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The Alliance Alive HD Remastered Switch Review

Whether by design or circumstance, the Nintendo Switch has become an incredible machine for playing RPGs, thanks largely to convenience; the convenience of being able to switch between docked and portable play, the convenience of putting the console to sleep at any point and resume right where the game was last left off, not to mention a number of excellent retro controllers both official (the recently released SNES controllers that are exclusive to Nintendo Switch Online members) and unofficial (the fantastic wireless replica controllers by 8BitDo, including a hybrid controller that combines the buttons and form factor of the original SNES controller with added analog sticks, vibration and other modern features).

Consequently, the Switch’s library of RPGs continues to grow at an unbelievably rapid pace, with the console playing host to all sorts of recent and retro classics including almost half of the Final Fantasy series, the first three Dragon Quest games in addition to an expanded port of its recent eleventh entry, and plenty of exclusive new time-sinkers such as Xenoblade Chronicles 2, Octopath Traveler and Fire Emblem: Three Houses. Even The Witcher III managed to squeeze its ludicrously massive experience and its DLC into the tiny Switch cartridge, albeit with some graphical compromises.

It should be no surprise then that the Switch would also be seeing ports of previously-exclusive 3DS games as well, as the former is more or less the successor to Nintendo’s current handheld (if not officially, then certainly financially). The Alliance Alive was originally released on the 3DS in 2018, developed by Cattle Call and published by NIS America for the West (Atlus USA previously handled the distribution of the 3DS original). The developer may not be as widely known as RPG juggernaut Square Enix, but they’ve still dabbled in classic JRPGs all the same and have enlisted a few additional RPG heavyweights for their latest project (including Suikoden scenario writer Yoshitaka Murayama and Final Fantasy XIII composer Masashi Hamauzu). The original game received cult praise for its plentiful RPG mechanics, and is now looking to make a more impactful 2nd impression (and profit) with its HD remaster.

The story of Alliance is like a hodgepodge of several RPG tropes mixed into one, yet somehow is more straightforward than such a convoluted concept may take; a race of powerful entities known as Daemons have fractured the world of humanity into several isolated realms, each area forced into serving their inhuman oppressors. While most of mankind remains subservient, there exist several rebellious factions that risk life and limb to discover an ancient technology to help them strike back at the Daemons. This includes fresh-faced recruits Gallil and Azura, who manage to unearth a massive ship called the Ark which allows them to travel between the other realms, eventually forming an alliance (that one assumes is also “alive”) of various people, human or otherwise, that have banded together with the singular goal of destroying the magical barriers that have fractured their world.

The cast of characters is nothing special, just the usual mixed bag of familiar JRPG/anime tropes, but what they lack in quality make up for in quantity; while not even making up a third of the hundred-plus party members in every entry of the Suikoden series, The Alliance Alive features a dozen characters with unique designs and customizable abilities while keeping up an adequate amount of banter between them…what they lack in complexity, they make up for in quaintness.

The real complexity lies in the numerous gameplay systems that make up the game, far more than most modern RPGs tend to feature. The layout of the battle system is the typical turn-based style that is most common with JRPGs: engaging with enemies on the field lead to a transitioning battle screen where each character selects a command from the menu, including standard attacks, spells, items and so on. That’s where the similarities end, however, and the divergence starts with how characters level up: instead of gaining levels that automatically raise their stats, characters instead raise their individual parameters based on completing certain actions during battle: taking damage during fights may yield an increase for that character’s HP, performing actions that use SP may raise their SP cap, while the actions themselves can also grow stronger by leveling up their ATK value, and so on. If this leveling concept sounds familiar for hardcore JRPG players, it all comes courtesy of main designer Kyoji Koizumi, who implemented a similar system with the Saga series as well as innovating the concept as far back as Final Fantasy II. While this style of RPG gameplay has received its fair share of criticism, particularly in FFII’s case for being imbalanced and over-reliance on obtuse grinding (including having to manually attack one’s own party members in order to increase their HP), the stat progression feels much more natural in The Alliance Alive, seldom requiring the need to grind.

This is largely thanks to some of the game’s more streamlined features, including full restoration of HP after every battle, not to mention being able to dish out certain powerful attacks at no SP cost courtesy of the Talents system (more on that below). The catch, however, is that should a party member fall in battle, their maximum HP decreases with every defeat. While everyone’s HP cap can be restored to normal by resting in an Inn, this penalty can prove cumbersome while traversing a lengthy dungeon or area before reaching the next rest point. This is why it becomes crucial for players to keep note of their party’s formation and position when facing stronger foes.

Speaking of which, buckle up readers: this is where things get REALLY complex. With every four-person team, players must choose a formation for the characters, which essentially refers to their row on the grid as well as their role on the battlefield. A character placed in the front, for example, will have stronger attack strength but is susceptible to more enemy attacks, while a character in the back will have more potent support abilities (such as healing spells) at the cost of weaker offensive ones. In laymen’s terms, this is essentially deciding who should be the tank, healer, damage-dealer and so on, while “Position” refers to leveling up each person’s designated role as they continue to fulfill them: continuing to keep someone in the back row for support will level up their support abilities, while characters keeping the offensive in the front will gain stronger attacks. It’s a lot to take in at first, but fortunately players can create and store pre-made formations before entering battle, and can even switch between them while fighting should the need arise.

An easier mechanic to grasp, but no less essential for victory, revolves around Talents, which refer to a character’s proficiency with their equipped weapon of choice. Any character can wield any weapon, from swords to spears, and can unlock the weapon’s abilities while using them in battle. This process occurs randomly, where a standard attack swing will automatically change into the newest (and often deadlier) ability. By spending Talent Points (TP) which are earned after battle, players can unlock a character’s proficiency with each weapon (or improve other passive bonuses like sneaking around enemies on the field or getting better prices while shopping), meaning that SP-costing attacks can be halved or even rendered free. TP can also be used to increase the rate in which new weapon attacks are unlocked. Spells also factor into this system, though they must be bought and learned while visiting shops and/or NPCs, plus that character must have a weapon equipped with a Sigil in order to even cast the spell…unless they come from a race of magically-gifted beings, but that’s a whole other can of worms.

If all these systems and mechanics become too much to keep track of, there’s always the “nuke” option, otherwise known as “Ignition”. During an extended battle, typically against a boss, players may enter the Ignition state, which is a temporary power-boost that gives party members the chance to unleash a Final Attack. Each equipped weapon can deliver different effects, but they all serve the same fundamental purpose: hitting hard. Very, very hard. Maximum damage that can instantly vaporize a foe, at the cost of breaking the equipped weapon and rendering all attacks unusable. Fortunately, all broken weapons can be repaired by visiting a Blacksmith Guild, with the more-convenient option of instantly repairing weapons wherever the party rests once certain conditions are met. Oh yeah, there are also Guilds in the game, as if there weren’t enough mechanics to keep track of, but this one is pretty self-explanatory: earning the trust of a Guild allows for more useful features to be unlocked, including new gear, spells, and even support during battle (such as random attacks on the enemy and buffs for the party).

There are probably half a dozen more mechanics that will need to be sidelined in order to move on with this review, but the overall gist is that The Alliance Alive offers a substantial amount of classic RPG features (or slight variations thereof) that will undoubtedly serve as catnip for fans looking to sink their teeth into. The good news is that the game drip-feeds all these features so as not to overwhelm newbies from the start…the bad news is that the drips are drip-fed even more. In order to properly set up the story, the game spends its beginning hours focusing on the perspectives of several prominent characters across the different realms, until everyone eventually comes together and forms the titular Alliance. The problem is that for a good ten or so hours, the game’s difficulty is completely trivial, and thus proves rather tedious. Most of the encounters during this “tutorial phase” can be dispatched almost with a single attack, save for a couple of optional bosses that put up a considerably tougher fight. Fortunately, the game does feature several speed toggles as well as an auto-attack, two conveniences that every turn-based RPG should have going forward. Unfortunately, this game also lacks a couple of other modern conveniences including fast travel (save for instantly traveling between realms, one unlocked) and a more detailed world map. While hardly the biggest world out there, expect long stretches of moving the character across repetitive-looking locations in the world map and many pointless random encounters in-between.

Being a 3DS game originally, The Alliance Alive won’t impress much in the visuals department; the HD coat of paint is more or less the same kind of results one could achieve with a PC emulator. That being said, there is a unique charm to the PS2-era quality of the visuals, and is perfectly serviceable both on a big TV and in portable form. One can only hope this paves the way for more 3DS titles to make a similar leap, especially the two entries in the Bravely Default series. The only minor gripe is that certain UI elements, particularly the mini-map, take up too much of the screen instead of being properly formatted for the HD re-release. The game also features no voice acting of any kind, which wouldn’t be an issue at all depending who you ask, but it also means that certain key cutscenes will require a bit of speed reading in order to catch all of the automated text.

For better or worse, The Alliance Alive is the very definition of a mid-tier RPG. The visuals and story fall under the line of “good enough” that they don’t necessarily have to aim for greater heights, while the content is practically bursting with customizable features and mechanics that  will drive stat-lovers into a joyous frenzy, even though the time it takes to reach to the juicy center is a bit on the long side. It’s an overall solid experience and yet another badge to pin on the Nintendo Switch for its outstanding service of the RPG genre.

7 out of 10