A Retro Gem Lives Up To 28 Years Of Hype
Review: Live A Live
In 1994, Live A Live was released for the Super Famicom (the Japanese version of the Super Nintendo). This ambitious role-playing game saw players flitting between eight loosely interconnected stories, effectively bundling together several mini-RPGs that eventually fit together into something bigger. But as exciting and innovative as it was, Live A Live was also a flop, underselling and ensuring that an official English release didn’t happen – until now.
Over the years, Live A Live has become an object of legend, but only in niche circles: until this Nintendo Switch remake was announced, only the most diehard Nintendo fans knew about it. But now the game has been brought to a new audience with all of its original charm intact. The remake, while visually enhanced and improved in several ways, is also very faithful to the original in terms of both story and gameplay. It trns out that the folks who have been talking it up as a lost classic were right: we’ve been missing something special this whole time. Live A Live is an extremely inventive, exciting RPG that still feels fresh and original in 2022.
Upon starting Live A Live, players are free to choose from seven different characters and time periods to play through, each with their own gimmick (two further adventures are unlocked after these initial seven are completed, too). The game jumps between different time zones and characters, spanning the distant past to the distant future.
The prehistoric levels, set before written language, sees characters communicate to each other through grunts and groans; on the other end of the time scale, the far-future levels casts you as an android in a mission with only one combat encounter, which plays like a narrative game with slight stealth elements and a deep love for Ridley Scott’s movie Alien. Everything in between spans from mid-to-late Imperial China through to a 1994 idea of the “near-future” (think robots and psychic powers). While most RPGs are sprawling epics, Live A Live is more akin to a collection of fun, clever novellas. Something new is always right around the corner.
Every section and era feels fresh and unique, and while they all share the same combat system, they vary in length, tone, and setting. In Imperial China, players must train and then choose a new follower for a Grand Master, whereas in Edo-era Japan, players are cast as a shinobi who can sneak through a castle to rescue an envoy, committing to a no-kill run if they so choose; the Old West is a clever spin on Seven Samurai with a cool time-based gameplay gimmick, while the unlockable Medieval period effectively skews the classic hero’s journey.
Some levels are less successful than others – the comical near-future chapter is meandering, and the present day is just a series of fights without much connective tissue – but it’s rare that any part of the game outstays its welcome. For an RPG, Live A Live is short – about 25 hours, which ends up being an ideal length for the experience offered. Nothing is stretched out here – grinding through battles to gain levels is kept to a minimum until very late in the game, cutscenes are rarely longer than a minute or two, and maps are small enough that backtracking never takes long.
The one thing each era shares is its fun combat system. Each character is able to move around a grid during combat and perform actions in line with a timer under their health bar, which moves faster for some characters and attacks than others. The key is to maneuver your characters on the grid so that you can use the attack you wish you – whether that’s close to an enemy, far away and diagonal, or right in the middle of them so you can launch a big area-of-effect attack – and do the math on whether your attack’s timing will let it launch before the enemy moves or interrupts. It’s less complicated than it sounds, and makes for interesting, strategic battles – for the most part. Because players can start at any point, each chapter has a gentle learning curve, and it’s easy to overlevel and make non-boss combat feel trivial, which can make the final push of several sections more dull than would be ideal.
The game has been remade with Square’s excellent “HD 2D” visual style, pioneered by 2018’s Octopath Traveler but much improved upon here. While the blocky character models can be difficult to read at times, the environments you’re exploring are frequently stunning, with great use of colour and a sense of style that wonderfully updates the original game’s graphics. Live A Live still feels like a SNES RPG, but updated for modern sensibilities.
Live A Live may be a retro throwback, but it stands up against – and improves upon – most modern RPGs. The game’s director, Takashi Tokita, would go on to co-direct Chrono Trigger, another extraordinary 90s RPG about time-travel, that was much more warmly received (and is still perhaps the genre’s best). If we could go back in time to 1994 and make Live A Live the mega-hit it deserved to be, it could well have changed RPGs forever.
Live A Live is available exclusively on Nintendo Switch.
James O’Connor has been reviewing and writing about games since 2008.