Playing The Alliance Alive is a lot like getting into a time machine and returning to 1997, as it feels a lot like an RPG from that era. For those younger than myself, I'm specifically referring to a time where JRPGs such as Final Fantasy 7, The Legend of Dragoon and Xenogears reigned supreme. If the graphics of Alliance Alive were downgraded to polygons and shaders, then it would fit right in there with those titles. However, it also falls prey to many of the faults the games of the era had as well.
The Alliance Alive takes place in a world with an interesting background. Without going into spoilers, one day humanity was shuttered when a race of interdimensional beings, known as Daemons, invaded the world. These creatures are less inspired by fallen angles and are more like a hodgepodge of various fantasy races merged together. The Daemons split the world and the sky apart using a powerful force known as The Dark Current to keep each continent separated from one another. It's been so long that these continents each believe they are their own worlds, and rumors of other continents are simply thought of to be legends and fairy tales. The Daemons and their army of lesser cohorts known as Beastfolk, brutally oppress the few remaining humans through intensive taxing and class systems, effectively subjugating them into near slavery. But as any RPG player knows, you can't keep humans down for long.
Enter the main plot, which follows the human resistance trying to overthrow their Daemon overlords and reclaim their dignity and the world. The game has a large cast of nine protagonists (with three extra to find and recruit), gathered in groups which are separated on different continents and following their own separate stories. It goes without saying that eventually these groups will meet up. So, you will start off with small teams of three to four at first before everyone is united, needing you to pick your main party of five playable characters out of the whole cast. Ultimately, this means you'll likely never use any of the other characters ever again.
Herein lies my primary problem. The game's cast is so large that the characters feel hollow. They are defined by one or two sole characteristics or personality traits, and most don't receive any fleshing out at all. This is a major issue that most RPGs with ensemble casts suffer from, but it's especially present in The Alliance Alive. I would have much preferred a small group of highly developed characters than a huge cast of shallow archetypes. All of the characters are bright and cheerful despite the dark and oppressive circumstances they find themselves in that it just feels unfitting. One such problem is when of the characters looses eyesight very early in the game (during the intro segment) and it's treated like it is not a big deal. She remains cheerful, and the blindness is just dropped as a plot point. Other characters suffer terrible fates, but nothing feels like it phases the happy mood of the party. This all bothered me perhaps more than it should have.
The story is pretty much by the book. The tone is dark, something I can appreciate, but nothing is very surprising or shocking. I would say that it's all fairly underwhelming despite the great world building. I will admit, though, that The Alliance Alive really does a phenomenal job with making its world feel real. The game oozes desperation at every seam, which is even worse when the characters are as hollow as they are and the story generic.
Fortunately, despite these flaws, the gameplay itself is fun. The game has large world maps which the characters travel across, like in Final Fantasies 7, 8 and 9. But unlike those games, all of the monsters are visible on the world map and combat can be avoided by dodging enemies on the map. This way the game feels more like an earlier entry in the Tales series., and it's very refreshing. I have always detested random encounters.
Speaking of battles, they have a few tweaks that I also appreciate. For one thing, unless you chain battles together (by touching multiple enemies on the map at once), your health and magic (represented here by SP - Special Points) reset. This makes combat less of an endurance run through long dungeons and makes each battle feel more like a sprint. Another function I liked is the inclusion of an auto-battle function and speed options. With the tap of a button, you can instantly steamroll through enemies which are weaker than you. It tremendously helps to reduce the tedium.
Also, characters don't have a traditional level system. After battles, you occasionally gain extra health points and SP, and accumulate TP (talent points) which can be spent on combat enhancements. For example, you may have one character specialize in swords. You can use TP to buy new sword talents, increase their durability, or unlock other bonuses. In this way, each character is customizable to a degree that you can really feel. The further you progress, the more specialized you can make your party. Specializations occur mostly in weapons type. For example, would you like to specialize in the quick and nimble short sword or the slow and powerful great sword? Any character can use and specialize in any weapon, but some characters are better than others to use certain weapons.
New attacks are learned during battle. A character will suddenly adopt a new attack mid-combat and be able to use it from them on at any time. A huge drawback to this is that the system behind what triggers learning new attacks, or gaining more HP and SP, are not transparent at all. I never fully understood it, as it seemed to happen randomly. In one battle during an unusually hard fight, I learned an attack and ultimately failed. The game thankfully allows you to retry battles (a godsend all RPGs should have in my opinion) and on the second go around I learned an entirely different attack during a different phase of the battle. It's very frustrating at times, but ultimately it isn't a very big deal since you still mostly learn new attacks at a reliable rate anyway.
On the topic of frustrating battles, they are thankfully few and far between. The vast majority of The Alliance Alive is very easy. You will simply steamroll over 90% of the enemies. The bosses are hit and miss. Some are wimps, while some are so ungodly difficult that a few hours of grinding may be required to beat them. The combat balance seemed to be bit out of sync as a result.
Visually, the game looks nice. It really shows off the 3DS hardware to its fullest extent. However, I didn't enjoy the art style, which is a fusion of "chibi" and more traditional graphics. The characters have huge heads, pointy feet, tiny bodies, and expressive features. I know it's a subjective thing, but I just didn't like it. In terms of sound, the music is adequate but it lacks a feeling of epicness. It's very dour and sad, as would seem appropriate for such a downtrodden setting, but again this clashes with the characters being disconectedly cheerful.
Overall, The Alliance Alive is a solid RPG with a lot of flaws (generic characters and story) but balanced with a lot of strong points too (fun gameplay and combat). Despite its annoying shortcomings, the game can be recommended to anyone looking for an RPG that plays like it's straight from the golden era, complete with much of the good, and much of the bad, from those games.