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Live A Live Review


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2075605438_LiveALiveboxart.jpg.4094070dd5e5214381303d3d5435b887.jpgA game released in Japan that never saw a worldwide release is an all too common tale, and although I wasn't familiar with Live A Live before this Switch version, I was excited to see yet another RPG plucked from the past for modern audiences to enjoy. Having grown up on SNES RPGs, I was also particularly interested in experiencing an unknown title from that era. Nothing quite prepared me for Live A Live, though. This unusual, experimental game that plays with genres so much that large parts of the game can't even really be called an RPG truly took me on a rollercoaster of enjoyable highs and confusing lows. But once the ride was over, I knew it was something special.
When you start up the game you're given the choice of starting any of the seven chapters, each starring a different protagonist in a different era, from the Wild West to Imperial China to the Distant Future, where you play as a robot. Right out of the gate Live A Live is playing with gameplay and narrative structure, and it's far from the last twist or turn you'll see. Every chapter has unique gameplay mechanics, and some show obvious influences from other games or media. One chapter is essentially a fighting game, a series of boss fights with characters that feel straight out of Street Fighter, while the Distant Future chapter plays with eerie sci-fi and thriller storytelling. I hardly want to say more, because experiencing all of these chapters and their quirky little foibles is a huge part of what makes Live A Live so enjoyable. You never know quite what to expect, and you'll always encounter something a little different.
Of course, this quirk has its downsides too. Anyone expecting a traditional RPG might be put off by the unusual mechanics found here. This truly feels like an experimental game, one that blends genres and is bold enough to try new things to keep you on your toes. Sometimes that means locking you into a pretty straightforward path, but other times that means giving you the chance to completely change how you approach a challenge. That said, the game does have some bad 90s game habits, e.g. some very unclear directions at times, as well as a lot of running back and forth just for a snippet of dialogue. The pacing isn't always on point, especially when you're bouncing between these different game styles. Even when I found myself a bit lost or weary though, I always found the overall experience compelling. Live A Live is essentially a collection of short stories, a style/format that isn't often explored in games, and it's not hard to see how this concept grew into Octopath Traveler 20+ years later, another HD-2D game that I adored. The characters here aren't the most deep or well-rounded, but just being able to jump between these short stories and their different settings and tones is a fun novelty. For instance, it's hard to deny the humor and charm of the Prehistoric chapter, with its complete lack of dialogue so the story is strictly carried out in animation and mime.
That said, Live A Live does still have some RPG mechanics, and true to the game's style there are some quirky touches here as well. Battles take place on a small grid-based battle screen, where you're free to move around when your action gauge is full. Similar to the ATB of Final Fantasy VI, you can only act when the gauge is full, and using powerful abilities requires yet more charging. The trick here is that when you're moving the enemies' gauges are filling as well, so you don't want to waste time, and sometimes attacks that take a long time to charge aren't worth it. Every attack has a certain range and style—most physical attacks hit one square near you, magical abilities might have more range, and some attacks can hit multiple squares at once. The game kind of throws all of this at you at once, but in practice it's a novel battle system that has some good ideas, and some bad ones.
There's a degree of strategy involved—you might want to hit multiple enemies at once, or target elemental weaknesses—and it's even possible to evade enemy attacks by just walking out of the square they are targeting. The difficulty of battles isn't terribly consistent, though. Since you're using a new character in each chapter you're always kind of starting at square one, with fairly weak characters, which either means equally weak enemies, which is a bit bland, or frustratingly powerful ones that require a bit of luck. Only at the end of the game does the combat system feel more balanced out, though by that point you've probably amassed quite a few powerful attacks so it ends up tipping to the easy side again. Regardless, the battle system's unusual grid structure adds a fun novelty to the usual random encounters.
Live A Live is also not a typical RPG in terms of length. The chapter system divides up the flow of the game quite a bit, and there's also some significant variety in length. Some chapters are barely an hour long, while others will take at least a few. All told, it's still pretty short for an RPG—maybe twenty, twenty-five hours—but I can't help but give the game credit for embracing its unique structure so thoroughly.
I'm a big fan of the HD-2D art style, and it looks pretty good in Live A Live. The visuals don't quite pop as much as Octopath Traveler or Triangle Strategy, though that may be down to the fact that this game is updating and refining visuals from nearly 30 years ago—at times the graphics just don't feel quite as polished as those other games. Still, the HD-2D style nicely walks the line between nostalgia and stylish modern effects and does a great job of bringing so many different locations and scenarios to life in Live A Live.
The soundtrack is also phenomenal. All of the songs have been rearranged for this remake and thank goodness the game includes a jukebox because you're going to want to hear these songs more than once. Not surprisingly there's a wonderful variety to the music to suit each chapter, from different music styles to different instruments, and somehow every single chapter walks away with catchy, moving songs. The voice acting is a mixed bag though. There is some effort to match voices/accents to appropriate locations and time periods, which is great, but of course it's the voices that don't quite mesh correctly that stand out as clumsy.
Live A Live is a brilliantly unique RPG. It's also one that might not appeal to everyone, not least because the fractured narrative and gameplay structure only truly shines at the end of the adventure. There are some ups and downs in the middle there, especially if you're looking for more traditional RPG mechanics, or lack the patience for obtuse 90s game design. If you stick with it though, Live A Live is something special. It's a game that isn't afraid to take risks, and the payoff is an experience that feels wholly unique, charming, and engaging. If you're interested in trying a game that truly feels different, you absolutely need to try Live A Live.
Rating: 9 out of 10 Lives
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