Left Alive Review
A creaky and frustratingly broken mix of stealth and action.
Left Alive tries to be so, so many things: a stealth game, a military thriller, a third-person shooter, and an urban survival adventure. And yet it fails on every level, including at performing acceptably on a PC above the recommended specs. When the Metal Gear pastiche falls apart, what’s left is technical shortcomings, wonky controls, poor balance, and so much frustration it wasn’t worth suffering all the way to the end after I’d already wasted dozens of hours on it.
The military story is the only part of Left Alive I found remotely decent, thanks to a couple of surprising techno-thriller twists, but even that is mediocre when compared to Metal Gear Solid or prior games in the Front Mission world. After the nation of Garmonia invades the neighboring Ruthenian border city of Novo Slava in what should have been the least-surprising surprise attack ever, you’re dropped into the combat boots of three different people over the course of its broken, slow adventure, all of whom would be easy to empathize with were they not so poorly written and voice-acted: A whiny Wanzer (mech) pilot with a stunning lack of common sense, a competent cop with not even an ounce of luck, and a gruff revolutionary with lots of scars both physical and mental. Our three heroes must go full 1984 Red Dawn to save civilians, thwart the bad guy, and maybe make it out in one piece.
The main quest mostly consists of wading through an absolute sea of hostile forces to reach an area where they’ll inexplicably stop attacking you. The side missions are more interestingly written, highlighting the heartstring-tugging plight of civilians in a war-torn city, but I didn’t get a chance to complete many of them, unfortunately – I only had so many materials with which to craft exploding cans and so many bullets. Resources, particularly ammunition, are scarce enough that going off the beaten path to do side content can leave your bag of tricks completely empty when the rubber meets the road with the main story. I had to restart the second chapter because, after inefficiently completing all of the side missions and taking my time to explore, I was punished for my curiosity because the rewards for the side missions were less than what it took to complete them and I couldn’t win a shootout at the end.
Actually being stealthy in Left Alive is a mess.
If your methods for proceeding through this mediocrity were even remotely enjoyable, Left Alive would at least be marginally more fun than its broken and clumsy attempt at being a Metal Gear Solid-type urban warfare thriller. The stealth component is the central idea here, and that makes sense: when one is a single rebel against an army, skulking about with your head down is probably a good idea. Actually being stealthy in Left Alive is a mess, though. It consists mostly of crouching, ducking behind cover that only seldom provides any actual protection, and hiding in dumpsters after sprinting and dive-rolling your way away from a seething mass of bad guys filling the air with hot death.
In a sense, that’s true of most stealth games, but great ones, like Metal Gear Solid 4 or Hitman, work with similar trappings because they make you feel in control – you’re the predator and the enemy soldiers are the prey. You’re slow, but not painfully so. There are dimensions to the levels that allow you to move around, take up new positions, and approach a scenario from different angles. There’s a tremendous variety of ways to camouflage yourself and to distract the bad guys. By stark contrast, in Left Alive I felt like prey. Enemy sight range is inconsistent, so I never knew whether I was far enough away to avoid being spotted. Their perceptive abilities range from eagle-eyed and sharp as a tack to blind, deaf, and dumb. It feels ridiculous to go unnoticed as you crouch-walk across a wide-open space in full view of an enemy.
The first few times I victimized the AI it was funny, but I just started to feel bad.
The first few times I victimized the AI it was funny, but after a little while I just started to feel bad for them… and then I got bored. Then, as I progressed further along and the Garmonian presence in my path got more numerous and better equipped, I had the opposite problem: soldiers would spot me through cover, or from farther away than they’d been able to in the past, forcing me into combat. The whole time I was creeping around I was just waiting to get shot and start dodge-rolling, with no faith that I’d stay unnoticed.
The levels themselves often funnel you in certain directions instead of allowing for creativity, and for a game that prioritizes stealth there are a whole lot of wide-open spaces with few places to hide when the shooting starts. It’s slow and unevenly paced, and the only tension is born from the frustration of costly deaths and the punishing checkpoint system, which puts only a couple save points per chapter and stashes them in spots that aren’t always easy to find. Death can set you back 10 minutes or more in the worst circumstances, and that’s a long time to replay when those minutes weren’t much fun the first time through.
Stealth is bad, but the action is worse.
Stealth is bad, but the action is worse. You’re almost always under-armed and ill-equipped, even though firefights are sometimes mandatory. Several chapters climaxed with hordes of enemies or boss fights right when I found myself low on ammo and supplies, and taking on platoons of ill-mannered soldiers with a trenching shovel is about as much fun as it sounds. Enemy soldiers absorb more bullets than seems reasonable, explosives do so much less damage than you’d expect that it’s jarring, and trying to kill three or four soldiers with spot-crafted IEDs and a few gunshots (more than a few, since Garmoniyans are able to withstand multiple headshots) often generates enough noise to bring down an army on your head. Oh, now they’re listening! What’s more, enemies are incredible marksmen, seemingly incapable of missing a moving target, and even shoot into my cover exactly where my head would be if it weren’t behind something.
As for our heroes, they often miss wildly for no discernible reason but the recoil on weapons being laughably strong, or if a strange lag felt like kicking in and failing to trigger a shot I’d fired before the bad guy moved, or, in a few occasions, if Left Alive just decided I should miss shots that appeared perfectly lined up. Combat is just too frequently a laughable, broken mismatch. I, for one, found myself ready to welcome my new Garmoniyan overlords.
Since Left Alive is set in the Front Mission universe, sometimes you’ll encounter a Wanzer, an imposing walking tank that certain fans of a certain series (and anyone with a giant robot predilection) will find very familiar. This is an urban warfare stealth game, not a mecha game, but the Garmoniyans bring Wanzers to the party to discourage you from even thinking about taking the fight to them or from going down a certain path on the battlefield. A Wanzer getting a bead on you when you aren’t in one is a death sentence – which makes them effectively a wall closing off yet another path. But every so often you get to pilot one, and while the controls for the absurdly overpowered yet inaccurate weapons are clumsy, it’s a satisfying turning of the tables to stomp around and unleash hell on the enemy.
Piloting a Wanzer is a satisfying turning of the tables.
But of course that’s rare, so without much Wanzer action your only destructive companions are the Molotov cocktails and exploding cans you can lovingly hand-make from crafting materials littering the streets. These craftable gadgets run the gamut from hurlable explosives to mines and traps to medical items to…well, that’s about it, really. And using them to control the battlefield and thin the enemy herd is absolutely essential to survival. The crafting menu is easy enough to use, but it doesn’t pause the action, and it’s complex and time-consuming enough that it’s best accessed in places of cover and complete safety. Trying to access crafting and craftables under fire is difficult and, when the chaos ramps up to its highest points, an absolute pain. The gadget wheels and crafting menus are attached to different buttons for different types of gadgets and inventories, and when I was being forced to dive-roll like I was on fire to avoid actually being set ablaze it was easy to make a mistake, or simply not find the right gadget at all in time to make use of it. I bled to death many times while I attempted to get to the right medical item that would save my life.
All that adds up to a game that’s difficult for the wrong reasons. Plenty of games manage to make being hard endearing, but Left Alive’s impenetrable level of difficulty is due to bad controls (especially on mouse and keyboard – it’s nearly Dark Souls: Prepare to Die Edition bad), subpar combat, and inconsistent stealth instead of the tough but fair challenges of Dark Souls or Metal Gear Solid 2. After dying a dozen times despite getting creative and trying alternate routes and even attempting to just sprint through the entire level (which, in truly stupefying fashion, actually worked once in an early level), all enjoyment is sapped out of a playthrough over time, like energy fleeing a long-distance runner. The tedious trial-and-error process of getting through each chapter becomes a grind and so many of the setbacks feel arbitrary or unfair.
I never quite reached the end, having spent two dozen hours beating my head against the wall before I decided I’d seen enough at chapter 11 of 14. Four separate times, I reached a critical point in a level without having the ammunition or the resources I’d need to clear it. In these instances, I’d have to go back to one of the few allotted save points, no matter how far back that may be, to get through the level more efficiently and possibly with more luck and less technical trouble, to have a fighting chance. It took an inordinate amount of time to beat a particular boss battle because of the lagging framerate and one heartbreakingly ill-timed crash as the cutscene following my victory spooled up. I recommend those who dive into Left Alive start with lighter difficulties because as someone who’s had little trouble getting through any Metal Gear Solid game, or even old-school urban warfare games like Freedom Fighters, Left Alive’s standard setting is a slog to get through.
It can look pretty good, at least, with a fairly homogenous but detailed realization of a modern city and its environments. It runs reasonably well on PlayStation 4, but performs very poorly on PC, even with a GTX 1070 Ti that exceeds the recommended specs. The framerate drops with the visual complexity of the area and the amount of action occurring on screen. These inconsistent stutters oscillated from little blips to full-on FPS nosedives that cost me my life in numerous firefights. Naturally, you can turn down the settings to get a more stable frame rate, but of course, that made it look significantly worse. On top of that, it would occasionally crash out for no reason, taking progress with it thanks to those poorly spaced checkpoints.