History Lesson: Live A Live was released by Square in September 1994, between Final Fantasy 6 and Chrono Trigger. And while it may be just as important in gaming history as those classics, the game has never appeared outside of Japan.
So the western audience was never able to play the game, besides fan subtitles, it also didn’t have an English version. So it’s one of the lesser known JRPGs, although the Live A Live effect can be felt everywhere, even now. From Chrono Trigger to more modern games like Undertale, 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim or Octopath Traveler, they all drew inspiration from this forgotten gem.
But hey, you won’t know it until you turn it on, and thanks to a remake you can finally. The first thing new players will notice is how incredibly new this twenty-year-old game looks. This is not only because of the new look, but mainly because of the special design that still works amazingly well.
Live A Live consists of seven separate stories that seem unrelated to each other. They are set in many different eras and environments, from prehistoric times to the Wild West and the distant future. They all give an amazing twist to the genre, with great gameplay mechanics or interesting forms of storytelling.
In the Wild West, for example, you play as a cowboy who has to save a small village from a group of thieves who come to smash everything the next morning. You can never defeat all the enemies on your own, but you have until dawn to enlist the help of the inhabitants and set all kinds of traps. Give the man a shovel, and he digs a hole for a horse to fall into. The more traps you succeed in setting, the fewer opponents you will face at the end.
Or how about a prehistoric class, where language has not yet been invented, and the whole story is told without the use of a word? It’s funny to see how the characters communicate with each other, especially cleverly how well you make sense of the story.
Perhaps one of the nicest twists on the boring genre is that all of those chapters last an average of an hour or two. Live A Live uses its time very efficiently and does not complete a story that is too long. So you’ll have completed the whole game in about twenty hours, which is sometimes a good thing for a JRPG.
This also helps mask the fact that not every chapter is thrown well. A story about an ancient martial artist looking for a successor begins to emerge even in these two small hours, because you have to beat each candidate several times. Storming a castle in ancient Japan also became boring, because sometimes this castle is a frustrating maze.
Fortunately, Live A Live is always a joy to watch. The special ‘HD-2D’ style, previously done by Square Enix with Octopath Traveler lighting and Triangle Strategy, shines again here. Pixel-perfect pixels and beautiful backgrounds, which get a bit blurry when the camera isn’t focused on them, splash around on the screen.
The soundtrack is also worth mentioning, as it belongs to one of the classics of the genre. Music has to do a lot of work, because every season and era needs a different feel. In the Wild West, you get a western background, but in ancient Japan, more traditional notes are hit. It is a very diverse music menu which always manages to capture the right atmosphere.
Seven separate stories, is that all? No, Live A Live has some surprises in store to unlock the game. Without revealing much, everything comes together in a special way and there are multiple endings to unlock. After experiencing all these individual chapters, the end of Live A Live is a very memorable tour that thinks a few steps more than you’d expect.
It’s a shame that in recent chapters random encounters have been taken out of the closet, a kind of cliché that the rest of the game manages to avoid with great skill. The danger of a random battle that could start at any moment prevents you from exploring the beautiful environments further. It takes a very long time, and completely knocks out the pace of the game. This is something that should have been addressed in a remake.
In that piece it becomes painfully clear that the combat system is not exactly of the highest standard. Your characters are on a grid, and they have a bar that fills up to indicate when their turn is. Enemies have the same bar, so you can always tell if you’re about to get attacked. You can walk freely across the net, but each movement makes time pass a little, thus also filling your opponent’s bar.
It’s a nice idea in itself, but it never gets too difficult, precisely because you can always see when danger is imminent. For most chapters, the game gets away with it just fine, with combat usually not being the main focus of the game. But in those last few hours, the fun of fighting disappears due to the multitude of confrontations. This is where you really start to feel the age of the game.
It still, in the end, feels like a particularly refreshing JRPG. With so many successful trials and new angles of the genre and perfect length, Live A Live is almost twenty years old almost unnoticed. In many ways, it looks a lot more modern than its peers now appearing. This remake is recommended not only for its main role in the history of the genre, but also for anyone who has a warm heart for Japanese RPGs.
Live A Live is now available on Nintendo Switch.