During my time in Japan, there was one game that I was desperate to get my hands on – Japan-exclusive Super Famicom RPG, Live A Live. The anthology game was somewhat legendary as a forefather to Nintendo Switch title Octopath Traveller and its conceit of following eight distinct character stories before they all come together for the conclusion. Unfortunately, I never managed to stumble upon it, no matter how much I kept an eye open for it. Imagine my joy then, when Nintendo and Square-Enix announced that the game would be seeing a global release over 20 years later as a totally redone HD-2D remake.
First thing to note with the 2022 release of Live A Live: the visuals. The game is awash with colour, from the bright greens of the ‘Near Future’ chapter, to the deep purples of the ‘Twilight of Edo Japan’ chapter, the game is a visual feast, showing just how much can be done with sprite work. It’s 2D games like this that almost make you feel disappointed that we’ll likely never see another Pokémon game embracing sprites for its graphics. The characters are all well designed, with emotive expressions that help the player develop an attachment to their personalities and stories.
Live A Live‘s structure is probably its most unique feature, with eight separate chapters spanning prehistory to the far future, each with its own storyline and play style. As previously discussed, it’s a clear inspiration for Octopath Traveller, but one can’t help but wonder about the impact it has had on other games. The short story anthology is still a relatively unusual prospect in gaming, meaning there are fewer titles for newer developers to draw on when designing new games. While I’m not saying that the idea of a short story anthology would never have been done without Live A Live coming onto the Japanese gaming scene in 1994, I have to wonder whether it provided a reference point for titles such as the beautiful What Remains of Edith Finch.
The various chapters of Live A Live don’t quite vary as wildly as they do in Giant Sparrow’s investigation of the cursed Finch family, but it still experiments with several JRPG standards. The ‘Present Day’ chapter, for instance, is structured in a similar vein to the arcade mode of fighting games, with the player selecting opponents from a roster in the start-up screen, while the ‘Distant Future’ chapter has practically no combat at all. Sure, there are some clear restraints on how varied each chapter can be – a more modern title might, for instance, go all-in on the fighting-game theme of the ‘Present Day’ chapter, but Live A Live sticks true to its JRPG roots here and uses a turn-based grid system.
These chapters can unfortunately vary a little in quality. The ‘Near Future’ chapter is a clear standout, a great entry point for those unsure as to which chapter to start with. An Earthbound-esque venture through an Earth no too dissimilar to our own sees a psychic protagonist fighting against human liquidifcation and a corrupt military as he tries to protect the orphanage he grew up in. This was my first venture into Live A Live, and I was blown away by how bonkers it was while remaining thoroughly touching and heartfelt. And what a climax!
The ‘Twilight of Edo Japan’ chapter is another highlight, this time seeing you take control of a ninja trying to infiltrate a castle. A much more fragile character than many of the others in the game, stealth becomes the priority as you skulk over rooves, through attic crawl spaces and disappear into the shadows. Whereas in many stealth games, you’ll quickly lose the urge to hide as you learn to defeat the opponent, the strength of the enemies here can be pretty overwhelming, setting you back in your journey every time you face defeat.
In contrast, the ‘Prehistory’ chapter, was a little less successful. I can’t fault the developers for their ambition here – trying to tell a full RPG style story without dialogue takes guts, but I just started to feel things dragging. In order to find enemies and items in the wilderness, you can ‘sniff’ the air, but I honestly didn’t figure out what I was actually doing until a good while into the chapter. I previously thought I’d been blowing puffs of smoke, and couldn’t see the relation this could possibly have with finding items or enemies. The story itself can be quite humorous, but the slapstick style of narrative gets a little grating as it continues, and I’ve got to say, I was pretty relieved when I got to the end.
I think the most disappointing for me though, was the ‘Distant Future’ chapter. As a fan of visual novels and adventure games, the prospect of a chapter with no battling had me intrigued, and I decided to leave it to the end, as a little reward to myself. Unfortunately, I just found myself bored as my character was repeatedly told to ‘go here’, ‘go there’, ‘come back’, blah blah blah. The lack of agency I had as a ‘protagonist’ just felt like it didn’t really work in this context, and I grew tired of the space antics.
Overall, Live A Live is a game with its ups and downs, but I did enjoy my time with it, and would eagerly recommend it to any Switch-owning RPG fans. While there are some weaker chapters, the highlights more than make up for it, and the final moments of the game feel like a great reward for sticking with it, as you get a chance to say goodbye to all of the protagonists and their various worlds one last time. This was clearly a remake done with care, and while it’s a little rough around the edges, I can hardly fault a game for having ambition. Live A Live, I finally played you, and I’m very happy I did. Now if only we could get more short story anthology games in its vein.