While there are many foundational games that inspired generations of titles that people may never know about because they were never translated outside of their original language, as of this month we have one less. Live A Live, an early Square Enix developed Super Famicom era title predates many of the RPGs we know and love today, enjoyed cult fame due to a fan translation, but was previously unavailable to those looking to get it through official challenges. It’s a game that was known upon its release for its big narrative focus and design innovation, so how does it hold up in today’s relatively crowded market? For me, the answer is: your mileage may vary. With big risks and big variety comes mixed feelings and frequently uneven combat – but it’s also clear why so many people loved, and will continue to love this game.
In many ways, Live A Live is a traditional JRPG. The game’s group of protagonists each have their own unique set of moves to be used in combat against groups of enemies, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. You’ll gain experience from encounters, level up characters, and along the way might collect weapons, armour and upgrades that can help strengthen your heroes and even the playing field. Looking at the mechanics through today’s lens, they’re not overly groundbreaking, but that’s this game’s biggest struggle. In many ways, it’s easy to see how this game was way ahead of its time in 1994 – but that was then. I’ve tried to see it through the lens of its time, but there were times during the journey that I just couldn’t look past how it holds up now. Somehow, it feels like an all around better game in handheld mode, and even though literally nothing about it changes when you take it off the TV, I enjoyed it more as something pocket-sized to play in small chunks.
To be fair, the game breaks itself into those chunks too. While they are all part of an overarching and interwoven story that comes together for an interesting and somewhat satisfying conclusion at the end, Live A Live is a collection of different stories split over a number of time periods, each with its own focus and unique feel. Because they’re so different, some of these stories really do shine – I absolutely enjoyed the ones that focused on narrative and exploration, minimising the combat sections or making them entirely optional. The Distant Future, with a focus on a little robot protagonist, was a highlight for me, purely because it knew the story it was telling and there was no unpleasant grinding to get through to experience it. Similar praise goes to The Wild West. Others, like the Prehistoric Age, were harder to follow and relied on deep knowledge of JRPG systems that – in the game’s defense – I know I don’t really have.
Narratively, I’m ready to give so many props to Live A Live. There are some genuinely shocking but somehow well signposted twists, and the storytelling in this game is deep and nuanced with each of the worlds feeling fully realised and developed. For the most part, the game was good at understanding how much time was the right amount of time to spend in each one, with only a few of them overstaying their welcomes. The characterisation was good for the most part, but did rely heavily on archetypes, and basically every one of the female characters definitely felt like they were in a JRPG released in 1994. For a game that felt quite forward in many ways, it didn’t do a great job of subverting some of those stereotypes. But I guess that’s to be expected.
Unfortunately, where the narrative shone, the combat fell short for me. While it was in itself not so bad as a system, it was the balance that always felt a little off. Allowing the player to attempt the different ages in whatever order they see fit means that there isn’t a clear beginning you can use to develop your skills, and there isn’t really a sense of escalation or a difficulty curve. There are encounters that feel so easy you don’t think about them, and then there are enemies that are so hard they feel insurmountable, and any of them can attack you at any time. The innovative narrative structure is the combat system’s downfall – while for me, is what stops Live A Live from being a fully rounded classic.
There’s a lot to admire about this remaster – the visual updates are stunning, the music is early work by renowned composer Yoko Shimomura and while parts of the soundtrack grated on me a little, for the most part it’s a masterpiece. There’s no denying that this is a game that deserved to get the remaster treatment, and there are a lot of JRPG fans who will have a lot more patience when it comes to the combat system than I did. But in many ways, Live A Live does show its age. While the innovative narrative structure should be applauded and its influence on future games is apparent, some lingering reliance on stereotypes and some frustrating combat design means it stops short of being a true joy to play. That said – if you’re curious, it is about a third of the length of a traditional JRPG, so if experimental storytelling is your thing and you want to see it applied to a genre that doesn’t usually embrace it, you might find it worth the grind.
Player 2 reviewed Live a Live on Nintendo Switch with a code kindly provided by Nintendo Australia.