All gamers of a certain vintage have their favorite 16-bit JRPGs, but unless you’re seriously into importing or the fan translation scene, there are still some classics of that era that you probably haven’t played. Live A Live was originally released on the SNES back in 1994, but Square apparently figured its ambitious history-spanning tale was too much for Western audiences at the time (or perhaps they were simply too busy localizing games like Final Fantasy VI and Chrono Trigger). Live A Live would eventually gain a cult following thanks to various fan translations, but for years an official Western release remained a pipe dream. Thankfully, that dream finally becomes reality later this month as the game gets the full 2D-HD remake treatment.
Of course, niche games like Live A Live don’t always hold up to wider scrutiny. Does the game deserve its reputation as one of the great unlocalized classics? I’ve had the opportunity to play through a significant chunk of the game, and while I’m not ready to render a final verdict yet, I do have some thoughts on whether you should let Live A Live into your life…
Live A Live immediately sets itself apart from other JRPGs of the era, by letting you choose from seven chapters, each taking place in a different time period -- Prehistory, Imperial China, Edo Japan, the Wild West, Present Day, the Near Future, and the Distant Future (for the purpose of this preview I played through the Imperial China, Edo Japan, Wild West, and Distant Future sections in their entirety).
Each of Live A Live’s chapters tell their own independent story and can be played through in any order, although there are certain threads that tie them all together. Each of the game’s time periods offers its own unique tone – Imperial China is an ode to classic kung fu legends and movies, Edo Japan is a tale of ninja intrigue, the Wild West is a dusty cuss-filled caper, and the Distant Future is a dark mashup of 2001: A Space Odyssey and Alien.
It isn’t just the tone of each story that changes, each chapter toys with how the game play as well. Edo Japan tasks you with stealthily infiltrating a castle packed with Metroidvania-style shortcuts and secrets. Imperial China is more of a traditional RPG with an overworld, towns, and a gauntlet of baddies to make your way through. The Wild West almost feels like tower defense as the focus is on boobytrapping a town to fend off bandits. Most unique of the bunch, the Distant Future is essentially a horror-tinged sci-fi visual novel.
Granted, there are some things all Live A Live’s chapters share. All use the same combat mechanics, which combine an Active-Time-Battle-style turn system with a grid-based battlefield you can position your party on. Honestly, the system isn’t that deep, with most battles not being particularly challenging. Sections of the game that rely heavily on combat, like the Imperial China chapter, do drag a bit at times. That said, while Live A Live is ostensibly an RPG, Square wasn’t afraid to completely cast off the genre’s trappings when it suited them. For example, the Wild West chapter has no leveling and the Distant Future doesn’t force any sort of combat on you until the very end.
You can really feel the original 1994 developers of Live A Live straining against the boundaries of what a console RPG could be. While there were some scattered “cinematic” games before Live A Live, this feels like a concerted effort from Square to push the concept. Given that, the fact that each of the game’s chapters runs around 2 to 3 hours – the length of a typical movie – feels just about right. Square Enix’s 2D-HD visual makeover further enhances the cinematic feel, with some wonderfully stylish moments, like the Wild West protagonist galloping across a sun-baked desert or the Edo Japan ninja hero leaping over rooftops as lightning flashes in the background. Add a great Yoko Shimomura soundtrack that’s been enhanced with some new orchestral remixes and you’ll be looking for some popcorn to enjoy with your pixel art.
While I still have more to play before handing down a score, I’m already pretty charmed by Live A Live. While the game’s core RPG mechanics could be deeper, the variety on display here, both in terms of writing and game design, is impressive. Live A Live is a tasty sampler box of snack-sized RPGs and once you finish one the urge to start nibbling on another is strong. Whether Live A Live’s stories build to something greater than the sum of its likable parts remains to be seen, but even if they don't, I’m fairly confident this was a JRPG relic worth unearthing.
Live A Live launches on Nintendo Switch on July 22. A demo for the game, which offers the ability to play through roughly the first half of the Imperial China, Edo Japan, and Distant Future chapters, is currently available. Demo progress carries over to the full game.