I went to Live A Live hoping for the time-capsule experience of locating a long-lost Super Nintendo RPG from Takashi Tokita, one of the creators of Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy IV—one of the best ever. There are two of the games. Even with Live a Live’s design roots stretching back to 1994, there’s little classic feel about it. The colorful pixelated characters scream of that era, but much of the game is inventive, modern, and delightfully goofy (and sometimes shockingly profane).
It’s unlike anything else, delivering an unexpected and delightful adventure that changes the foundation of its narrative and gameplay every couple of hours. I walked away from this strange game, blown away by its diversity and not knowing what would happen next, both in story and in game.
Square Enix established a unique pulse within seconds of booting up the game by dropping the player to a character selection screen without giving any clue of the general direction of the story. Here, the player must choose his first approach into a mystery spanning generations from a batch of seven characters, each occupying a different era in time. From a troglodyte battling dinosaurs in the early prehistoric days to a lost robot in a universe in the distant future, each hero explores a wildly different story path, supported by numerous gameplay changes. All seven chapters are airy, lasting no more than two hours at most, yet long enough for each character to tell interesting origin stories. Think of them as short stories that lead you somewhere.
Whenever you select a character, expect the unexpected. In the prehistoric era, mankind had not yet learned to speak, so the whole story is illustrated, often providing plenty of humor through exaggerated expressions. In the current scenario, the story unfolds through a fighting game format, complete with a ladder of opponents and a final boss at the top. In a near future chapter, the character can read minds, which takes NPC interactions to new heights and gives the story a fun superhero vibe. I have to make a caveat that the humor goes far beyond what you’d expect throughout the game, including a comic sequence in which you click through the moanings of two people you love. All timelines are thematic successes through beautifully rendered visuals using the same HD-2D style of the dev team for games like Octopath Traveler and Triangle Strategy.
The Wild West scenario, which puts the player in control of a Clint Eastwood-like drifter to save a city from a bandit infiltration, has all its elements at work. The characters are fun to follow, the humor is excellent (and irreverent), the exploration is rewarding, and the gameplay is fun. After getting to know the townspeople, you scour their homes and businesses for supplies to build the trap, handing their creations to the people you meet, hoping they can set them before the timer reaches zero. can. Working traps limit the number of bandits you can fight if you choose correctly in your assignment. The combat in this chapter features a fun mix of boss battles, most of which are “high-afternoon standoff” intensity.
The Wild West chapters are easily the best, but most are enjoyable, even if they stumble across unparalleled gameplay execution. For example, running on rooftops as a ninja in feudal Japan is exhilarating, but the confusing design of this vast open field leads to some unwanted backtracking and general uncertainty about where to go next. Thankfully, the Ninja’s unique invisibility ability limits the number of encounters if lost.
There are highs and lows in the distant future as well. Finding out why people are dying on the space station is a great narrative thread, but it sadly leads you to ride the elevator too many times to uncover the mystery. Given your brief time with each scenario, the tidbits don’t sting much, allowing great material to surface and stick with you as you move on to the next chapter.
Some chapters have open areas to explore. Others don’t. Some stories rely heavily on war. Others limit it to a fight or two. Some meetings are random. Others are not. I cannot stress enough how much fun it is to discover what each scenario offers. The overall design of Combat is a gameplay element that is the same in each chapter. Live A Live makes good use of the turn-based grid system, prompting the player to be strategic when using specific attacks, abilities, and items.
Even though you only spend a few hours with each main character, there’s a good reason to level them up and give them better gear. Bosses are no joke and can make short work of an under-level character. Each level grants a character a new attack or ability and stat boosts across the board. For example, if you don’t hit level four in an area, you may not get a useful healing ability or an attack that exploits a boss’ vulnerability. This design encourages thorough exploration and prompts you to take on every enemy. Most of your time is spent walking and talking, but its size and speed vary greatly in each scenario.
What happens after completing all seven chapters? This is another big secret that kept me playing till late at night. I’d say the payoff is worth it, both for the extra gameplay that unfolds and how the narrative intertwines the threads in a mystical or sci-fi way. On that note, the final chapter provides the player’s choice, so make sure you save the game before starting it so you can revisit it later to see how it changes.
We’ll never know how Live a Live’s performance would have been in America at the time. Flash forward nearly three decades, and I can’t recommend this revitalized relic enough. This is good. This is another must-see Switch RPG that entertains in ways I didn’t expect and kept me glued to the screen for over 20 hours.