This unlikely Front Mission spin-off's occasional charm can't make up for its seriously broken fundamentals.
Left Alive is the second new release this week that reminds me of a PS2 game, although perhaps the comparisons this time around aren't so favourable. Devil May Cry 5 is a full-blooded return that reimagines Capcom's action formula and delivers it with the muscle and aplomb of the current generation. Left Alive, meanwhile, takes some fairly rusty, more contemporary mechanics and smothers them in the janky wrappings of a mid-tier PS2 game. It's a flaky, barely functioning stealth game that's almost entirely awful. I kind of love it.
Maybe that's because the promise of its set-up still manages to occasionally shine through the grot. This is ostensibly a spin-off of Square Enix's Front Mission, the mech-infused strategy series whose last entry was another spin-off - Double Helix's third-person shooter Front Mission Evolved - some nine years ago. It's helmed by a veteran producer of FromSoft's Armored Core games - another mech series that's been missing in action - though surprisingly given the expertise on tap, as well as the thirst for a decent mech game, the machines remain mostly in the background.
Instead, this is primarily a survival-infused stealth game - think Metal Gear Survive without that game's strong foundations, with a clunky, unreliable moveset and AI adversaries who aren't undead but don't seem to act on any human impulses, and who are either blindly ignorant or supernaturally aware of your presence depending on their own whims. It's bizarre how much Left Alive wants to be Metal Gear Solid; there are fudgy treatise on the human cost of war and hard to follow strands of conspiracy theories while familiar audio and visual cues have been seemingly lifted and clumsily pasted over the action.
Warring factions and political intrigue aren't exactly new to the Front Mission series, sure, but when presented in the context of a stealth action game it can feel too much like a second-rate knock-off. There's one direct, effective lift though, with Kojima Productions' Yoji Shinkawa - the man behind Metal Gear Solid's exquisite art - working on loan to boost the aesthetic, and this is something that's Left Alive's own; it's grubby and dirty with the weight of realism keeping everything rooted to the filth and the rubble.
And it's amidst all that there are those tantalising glimmers of promise. The premise is fantastic, flipping between three protagonists who find themselves behind enemy lines unequipped and alone, asking you to scavenge the battlefield in your fight for survival. You're pushed towards crafting makeshift devices, lining walkways with IEDs and tripwires as you devise traps of torture. It's Home Alone Goes to War, basically, and there are times - brief as they may be - where Left Alive is every bit as brilliant as that set-up sounds.
It's a set-up that leads to an awful lot of funkiness, too. This is a stealth game with no takedowns available to you, which feels like a gross oversight at first. Is it, though? I think it's perhaps more to funnel you towards improvising strategies and crafting gadgets, and about shepherding the enemy into deathly traps of your own devising. A shame, then, that they're almost entirely unreadable - an audio prompt loops to tell you when one is approaching, even if they're not, and then keeps looping in some kind of dumb panic, while on-screen prompts aren't exactly much use either.
Couple this with awkward controls that make it feel like your character is just beyond the reach of your fingertips, working to their own erratic rhythm, and it means Left Alive can play like an absolute nightmare. So how about throwing in some escort missions into the mix too, to liven things up with another dumb AI that's almost impossible to predict? And for good measure here's a save system that's outrageously punitive, with scant points available through a level meaning you're going to be repeating the same sections again and again and again and again and again, butting up against the same unpredictable AI and being wrong-footed by another of its eccentricities.
And yet, and yet, and yet... I've pushed through, for all of the so many, many things that Left Alive gets wrong there are still those glimpses of something else. The moral choices you're presented through branching dialogue, say; the map that shows hotspots of hostility, where enemy presence is at its most intense; that pervading sense of desperation, told in the bleak eastern European backdrop with its burnt-out buildings as well as in the brutality of the challenge that you face.
And then there's the cathartic release of those few moments when you do get to pilot a Wanzer - Front Mission's thudding, grinding mechs - in brief skirmishes where all the power is suddenly in your palms. In contrast to the fraught stealth, the overstated firepower feels fantastic, although in truth both sides of Left Alive are as wonky as each other, the clumsiness and rough edges found in the on-foot sections every bit as present when you're behind the controls of a mech.
So why have I persevered with Left Alive, and why, for all the pain it's inflicted on me, do I still feel kind of charmed by it all? Maybe it's a nostalgia, not for Front Mission or for stealth action games but for odd little AA projects that seem increasingly sparse these days; the kind of thing that'd catch you unawares when you saw a dog-eared, unloved copy sitting on the bottom shelf at your local tatty game store for under a fiver that you then decided to take a punt on. It's those strange, sadly forgotten PS2 titles - your Spy Fictions, or your Shadow of Memories - that you end up loving despite all their quirks.
Left Alive, though, is too shabby to fall in love with right now. It's leaden, cheap and in parts downright broken - and sadly, those parts are the most fundamental ones, such as its stealth. Maybe, by the time this hits the bargain basket it feels destined for, some of those rough edges might have been smoothed out, and if so over time it could well go on to become a cult classic. Right now, though, those flashes of inspiration can't hide what's a resoundingly mediocre game, an exercise in pure frustration and a complete misuse of the Front Mission licence. Still, I'm glad it exists.