Back in 2018, the 3DS was still receiving a slow, but steady trickle of new releases despite the Switch stealing the spotlight with its runaway success. Though many put away the old handheld in favour of bigger and better things, there were still plenty of excellent titles released in this period, one of them being The Alliance Alive. A spiritual sequel (of sorts) to an earlier release called The Legend of Legacy, The Alliance Alive fixed many of the issues of its predecessor while also introducing a host of cool new features to make it one of the best RPGs available for the platform.

Unfortunately, it was also mostly ignored by the gaming community and flew under a lot of radars, so developer Cattle Call opted to upgrade it and bring The Alliance Alive HD Remastered to Switch. Though very little was added for this new release, The Alliance Alive HD Remastered is just as strong and RPG as it was last year, and certainly isn’t one to miss out on a second time.

The story – written by none other than Suikoden’s creator, Yoshitaka Murayama – sets the stage by opening with a cataclysmic event in which the Daemon race conquers the human world and divides it into five regions with a magical barrier called The Great Barrier. Fast forward a thousand years, and Daemons rule over the humans with an iron fist, while humanity has mostly forgotten about the other portions of the world they’ve been walled-off from. It’s a cool premise right from the off, and this is only strengthened by the strong characterization and the passive worldbuilding that’s always taking place.

The Alliance Alive HD Remastered doesn’t follow any single hero directly, as this is a story about the titular alliance coming together to overcome the Daemon regime, and this surprisingly works in the story’s favour. The equal focus on multiple characters allows for a more balanced worldview that shows all the nuances at play. For example, the opening act sees you taking control of two freedom fighters in search of a mythical ship that can traverse the great barrier, while the next act follows a studious girl born of Daemon nobility whose curiosity brings her into the human world.

The contrasting views on offer are interesting, to say the least, and this is only furthered as more characters are added into the mix with their own unique perspectives and stakes in the central conflict. If we were to name one flaw with the storytelling, however, it’s that the lack of voice acting is felt a little more strongly here, exposing the humble 3DS origins of the initial release. In that first release, the lack of voice acting was less noticeable due to the smaller form factor and simpler visuals, but when full-length cutscenes are playing out on the big screen in HD and you’re still reading what everyone is saying via subtitles, it feels odd, to say the least.

As with any RPG, you’re kept on a pretty tight leash in the opening hours, but the training wheels soon come off and reveal that there’s a surprisingly robust open world to be explored at your leisure. Biomes with varied terrains are commonplace here, introducing soft platforming elements and creatively-hidden caves filled with hidden treasures and optional bosses. We rather appreciated this level of more complex level design, as it often takes things a step beyond the standard RPG trope of walking slightly off the beaten path to a retrieve a treasure.

Battle follows standard turn-based rules, which fortunately feel anything but sluggish here. The developers included the options to both put the team on autopilot and to speed up the battle by up to four times, which all but eliminates any sense of grind from constant trash mob encounters. More importantly, though, each battle is wonderfully spiced up by the interesting tactics presented by the Formations system. On either side of the battlefield, there are three ‘lines’ that fighters can occupy, and where they stand in relation to one another will affect things like certain stats and the order in which everyone gets hit. Every character can be placed in one of three roles: Attack, Guard, or Support, and each of these will grant buffs to certain abilities and attacks, bolstered further by that character’s placement on the grid.

What we liked about this system is the surprising amount of flexibility that it offers, bringing to mind the Paradigm system of Final Fantasy XIII. You can set up several different formations in advance via the main menu, and these can be switched on the fly as the situation calls. If, say, an enemy turn results in one of your main DPS units nearly keeling over, you can switch to a different formation that sees them moved to the back for healing while a tank moves to the front to soak damage.

It’s the sort of battle system that practically begs you to toy around with it, and as you come to understand your team and the roles you want each character to fulfil, it becomes quite satisfying to set up formations that make your squad a virtually unstoppable force. We rather liked, too, how The Alliance Alive HD Remastered isn’t one to pull its punches with the difficulty. It’s easy enough to get through if you know what you’re doing, but this is definitely not the sort of game that you can skate through with minimal strategic planning.

Part of this comes down, too, to the rather odd progression system implemented here, dreamed up by SaGa’s Kyoji Koizumi. Much like that classic release, traditional tropes of levelling and progression in RPG’s are turned on their head here in favour of something that pushes the boundaries of what can be done with the format. For starters, almost everyone has access to the full list of eleven weapon types – which sort of act as soft classes – and mastery of each weapon type is slowly progressed via the acquisition of Arts, which act as special moves you can use with that weapon. The kicker is that there’s no discernible rhyme or reason to the pace at which you acquire new Arts, it’s an entirely random process that seems to be expedited somewhat by battling stronger enemies. This randomness extends to stat growth as well, where characters in your party will occasionally see an HP or SP bump at the end of a battle.

Many will no doubt feel uneasy operating under such an unpredictable progression path like this, as it basically makes the overall difficulty something that’s entirely at the mercy of random number generation. Rest assured, however, that the developers were keen to tune this system so it scales nicely with the current content you’re faced with overcoming. Stat gains and new Arts may be totally random, yet we never once felt like our characters were underpowered; the randomness is finely balanced against the challenge. We even grew to prefer this random nature over time, as it adds a certain level of excitement to each battle – even against common trash mobs – because there’s always a chance that one or more of your characters will receive a notable jump.

For those that still want a more traditional RPG experience, the developers have also included some elements that allow you to directly shape the role of each character in your party. Each battle will award Talents to its participants, and these functionally act as skill points you can use to purchase special boons for each character. These mostly take the shape of weapon specializations, such as decreasing the cost of Arts with a particular weapon type or boosting the rate at which you obtain new ones, while others can be used to do things like increasing post-battle drop rates.

Though Talents come in at a pretty brisk rate, it takes quite a few of them to buy a new skill for a character, so it’s key that a lot of thought goes into how you invest this all too limited resource. In addition to this Talent system introducing a soft experience system, Arts can also be leveled up individually according to what role they’re used in the most. Though the level jumps here are also random, we rather liked how this added in even more ‘concrete’ means of defining character roles, as it places emphasis on picking a role for a character and sticking with it.

Beyond the characters in your party, there’s a more generalized progression system implemented in the form of the Guilds. As the manifestation of the titular alliance, each of the five guilds specializes in a different role, such as weapon R&D or recon, and the services they offer will grant special benefits to your party both on and off the battlefield. What we liked about the guilds is how they act as a means of tying together virtually all the disparate elements of The Alliance Alive HD Remastered.

For example, exploration is factored in by how levelling up guilds is dependent upon you finding all the potential sites where a new location can be built, as well as talking to NPCs in towns and villages to staff the new locations. Putting the time in to develop your guilds will then directly lead to some huge benefits in battle, such as cover fire or revealing enemy weaknesses, depending on which guilds you’ve chosen to invest more time and resources into. Guilds are certainly a background mechanic in The Alliance Alive HD Remastered – you could feasibly go through most of the game without paying much attention to them – but we appreciate the additional depth that it adds to pretty much every gameplay element.

From a presentation perspective, The Alliance Alive HD Remastered doesn’t exactly impress, but it certainly satisfies. Each realm is given its own distinctive colour palette and visual style, while the dungeons and enemy designs can sometimes surprise with their visual flair. The handheld game origins are all too evident in the overall world design and the chunky character models, but the developers nonetheless did a fantastic job of redrawing assets in high definition. It looks and feels like the developers did more than the minimum required work for an up-res, although there’s only so much they could do with the base game. The Alliance Alive HD Remastered isn’t the prettiest game for the Switch, but it possesses a consistent enough watercolour-esque art direction that it charms in its own right.

This being an HD re-release, you’re probably wondering what else has been added to sweeten up the pot. The answer is: not a whole lot. Aside from the better detailed textures, fancier menus, and the redrawn character models, this is by and large the same game that you could pick up for your 3DS for around twenty bucks. Whether the upgrade is worth it or not is purely subjective. We would certainly vouch for this Switch edition being the definitive version of Alliance Alive, but those of you that are either financially conscious or have already played through it once on the 3DS may want to stop and think about how much you want to pay for the privilege of playing it on the big screen. Either way, this is a fantastic RPG no matter where you play it, and we’d highly encourage you give it a look one way or the other; just be mindful that this HD re-release is about as straightforward as it gets.

Conclusion

Nearly two years on from its initial release, The Alliance Alive HD Remastered proves to be a perfectly competent port of an already fantastic handheld game. A well-written story, a smartly interwoven and complex system of gameplay mechanics, and a distinctive visual style makes this a no-brainer for anybody looking for a consistently high-quality RPG experience on their Switch. It may feel a little simple, given its origins on the 3DS, but don’t make the mistake of passing up on The Alliance Alive HD Remastered, it’s well worth your time.