guards are stationed in a grey hallway littered with waist-high barriers for what looks like bog-standard cover-based shooting. Bombs are thrown to push out the soldiers and the player uses a few well-aimed shots to finish them off as quickly as possible, making sure to grab any ammo from their corpses. At the end of the hallway is a room with three guards, and after throwing in a beacon to see where they are, she continues killing her way out of the building with a mix of bombs, skill shots, and a melee attack or two.
If that description sounds sparse and monotonous, then it perfectly captures how the gameplay looks. Left Alive‘s shooting mechanics don’t do anything wrong, but they also don’t do anything I haven’t seen a dozen times before. A compacted hallway firefight with waist-high cover strewn about is so common it’s almost cliche, and I don’t yet believe the introduction of survival elements and severely limited supplies will change the experience.
The player choice systems also follow in line with what’s found in the rest of the industry. I’m shown another video where another protagonist tries to convince a father and daughter to come with him to safety. The player uses various dialogue prompts to get them to go with him. Make too many bad choices and they’ll both stay behind. Play it right, and you can get both of them to come with you. In this demo, only the daughter ends up agreeing, leaving her father behind. Saving these citizens is crucial for getting the best ending as players will get to see what happens to everybody they save at the end of the game.
The second video features the choice system in real time. Two heavily armored soldiers have three citizens lined up for execution and the player has to decide whether to try and save them or not. These decisions should be based on how well prepared the player is. If they don’t have enough ammo, they probably don’t want to risk it. In the video, the player is able to save two of the three citizens and escort them to safety.
Neither of these sequences do much to move the needle of interest on Left Alive. Saving the citizens on the street is heavily scripted, complete with an unnecessary and unrealistic silent 10-second countdown that’s brazenly announced by the would-be executioner. When trying to convince the father and daughter to join them in safety, the scene is packed full of silly, canned animations that look straight out of the early years of 3D gaming. Not helping any of this is the fact the visuals for the game are a sea of gray, where gray characters move through gray environments, taking down gray enemies and saving gray NPCs.
If there is any saving grace for the title, it’s the action-packed Wanzer segments. The final video showcases a battle in a shipping yard, where one of the Wanzers players will be able to take control of does battle with several other mechs. The action here is swift and stylish. The Wanzer piloted by the player is able to dodge, charge, and pick up weapons off fallen foes. It’s a palette cleanser from the rest of the experience, where struggling to survive falls to the wayside in favor of just kicking some ass.
I’m still not sure what to make Left Alive and quite frankly I’m baffled Square Enix agreed to show it off in this condition. The mech battle at the shipping yard is the most riveting piece of footage I’m shown, but my gut tells me it’ll only make up a fraction of the final product. Everything else feels like ticks off the “Games People in the West Like” checklist, only I’m not really liking what I see.