A classic Square Enix JRPG, that’s never been released before in the West, is remade with stunning 2D-HD graphics and a killer soundtrack.
If you knew what Live A Live was before Square Enix announced this remake then congratulations, you’re a hardcore gamer – at least when it comes to Japanese role-playing games. First released for the SNES in 1994 (just three months before the launch of the PlayStation) the original version of Live A Live was never made available anywhere outside of Japan, and until this day has never had an official English translation.
Over the years, it has gained a cult following amongst genre fans but this is still a very strange game to get… not a re-release or a remaster but a full remake. Using the same 2D-HD graphics created for Octopath Traveler and Triangle Strategy, and produced by original director Takashi Tokita (who also co-directed Chrono Trigger), this is the very opposite of a cash grab, with real love and care put into recreating a game most in the West have never heard of.
The effort is worth it too, as Live A Live is, within the context of the genre, a very unique game. It’s an anthology of seven very separate stories, that are only tied together by an eighth unlockable adventure and its epilogue. You play a different character in each, with the settings ranging from prehistory to the far future. Monsters and magic still play a part, but for the most part it avoids the usual Tolkien-esque tropes, with everything from a Western to a mech battle in the near future.
What’s especially impressive about Live A Live is that the different settings aren’t just a gimmick but greatly alter the gameplay, something even Chrono Trigger and its different time zones can’t really claim. You can play the first seven stories in any order (and skip between them whenever you like) but the far future one is the first by default. Obviously inspired by Alien, it can be completed without getting involved in any combat, as you control a robot on a spaceship transporting a mysterious xenomorph.
By comparison, the one set in prehistory has almost no text, but features a main character with an advanced sense of smell and a penchant for getting into fights with sabre-toothed tigers. The one set in Imperial China is completely different again, as while it’s also combat heavy you don’t level up the martial arts master you control but instead help him to improve the techniques of his pupils.
There’s also a ninja themed story where you can rely on stealth and a magic cloaking ability to not kill anyone (or everyone, it’s up to you). The most unexpected setting is a Wild West story inspired by The Magnificent Seven, and by association Seven Samurai, as you prepare for the return of a gang of ruffians who have been terrorising a downtrodden town.
The story set in the modern day is almost nothing but fighting, aping the style of a scrolling beat ‘em-up – although it wisely doesn’t overstay its welcome. And finally, the near feature story features a teleporting psychic kid called Akira, so you can guess what that’s influenced by.
Although each character has their own spin on it, the combat system is fundamentally the same in each case and while it is turn-based it takes place on a small grid, instead of the usual line dancing formations. The most surprising aspect though is that there are no magic points and instead it’s charge times and range which limits how you use special abilities, rather than MP.
What this means in practice depends on the characters in question and the enemies they’re fighting, which are also unique to each story. So, for example, Sundown the cowboy relies on ranged attacks with his gun, while Oboromaru has a lot of different area of effect abilities.
There’s definitely an element of Disgaea style tactical battles to the action, especially in the way some characters can booby trap tiles, but its sheer novelty works against it at times, as it’s notably unrefined compared to other more traditional systems. Most obviously, there’s no clear indication of what stage enemy charge attacks are at, which makes it much easier for them to interrupt you than the other way round.
This can lengthen battles to unpalatable lengths, which becomes especially frustrating given there’s no way to skip attack animations. Level grinding is also occasionally necessary, which is a real shame since the difficulty spikes often come out of nowhere.
The worst is at the end of the game, when all progress is suddenly halted and you have to grind away for hours, to be at a sufficient level to take on the final enemies. There’s lots of random battles at this stage (there are very few at any other point in the game) to facilitate this but it’s desperately uninteresting, at a point in the story where you just want to get to the resolution and figure out what’s really going on.
In terms of visuals this is a fantastic remake but, unwisely, there’s no attempt to update any of the outdated gameplay concepts. Not only does the combat need a fine tune but there’s weird random elements, like having to constantly repeat battles to get a rare loot drop for a key item or dialogue choices that end in instant death if you pick the wrong one.
At the very least it would’ve been nice to have a rearranged mode, that sanded off these rough edges, and that doesn’t seem an unreasonable request give how expensive the game is.
The most common complaint aimed at the game though, ever since it first came out, is that it’s too short. Overall, it’ll take around 30 hours to complete but some of the individual stories can last little more than an hour. The average is around three or four but there’s few of them that don’t seem too brief.
In terms of presentation though, the remake is faultless. The visuals are fantastic, to the point where you immediately wish Square Enix would apply the same effort to all its classic role-players. The soundtrack, by Street Fighter 2 composer Yoko Shimomura, is equally good and has been re-recorded with real instruments and even lyrics in a few cases. The game’s also fully voice-acted and while some of the accent choices are odd in the English version the Japanese voice track is also available as an option.
The worst thing about Live A Live is not the issues with the combat and random elements but how it demonstrates that Japanese role-players in the mid-90s were far more experimental than most today. It’s a crying shame that it, and contemporaries like Chrono Trigger and Suikoden, didn’t have a bigger influence on the genre and that it takes a remake like this to remind everyone that tradition used to be an optional extra, not the backbone of the whole genre.
Live A Live review summary
In Short: The 1994 original has some unfortunate flaws, that this remake doesn’t try to fix, but in terms of graphics, soundtrack, and sheer invention this is one of the best Japanese role-players of any era.
Pros: Fantastic concept that is taken full advantage of in terms of not just different locations and characters but variations in gameplay. 2D-HD graphics and re-recorded soundtrack are fantastic.
Cons: The combat can be long-winded and abstruse. Far too much level grinding towards the end and some frustrating random elements. Some stories are very short.
Formats: Nintendo Switch
Publisher: Nintendo/Square Enix
Developer: Historia and Square
Release Date: 22nd July 2022
Age Rating: 12
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