Released in Japan for the Super Famicom in 1994, Live A Live has recently received a new lease on life owing to a global release and the “HD-2D” remaster treatment. Live A Live feels like a labor of love composed of a unique story structure, beautiful music, and satisfying mechanics. Those characteristics are brought together vividly in this year’s update, and it’s an absolute treat.
The most distinctive feature of Live A Live‘s structure is noticeable right away – the story is delivered through vignettes that follow characters throughout different points in a fictional version of earth’s history. The order in which you tackle these tales is not fixed, though the final chapters are only unlocked after you complete the first seven. Because they take place in different settings, each chapter is unique visually, mechanically, and narratively. One puts you in the shoes of an aging Kung Fu master eager to pass on his skills and legacy, while another casts you as a bad-mouthed street tough orphan with psychic powers and a heart of gold. Each tale is a clear homage to one familiar fiction genre or another, which Live A Live leverages to minimize exposition and focus on its principal characters. It’s pleasantly surprising how quickly you become invested in the various heroes, and there’s a number of truly touching moments throughout. Ultimately, they coalesce into a story about the power of self-sacrifice, service, and most importantly mercy over hatred.
Live A Live‘s stories are brought beautifully to life through the HD-2D style introduced with Octopath Traveler, and used to great effect here. Various scenarios have cinematic establishing shots with changes of focus, or dramatic camera angles as you traverse the environment – neither of which would’ve been possible on the Super Famicom. The environments are colorful and are elevated by more modern lighting or water effects that highlight the strength of the fundamental pixel art. The battle animations are satisfying though not revolutionary, but the character sprites are very expressive and the boss sprites rather impressive. Since Live A Live’s director, Takashi Tokita, went on to make Chrono Trigger, comparisons to that game are natural – though these oversized and ornate boss sprites remind me more of a SaGa game (as does the narrative structure).
The music is as easy on the ears as the HD-2D art is on the eyes. This was Yoko Shimomura’s first score for Square, and as you might expect, it’s great (I’m not sure she’s capable of writing a bad soundtrack). Each piece is written so as to match the setting, further emphasized by the instrumentation in the new orchestral arrangements produced for this release. The Wild West chapter has whistles and discordant guitar strums evoking the Ennio Morricone spaghetti western sound, the Imperial China chapter sticks to flutes and strings, while the Distant Future’s score is more muted with its otherworldly electronic tones. The manga/Akira-inspired Near Future chapter has one particular track, “Go! Go! Steel Titan!”, complete with super-hammy vocals straight out of an 80’s anime intro, and I cannot listen to it without grinning.
To the extent that I have any criticisms from an audio-perspective, it’s not with the music but rather with how the music is used. Certain tracks are repeated at similar emotional beats, which makes the vignettes feel slightly more formulaic than need be. For example, there’s one particular piece that becomes the “this is a sad moment” signal, and if you’re like me, you’ll start anticipating its use. Also, the game’s pacing and overall short length works against the soundtrack a bit here. Moving so quickly through the chapters means you’re introduced to new pieces before having a chance to appreciate the earlier ones. Fortunately, there’s now a Jukebox feature where you can listen to tracks of any story you’ve completed.
The fundamental game mechanics are pretty standard JRPG fare – you’re either walkin’, talkin’, or sockin’ bad guys. Still, along with the unique settings, the individual chapters generally have some extra wrinkle that keeps the experience fresh. The Prehistoric chapter has a light crafting mechanic, the Edo Japan chapter is an extended stealth-mission, while the Present Day chapter is RPG Street Fighter II (and it is as awesome as that sounds). The combat mechanics are a unique mix of elements from Final Fantasy, SaGa, and tactics games. There’s an ATB-esque system where all battle participants may take an action when a turn bar fills up, but the focus is more on flashy attacks since resource management is minimal and you heal up automatically after each encounter. There’s also a positioning element, as your party and your foes are all on a grid rather than standing in separate lines. Attacks all have range requirements, areas of effect, and will be easier to land if you are behind your foe. It’s a fun system overall, though I do think if the game were any longer, players might find themselves wanting a touch more complexity or character customization.
It’s probably clear already, but I really enjoyed Live A Live, and find little to pick at. Some players may balk at its length of 20ish hours when other RPGs boast hundreds at a similar price point. For me, the ability to complete an RPG with a touching, positive story in a reasonable time frame is a huge plus. I’m glad it’s getting a chance to reach new audiences, and I highly recommend it.
Scoring – 93%
The chapters move quickly, and have unique mechanics to keep things fresh. The battles are well-designed, encounter rates are well-tuned, and there’s rarely any tedium.
The episodic delivery keeps the game moving, and underscores its overall message effectively. And when that message emphasizes that mercy is a component of heroism, you get high marks.
“Yoko Shimomura” is all that really needs to be said – but I also appreciate the attention to detail on the sound effects. When the background music in a particular room actually changed as the musicians left it, I think I applauded.
There are a handful of choices you can make differently as you play Live A Live, which gives the game some natural replayability. Its length and structure helps in that regard, too, as it’s not too much of an investment whether you want to just pick up a favorite chapter again, or play through the whole thing.
The HD-2D style lends Live A Live an old-fashioned, innocent appearance, but the stories are definitely for more mature audiences. There’s tragic violence of the sort you might see in a Shakespeare play, but it’s critical to telling the story. There’s commonly crude language, but I suspect that has more to do with following the tropes of chapters’ particular genres (the bad-mouthed youth of the Near Future chapter being a notable example). There’s also some cringe-inducing innuendo, especially in the Prehistory chapter. Generously speaking, other than a lewd joke in the Near Future chapter, such humor is used for some very cheesy laughs. Overall I don’t recall anything particularly gratuitous, though I think the T rating is probably a pretty good choice.
Spiritual Value (spoilers ahead)
Live A Live is very aware of humanity’s fallen nature, but encourages its characters, and thus its players, to strive for something better. The antagonists, as signaled by their “odium”-derived names, are incarnations of hatred. Often having been participants in or victimized by a cycle of violence themselves, the villains see their only path ahead as the domination or elimination of others. The player characters, however, are not ultimately victorious simply because they win contests of physical strength. The ultimate battle in Live A Live happens in the souls of its heroes – in deciding whether to revel in all the dysfunction and brutality humanity, in its brokenness, is capable of, or to sacrifice their own desires in service of something higher. The opening chapters of Live A Live often repeat this theme of the power of mercy, and the final chapters even give the player the option to choose it. When they do, they are treated to a powerful conclusion capping off a game with a message that aligns with that of the Gospel.