Barring a handful of games, I was admittedly distant from the Nintendo 3DS library — even more so once the Switch released. Even as a fan of JRPGs, the handheld’s bread and butter, I barely paid attention to it since I was already buried under the backlog of my PlayStation Vita. So it goes without saying that when The Alliance Alive released in 2018, a year after the Switch consumed my life, there was little to no chance of me caring at all.
Thankfully, NIS America decided to give the game a second chance by remastering the visuals, balancing the difficulty (ehhh), and popping it on to the wildly popular Switch, PC, and PS4. This review is based on the PS4 version, which was kindly given to me by the game’s publisher last year. I’m late, I know, but hey… here we are.
The aptly-named Alliance Alive is a decently meaty role-playing game with a key focus on uniting guilds and banding together with unlikely allies to thwart a big, bad, world-destroying evil. With an adventurous, exciting narrative and plenty of incentive to grind for hours, it really is a glorious experience filled with memorable characters and a fantastic battle system, and wholly deserves a place in your backlog.
As the story goes, a massive war took place one thousand years ago between daemons and humans that saw the former victorious. As a result, the world was split into various realms by a mystical purple mist called the Dark Current, causing extreme weather in their respectful locations — one being under non-stop rainfall while the others suffer volcanic activity and intense snowstorms. The once-powerful and technologically advanced humans sank to the bottom of the pecking order and the daemons enlisted the help of the bipedal beastfolk, who now keep the humans under their iron thumb.
The Alliance Alive starts off in the rainy city of Svalna, with childhood friends Galil and Azura pondering what it might be like to actually witness a blue sky for once. It’s been a thousand years since once existed, after all. Rumor has it that a nearby museum has a painting on display that depicts not only a blue sky, but also a magical aircraft that could supposedly traverse through the Dark Current. I smell adventure!
Since nothing is ever easy in JRPGs, the museum is guarded by beastfolk troops and its monster-filled exhibits are locked away behind puzzle rooms, but eventually, the two make their way to the fabled painting. It’s everything Azura expected and then some. Their excitement is short-lived, though, as they’re immediately greeted by a daemon general named Grossa who easily dispatches our heroic pair and permanently blinds Azura as punishment. To make matters worse, the beastfolk have discovered the local resistance’s headquarters in Svalna and sets our REAL adventure in motion.
Along the way, Galil and Azura befriend new allies and join forces with the nation’s five guilds — recon, library, signimancy (magic), blacksmith, and tactics — in order to investigate the Dark Current, reinvigorate the planet, and put an end to the oppressive daemonic rule. The guild system appears a bit later in the game, which lets you build towers, recruit NPCs, and unlock some neat stuff, but I didn’t think it was super important. It was a cool idea that I used to unlock some powerful spells for my white mages and increase the number of skill points awarded post-combat, but if this kind of stuff doesn’t interest you, you can probably ignore it.
The game is full of rad characters, though! They’re all unique in terms of their personalities and motivations, playing into the narrative’s mix of serious tones and wild humor.
The duo’s eventually playable friends include:
- Renzo – A childhood friend of Galil and Azura and a fellow member of the Night Ravens resistance group. He excels at unarmed combat and is one of the fastest characters in the game.
- Barbarosa – A beastfolk ally and member of the Night Ravens. His high strength lends itself well to swinging big ass weapons and putting himself into a berserk state.
- Gene – A human scholar trying to maintain his personal alliance to the daemons, only helping the group for his own selfish goals. I found him to be a halfway decent magic user, but a little too slow to be effective. I didn’t use him much unless I had to.
- Rachel – A happy-go-lucky mercenary and friend of Gene, she’ll do anything for money. Rachel was my favorite party member since she was super fast and had the perfect stats to not only wield a bow for long-range damage dealing, but also access super helpful and powerful white magic. By the end of the game she was the cornerstone of my 5-man party, dishing out ridiculously high damage.
- Vivian – A progressive daemon interested in exploring the human realm, Vivian is often aloof and up for anything. Her high endurance stat made her the perfect tank, protecting the entire group behind the comfort of a sturdy shield. She also has access to black magic, though I rarely used it.
- Ignace – A friend of Viviane’s, though not as eager to befriend humans. He’s a decent black mage, but (similar to Gene) his stat growth didn’t make him very effective.
- Tiggy – A kid genius, Tiggy fights inside of her massive duck mech and deals some pretty hefty damage in the game’s first half. She was my 5th spot for a majority of my 30-hour playthrough.
- Robbins – One of the game’s 3 hidden characters, Robbins is a martial arts penguin and my favorite character overall. He only battles with his flippers (making him a permanently unarmed character) and has his own unique set of skills that excel in splash damage and assists the party with the best buff in the entire game. He’s also absolutely hilarious.
- Shiki – Another hidden character, Shiki takes up his massive sword and offers his service to the party later in the game. I liked his look but didn’t find him overly useful since Galil and Barbarosa were always in my group and both wielded greatswords and axes already. Sorry, dude!
- Matilda – The final hidden character, Matilda’s high focus stat makes her an ace with a bow and spear, and a formidable white mage. I’m a sucker for women in armor who use spears, so naturally, she replaced Tiggy as my 5th party member as soon as she became available.
The battle system in The Alliance Alive allows you to equip any weapon class on any character (sans Robbins, obviously) with decent results. Everyone has their own stat growth, which is great for people like me who love to min/max and become overpowered, but if you want to go against the grain and fling black magic with a burly lizardman or soak up damage with toilet paper, the option is there.
This is largely due in part to the game’s approach to “leveling up,” which doesn’t exist in a traditional sense. You don’t kill monsters and earn XP, but rather winning battles has a chance to permanently increase a character’s maximum health and mana pools. It’s all random, but occurs frequently enough that grinding always feels rewarding. Not only do battles tempt you with these invaluable bonuses, but attacking with an equipped weapon is the only way to unlock their respective arts (skills/abilities), which is equally random. Battles also reward you with points that can be allocated into passive abilities that can increase the sell value of items, reduce back attack rates, regenerate skill points during combat, increase the chance of awakening new weapon skills, and raise or lower the amount of threat generated from your attacking position.
With such frequent randomness and valuable rewards, the game’s encounters never overstayed their welcome. I didn’t find The Alliance Alive to be overly grindy at all, but rather I *wanted* to grind in hopes of awakening better weapon skills.
You can use basic RPG tactics and make your way through a majority of the game without succumbing to the grind, but there’s definitely a boss or two that will mix your shit up and send you back to an earlier save. I encountered one such incident in the middle of the game, which caused me to reload a save from three hours prior and spend a few hours grinding battles to increase my health pool. It didn’t help that Alliance Alive committed one of role-playing’s cardinal sins, forcing me to split my entire group into three parties, thus pushing me out of my comfort zone and spreading my “main 5” too thin. Even knowing this on my second trip around, I was still utterly decimated by the same boss a few more times before finally putting them down.
It was such an absurd difficulty spike that it made me put my controller down for the night, but after sleeping it off I remembered how much I enjoyed the story, the characters, the beautiful hand-drawn visuals, the music, and the engaging battle system, and eventually talked myself into grinding for a few more hours the very next day. Thankfully there are tokens you can collect in-game that allow you to retry or flee from tough encounters, but this specific boss battle used up all 20 I had stored away. There was just not way around it — I either reloaded an earlier save and grinded out a bunch of random health boosts, or I gave up nearly 20 hours in and played something else. I regret nothing, though. I absolutely LOVED this game.
The developer’s previous game, The Legend of Legacy, apparently helped shape The Alliance Alive based on fan feedback. I’ve never played that one myself, so I can’t speak to their similarities.
There’s a bit of a powerhouse team that worked on this one, though. The scenario was written by Yoshitaka Murayama of Suikoden fame, the music was composed by Final Fantasy XIII’s Masashi Hamauzu (one of my favorite soundtracks of ALL TIME!), and it was directed by SaGa Frontier 2’s Kyoji Koizumi. Ryo Hirao, who handled the 3DS version’s art duties returns as well for the remastered visuals, which are absolutely stunning.
All in all, The Alliance Alive very much feels like a natural progression from the SNES era of role-playing games. It’s equal parts adventure and narrative, while also focusing heavily on battle customization in a way that almost feels like a Romancing SaGa title.
I had a great time traveling the world, building up the various guilds and unlocking new abilities, and had just as much fun recruiting the optional characters, gushing about the visuals on Twitter, and finally overcoming the odds in the final encounter to roll the credits. There’s a New Game+ option if that’s your jam, and returning players can opt to skip cutscenes (as well as pause and replay them) and increase battle animation speeds to dull the sting of grinding.
I honestly can’t recommend The Alliance Alive HD Remastered enough if you’re a JRPG fan who missed out on this fantastic adventure that unfortunately released during the 3DS’s dying breath. I’m not the rating type, but this game is about as good as it gets if you want a modernized 16-bit throwback.
This review only covers my experience with the PS4 release. It is also available on the Nintendo Switch ($49.99, same as PS4) and on PC via Steam ($39.99, requires a controller to play). A digital copy of The Alliance Alive HD Remastered was provided by the publisher for the purpose of this review. Hopefully, you found the bulk of this review helpful, at least more so than an arbitrary score or a sequence of shaded-in star shapes. If you have any questions about the game that weren’t answered here, leave a comment below and I’ll do my best to answer it.