Live A Live Review: An Unlikely Revival
When I get invested in something, I have a tendency to obsess over it. That means when I really started getting into RPGs in the mid to late 90s, I spent hundreds of hours online learning about every major RPG that had come out over the last decade. Squaresoft’s run on the SNES was already the stuff of legend, with games like Final Fantasy 6, Chrono Trigger, and Secret of Mana looming large over the genre. I quickly learned, though, that there were a ton of interesting RPGs that never saw a US release. Games like Romancing SaGa, Front Mission, Seiken Densetsu 3 (now known as Trials of Mana), Bahamut Lagoon, and Live A Live.
Over the years, as Square Enix looks for opportunities to make use of their back catalog, most of those games have found a way to reach the west in some form or another. Most of the rest have received fan translations which have allowed some access to die-hard fans. Live A Live has had one for years, but without being tied to a major franchise and with so many great RPGs out there, it was always going to have trouble reaching a broad audience. I’d never previously played it myself. That was a mistake, because while it has some flaws, Live A Live holds up as a fascinating RPG that feels surprisingly modern in many ways. Those checking it out for the first time on Nintendo Switch are in for a treat.
Unlike so many other RPGs, Live A Live doesn’t start with a giant story spanning dozens of hours. Instead, you’re invited to pick between seven different scenarios, each headlined by a different character over a wide range of time periods. The earliest is set in prehistory, at a time so ancient that language didn’t even exist yet. The latest is set in the distant future, on an isolated starship drifting through space.
Each of these scenarios has similarities, like the game’s grid-based combat system. Major differences, however, set them apart, and for a long time, it’s easy to see Live A Live more as a collection of mini RPGs than as a whole. How long these scenarios last varies drastically. A couple of them can be completed in well under an hour. Others will take three to five hours, depending on how you approach them. Any of them would feel a bit slight if released on their own, but as an overall collection, they offer a pretty excellent value.
Blast From The Past
To give you an idea of how varied these are, let’s go through the scenarios. Prehistory has you playing as Pogo, a young man in a tribe from before language existed. That means the story is basically told with the 16-bit version of emoji. It works better than it probably should, and the world you get to explore is a lot of fun. Pogo can use his sense of smell to make enemy locations show up on the screen, turning what would otherwise seem like random battles into something more modern. A crafting system that lets you build equipment also stands out here. Other than this, though, the chapter plays as a fairly standard RPG. It’s fun enough, but I did long for something perhaps a bit deeper.
Imperial China provides that. The Earthen Heart Shifu, a master of the martial arts, is nearing the end of his days and realizes that if he dies, there will be no one to carry on in his place. He sets out to train a replacement. This chapter stands out because the master does not get experience or level up. He’s already reached the peak of his talents. Instead, you recruit three potential successors and train them up, ultimately picking which one you want as a successor. It’s a very cool twist, and the character you choose will ultimately matter. It also has the only potential female main character in the game as one of your potential disciples.
The Twilight of Edo Japan is perhaps the most involved chapter in the game. Oboromaru is a ninja in the Edo period who has been given the task of rescuing a captive being held by a dangerous lord. You’ll have to assault a heavily guarded castle tearing through dozens of enemies as the chapter tracks how many souls you’ve killed. Or you can sneak through the castle using a stealth mechanic to avoid combat and try to get a no-kill run. Both options are available, and the area is large enough with items you need to find to move forward in a way reminiscent of Metroidvania games. It’s a very cool take on the RPG.
The Modern World
The Wild West chapter is my favorite as the Sundown Kid walks into a town he’s wanted in, only to soon find that bandits are on their way to wreck the place. He joins up with the villagers, who are ready to take any help they can get. Most of the chapter is set building traps for the coming bandits, and assigning roles to various villagers to get them set up in time. It’s wildly unique and actually a lot of fun to mess around with. It’s also one of the shorter chapters.
The Present Day chapter has you playing as Masaru, a martial artist who has trained to be the best in the world and plans to take down all the other masters, learning their secrets in the process. Instead of providing a world to explore, you pick your battles from a character select screen right out of a fighting game. While combat still uses the battle system from the rest of the game, you don’t level up. Instead, you learn the moves that your opponents do to you, assuming you survive them. It’s a cool twist, and I liked making sure I had learned everything before moving on. The cast of masters you have to take down is very creative, including a wrestler clearly modeled after a larger-than-life figure from 90s wrestling. Oh brother.
Into The Future
The Near Future chapter is a little more of a standard RPG, starring an orphan named Akira. The biggest twist here is that you can read the minds of all the characters around you, which is used prominently in the chapter’s puzzles. Oh, and there’s a giant mech involved. There is that. This is another of my favorite chapters due to the huge personality of the cast and what is perhaps the best ending to any of these chapters.
Ending things, the Distant Future chapter has you playing a recently created robot named Cube on a transport spaceship hauling a strange creature to another location for study. Things start to get weird early on, and while this is a more dialogue-focused section than most, you eventually have to sneak around the ship in a way that will make Alien fans very happy.
Bringing It All Together
There’s no chapter that I didn’t enjoy. Jumping between so many gameplay styles keeps everything feeling fresh and had me excited to see what was going to happen. That they share a combat system provides some cohesion, even if the wildly different characters mean you’ll need to vary how you approach combat in different areas. You can almost always avoid combat if you want to as well, keeping things moving along at the pace you want.
The soundtrack to Live A Live is impressive, giving each area its own personality. I also think this is Square-Enix’s best use of the HD-2D style yet, with unique graphical effects and some great use of scale showing that they’re truly starting to master what they can do with this after using it for several games.
If I have one major complaint, it’s that Live A Live doesn’t quite nail the ending. After completing all seven of the initial chapters, you’ll have a few more areas of the game to explore. While these areas of the game aren’t bad, a game which up until that point is so experimental and interesting becomes far more generic. That was probably necessary considering what these final chapters are trying to do, but truly random battles with a far too high encounter rate don’t help, and it felt like a lot more grinding was necessary at this point than at any other point in the game. You want to be excited to finish a game, but with Live A Live, the excitement I felt so strongly early on gave way to wanting things to be over.
It’s hard for me to fault Live A Live too harshly for its ending, though. I’d have been perfectly satisfied if it had simply been seven separate stories, and each of these is well worth playing through even after all these years. There’s so much creativity and joy present that anyone interested in class RPGs owes it to themselves to give it a try.
Final Verdict: 4/5
Available on: Switch (Reviewed); Publisher: Nintendo; Developer: Square Enix; Players: 1; Released: July 22nd, 2022; ESRB: T for Teen; MSRP: $49.99
Full disclosure: This review is based on a retail copy of Live A Live.