So what the heck is Square Enix’s “Left Alive”? (Hands-off gameplay impressions)

Left Alive is an interesting new video game IP from Square Enix that has been shrouded in mystery since its initial reveal during last year’s Tokyo Game Show. All we formerly knew about the game is that it’s some form of survival-based shooter, it has multiple player-controlled protagonists, and it’s set in the Front Mission universe, specifically between the events of the still-unlocalized Front Mission 5: Scars of War, and Front Mission Evolved. Beyond these little nuggets though, very little was publicly known about Left Alive, despite an initially projected 2018 release for Japan (Square Enix has since asserted that the game will be missing that release window, and currently has no specific release plans set), that is, until Square Enix showed off a proper gameplay showcase at this week’s Square Enix Suite Spot event in Toronto, following up from another gameplay demonstration that was recently held at this year’s Gamescom.

Being in attendance at Square Enix’s Suite Spot event once again this year, I was invited to take part in a special presentation for Left Alive, which gave attendees one of their most in-depth looks at the game to currently make its way out of the Square Enix offices. The presentation was hands-off, so no one could actually directly take Left Alive for a test run, sadly, but we did get to see a series of gameplay videos that showed off the PC build of the game, with the product manager on hand to give context to what we were watching. Finally, I, along with several other journalists, would get a chance to get a proper overview on one of Square Enix’s most secretive development efforts of late, and the resulting footage was both undeniably innovative, yet also interestingly familiar in some respects.

First, some background. In Left Alive, players proceed along a singular story campaign set in a hostile warzone, which has them periodically swapping between the three playable characters, none of whom have had their names disclosed at this point, even now. The presentation showed all three characters in action however, one a resourceful young woman, another a hardened, aged bruiser, and the third a courageous young man. The game’s character designs are done by former Metal Gear Solid series artist, Yoji Shinkawa, and that’s immediately noticeable, since any of the protagonists would fit right in with the style of any Metal Gear Solid game, between their heavy, muted clothing, and careful balance between anime-esque personality, along with gritty human presentation throughout their gameplay models. Each character’s mini-preview also represented a different arm of Left Alive’s gameplay, which definitely takes some noticeable inspiration from a few other popular story-based survival games, but still feels like something intriguing and different in its overall package, especially for Front Mission fans!

To give an idea of something familiar that Left Alive is channeling, it definitely feels very reminiscent of Sony’s and Naughty Dog’s mega-hit survival-action game, The Last of Us in terms of its gameplay direction, if The Last of Us took place in a universe full of giant mechs and all-out military carnage, instead of fungus zombies. Like The Last of Us, players must make their way through hostile territory full of dangerous threats, which they can’t always effectively combat, due to limited resources. Another gameplay element that definitely feels very blatantly inspired by The Last of Us is how players can scrounge together resources to craft tools such as enemy sensors, smoke grenades and molotov cocktails (which the female protagonist demonstrated with aplomb), with crafting on the fly and using these tools being essential when it comes to pushing through overwhelming enemy odds. Players do have guns, and there is a very familiar cover-shooting mechanic founding the firefights, but bullets are very rare, and there’s no way you’ll find enough to take out every enemy soldier, or even most of them in many instances!

This is because, as I said, the enemies in Left Alive severely outgun you pretty much all the time. Not only that, but since they’re an invasive force with clearly superior military firepower, they also often wear heavier armour than your character, which makes them even more resistant to just being shot to death. This is why learning how to craft tools like molotov cocktails, which can help to control enemy movement while also causing valuable enemy damage, is paramount to your characters’ survival! The enemy sensors are equally invaluable, since knowing where enemies are placed prevents you from being quickly cut down by bullets as you navigate the tight corners of war-ravaged buildings. Understanding and controlling the environment, as well as the resources that it has to offer, is how you get ahead in Left Alive, so those who have braved the hazardous post-cordyceps apocalypse of The Last of Us, or indeed even the stealthy, resource-scrounging missions of the Metal Gear Solid franchise, will be at a distinct advantage in terms of knowing what they’re up against. In fact, while we saw a more hostile showcase of alert enemies for the female character to fight through, Square Enix did tease that the same sequence could play out very differently if players take a stealthy approach and avoid detection, which is a persistent gameplay option for players who would prefer to conquer their enemies unseen!

This is another element that is at the core of Left Alive in terms of both gameplay and narrative; Choice. Player choice is definitely a popular phrase among larger publishers nowadays, but like, say, Dishonored, or Square Enix’s own Deus Ex games, your choices do have noticeable consequences in terms of how the story plays out, and how gameplay challenges present themselves. This was illustrated twofold with the game’s other player characters. The older, grizzled character was very briefly shown to be at the center of a narrative-driven choice sequence, wherein he attempts to convince a displaced father and daughter duo to join him and make their way to a survivors’ shelter. The father is dismissive and distrusting, and the young woman is scared and overwhelmed. Players have one of three dialogue options that they can select with the face buttons, echoing the efforts of developers like Telltale Games and BioWare, and these choices run the gamut of what you’d expect here, having branching dialogue options that are often split between being more compassionate, more objective, or more aggressive. In the end, the reasoning of the character in the video led to the daughter joining, but the father staying put.

As you can imagine, different dialogue choices could have resulted in the father joining while the daughter stayed, both characters joining, or neither character joining. It would seem prudent to bring as many survivors as possible to the shelter in question (which, as I understand it, is implied to be something of a cross between the survivor shelters of the Dead Rising games and the Mother Base mechanics of Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain), but as with anything else, your choices can have unforeseen consequences. Square Enix even teased in passing that some survivors may not be completely trustworthy in the final game, and you may need to be on your toes in terms of who you try and rescue! It was directly confirmed however that any survivors you successfully rescue will further flesh out the game’s multiple endings (of which there will be good and bad varieties for the player characters, depending on the player’s actions), although, as with the Dead Rising games, the more survivors you try and rescue at once, the more your attention is split, and the more vulnerable you may become.

On this note, it’s also worth pointing out that seeking out survivors can tax your resources, and will almost certainly put you in danger in many instances. The game’s third player character, the young man, was at the center of such a scenario during the presentation, where he discovers a group of civilians being held at gunpoint by enemy soldiers. With limited bullets and armoured, heavily-outfitted foes, the player hesitates as the dialogue plays out, leading to one of the civilians being shot dead. The player then decides to take out the other soldiers, which eats up quite a few bullets and explosives, but he does eventually kill his foes, leading to the survival of the two other men. The dead civilian resulting from player hesitation was certainly a powerful moment, and incidents like this will no doubt lead to intense choices having to be made in a short time, especially if the player is running low on their own means to defend themselves, considering how tough enemies are to kill in Left Alive. You certainly can’t headshot your way to victory with one bullet at a time here! It may be impossible to save everybody in this hopelessly bleak scenario, and there will definitely be heartbreaking situations where you’re forced to leave innocents to their fates, simply because you can’t needlessly endanger yourself in the name of saving them. It’s a tough call, and this weighing of survivors’ lives against your own defenses and survival will probably be one of the most compelling features in the final game.

Of course, it wouldn’t be the Front Mission universe without some mechs showing up for the action, and we did get to see a small snippet of gameplay that demonstrated the mech combat before the presentation closed out. Left Alive’s game director happens to be Armored Core series director, Toshifumi Nabeshima, with the mech designer also being Xenoblade Chronicles X’s Takayuki Nanase, and this, combined with character designer, Yoji Shinkawa’s experience with the Zone of the Enders games, gives Left Alive some of the best mech design pedigree you could ever ask for in a video game! While it was stressed that the Front Mission universe’s mechs, better known as ‘Wanzers’ in this world, are often best avoided and not engaged directly when you’re on foot (Front Mission fans probably know this even from the series’ strategy gaming roots), you can jump into your own Wanzer and occasionally take the fight to enemy Wanzers in style! As with the former Front Mission games, there are varied builds and customization options for Wanzers in Left Alive, with the demonstrated Wanzer being a speedy, agile mech that deftly cut apart its enemies despite its low defenses. There’s still a few questions lingering about exactly how many opportunities players will have to command Wanzers in Left Alive (though allegedly, these moments will be few, with the emphasis being mostly on foot soldier combat), but it was teased that players can steal Wanzers from enemy territory if they’re stealthy enough, and can also customize Wanzers to some degree by stealing parts from enemy Wanzers that they’ve disabled. The mech combat certainly looks as hefty, slick and satisfying as it deserves too overall, complete with the ability to damage and disable individual Wanzer parts to cripple pilots’ capabilities, in a gameplay mechanic that is ripped directly from the Front Mission games!

There’s still a lot we don’t know about Left Alive, especially now that the release date is a firm ‘TBD’ at this point, but it seems like the general idea behind the game is slowly becoming clear. It’s certainly borrowing a few cues from other survival-themed action games like The Last of Us and Dead Rising, and it’s clear that the choice-driven gameplay takes liberal inspiration from consequence-driven narratives like those in Deus Ex, but placing these gameplay hooks into the war-torn world of Front Mission, and bringing them together in a boots-on-the-ground story about the horror and sacrifice of war, and what it means to survive it, feels undeniably fresh and interesting. While I did get confirmation that the game’s PS4 build will be available at retail when it releases, and the game is being envisioned as a full triple-A release as well, not a discounted digital-only title, Square Enix also refused to detail any other story specifics, wouldn’t confirm if there was any online or multiplayer component, and appear to still be keeping quite a few gameplay surprises to themselves for now. I really can’t argue with the potent, heart-wrenching atmosphere that seems to be coming together in Left Alive though, with the oppressively bleak style and choice-driven gameplay going hard at a dark and dramatic survival story that aims to leave a mark on the hearts of players.

It’s certainly a risky endeavour to try and bring together military shooters and survival games, two of the most overdone and played-out genres in modern gaming, but with its apparent focus on choice and narrative-driven single-player gameplay, along with just the right touch of gritty anime influence to go along with the semi-grounded war drama, Left Alive seems like it could be making a surprisingly fresh concoction out of seemingly stale ingredients. We’ll have to see if the game’s story can sustain this promising momentum throughout its entire duration, and not just a handful of highlight sequences, but so far, I think Left Alive has a lot of potential, even if you’re feeling a bit sick of its two core genres. Besides, we’re long overdue for a new Front Mission game as it stands, even if we’re swapping the usual turn-based strategy that defines much of the Front Mission series for more tried-and-true shooting action in this case. At least we still get some of those badass Wanzers to play with though, if you’re skilled enough to swipe them for yourself!

“Left Alive” is in development for PC and PS4