Left Alive, the new game by Square Enix, sounds amazing. It mixes intense sneaking and massive robot battles, and if that doesn’t sound familiar enough, it even has art from Metal Gear’s Yoji Shinkawa to drive the point home. But the reality is less impressive than the concept. Left Alive is a clunky disaster whose good ideas are undercut by horrible gameplay.
It’s hard to know where to even begin talking about Left Alive, which is out now for PC and Playstation 4. Conceptually, it’s exactly the sort of game I’d want to play. Set in the universe of Square Enix’s mecha strategy series Front Mission, and directed by Armored Core veteran Toshifumi Nabeshima, it focuses on a war between two fictional European nations. The conflict is exacerbated by the use of giant robots called Wanzers, who leave devastation in their wake.
You leap between the perspectives of multiple characters, including a shot-down mech pilot and a canny police detective whose investigation is complicated by the war’s outbreak. The goal is to survive in the middle of the growing warzone, avoiding enemy patrols and creating improvised weapons to use when you can’t avoid combat. The mood is intense, with fire-bombed cities and desperate survivors struggling to last even one more day in the wreckage.
The promise of this concept falls apart when you actually play Left Alive. There are cool ideas here: scrounging items to craft makeshift weapons, guiding survivors to safe houses, and figuring out the best way to take down enemy mechs when the time comes. But playing Left Alive feels like traveling back in time by about a decade. The controls are stiff, aiming and firing weapons is both sluggish and lacking in any sense of impact, and the difficulty curve is so profoundly steep that you’ll replay segments dozens of times before succeeding. Left Alive is a brutal and often unenjoyable experience. The difficulty comes less from the encounter design and more from wrestling with controls that don’t always register, enemies who perceive you far too easily, and a horrendous checkpoint system. Fail, and you can lose 10 or 15 minutes of progress. And you’re going to fail. A lot.
In spite of this, I am utterly drawn to Left Alive in way I’ve not been for some time. I can see the individual pieces that could make up a good experience and, in flashes, everything seems to come together. I’ll scavenge for parts—lifted from the corpses of fallen players, added asynchronously to my playthrough—and manage to take down an enemy checkpoint. I’ll sneak by a patrol and climb into the cockpit of an unattended Wanzer for a brief but explosive moment of triumph, rockets blazing and enemy mechs crumpling before me. These moments point towards something astounding, but the parts never add up to a satisfactory whole.
If you look at Left Alive’s user reviews on Steam, the ranking is currently “very negative.” Concerns focus on the rough gameplay but also mention a buggy PC version. I’ve not run into any problems of my own playing on the PC, though it might be best to check out the PlayStation 4 version if you’re curious. Still, I can’t begrudge anyone who left a negative review for this game. It’s a mess. Yes, I want to examine every piece of that mess, but that’s just the type of gamer I am.
Folks expecting smooth stealth and killer mech fights are going to be disappointed. Left Alive is not going to deliver them. It’s a shame. Left Alive drips with style and mood. If you poke and prod, you might see a tiny glimpse of what it could have been. I want to play all of Left Alive, but I’ll do it knowing that I’m wading through a junkpile of a game.