To this day, the SNES era is considered the golden era of RPGs. Beloved fan favorites such as Secret of Mana and Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars stand side-by-side with “Best RPG” chart-toppers such as Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy VI. That said, some of the system’s most beloved RPGs have still yet to come west, with many of these falling under Square Enix’s umbrella (or Squaresoft at the time). Thus, many fans of RPGs—myself included—had to resort to shoddy fan translations on unruly emulators. Thankfully, Square Enix has been rectifying their past mistakes by remaking and remastering beloved classics and finally bringing them to the West. One of these beloved classics is 1994’s highly experimental RPG LIVE A LIVE. Does this quirky and unique RPG remake live up to the nearly thirty-year wait?
LIVE A LIVE is a collection of vignettes that seemingly have little to do with one another at first. It is a tale told through time, viewed through the lenses of seven (eventually eight) people ranging from prehistoric times to the far, far future. Upon starting the game, players are shown seven of these characters and given the choice of what order they complete the stories in. Each era has a unique spin on the game’s mechanics: some introduce learning moves from getting attacked, some let players read characters’ thoughts, and some give complete freedom over handling the task at hand. Each era leans hard into LIVE A LIVE’s experimental nature, which is the game’s greatest strength.
The game’s narrative breaks down into bite-sized chunks focusing on a particular setting. Rescuing a kidnapped love interest from fur-clad cave dwellers, saving a frontier town from rampaging bandits, and skulking about a spaceship under threat are just a few of the game’s tales. Yet even within these simple plots lies a lot of depth, and the strength of these stories rests with the characters themselves. While some of the plots may be quite predictable, the way the characters handle situations is quite refreshing. My favorite (by far) is the Imperial China era, where an elderly shifu decides to pass on his Earthen Heart style. Players can choose their next disciple, though I believe Lei Kugo—the game’s only playable heroine—to be the canon choice, for she fits the themes of both her era and the game’s meta-narrative the best.
While I won’t spoil anything about the overall narrative aside from the fact that there are eight to go through (despite seven displayed: the eighth is on the cover), I will say that it all came together in a way that excited me. Those with a keen eye may notice some consistencies across eras. I’m ashamed to say that I completely missed something that, in retrospect, was blatantly obvious. The storytelling in LIVE A LIVE is deceptively simple, and I applaud how the story feels fresh even when touching upon ever-familiar tropes. The game surprised me more often than not with its narrative, which I find quite impressive.
The exploration and battle system in LIVE A LIVE is primarily the same from era to era, barring a few notable exceptions. Players control an HD-2D pixel character, roam across a highly detailed 3D world, and encounter enemies randomly or via symbol encounter, depending on the era. Combat takes place on a 7×7 grid and uses a turn system similar to Final Fantasy’s ATB system—the Wait version, specifically. While characters only occupy one space on the grid, enemies often take up two or more. This difference is notable, as each character has a set of moves with an attack range like a tactical RPG. With enemy sprites generally far taller or wider than your own, it makes targeting foes much easier, thanks to their enlarged hitbox.
While there are the usual elements such as fire, water, wind, and earth, there are also damage types in the form of fists, feet, jumping, binding, and so on. Enemies have strengths and weaknesses as expected, yet many moves have additional debuffs or status effects they can apply. This keeps combat more tactical, as using a move an enemy is resistant to would otherwise be ignored. However, if that move has a chance to blind an enemy and drop their defense, it might just be worth the damage reduction. Battles do vary from era to era, with some more focused on melee and martial arts while others focus on ranged battles or elemental warfare. I appreciate any system that lets me stack status effects on foes.
Having only played a bit of the original game many years ago on an emulator, it’s difficult to compare the two directly. However, LIVE A LIVE’s visuals perfectly display the HD-2D style. While the character art itself is expertly designed, the art direction and camera framing do wonders for capturing the feeling and aesthetic of a 90s-era RPG. The environment in each era is vivid, and each era is practically a character itself, ensuring each town and location quickly becomes memorable. Once the climactic boss battles begin, however, the art design truly shines in both the set-piece battles and the highly detailed and larger-than-life bosses.
Though the visuals and art design are impressive, the soundtrack is one of the standout aspects of LIVE A LIVE . There is a wide variety of music expertly crafted to fit each era. Be it whimsical flutes and tropical drums in the prehistory era, lonesome acoustic guitar mixed with whistling for the Western era, or the straight-out-of-the-90s saxophone-laden jams in The Near Future, Live A Live manages to capture each era’s unique feeling masterfully. Additionally, I like to acknowledge voice acting when it’s done well, and LIVE A LIVE’s cast easily clears the bar for a superb performance. Each actor nails the voices, bringing life to the 2D sprites. Some do ham it up a bit too much; I chalk that up to being part of the charm.
While the experience is quite positive overall, a few pain points that make the game more frustrating than it should be. The main issue in my playthrough was the overall pacing. As the game is an anthology, story lengths vary wildly (as expected). Some eras were just shy of two hours, while others crept into three or four. Yet it’s not just the length of the episode, but the pacing within it. The Near Future era was the biggest offender by having the player go to particular areas numerous times within a short time. Having to talk to a character in the bathroom five times, trying to leave the house four times, or chasing down enemies through winding alleys well over ten times is a frustrating affair. Some episodes have pointless filler that pads out the playtime, but thankfully it only feels noticeable in a handful of eras.
The other primary complaint I have is regarding the battle system. While the developers do unique things with it, the battles quickly grow tiresome by the time you’ve hit your fourth or fifth era. By the end of each, I was essentially spamming one big area of effect move. Also related to combat is the abundance of enemy encounters in the last area of the game. Mercifully, some eras have minimal combat. Finally, of minor annoyance: I wish the last character showed up on the character selection screen, perhaps with a little lock to show other eras needed to be completed first. After completing my seventh era, I was ready for credits to roll and be done with the game, yet there were another five or so hours ahead of me. The issues are minor, all in all, and certainly not a dealbreaker by any means, yet they’re certainly noticeable over time.
Live A Live is a wonderful little gem from almost three decades ago. The remake accurately captures what a classic SNES RPG should look and feel like, and the modern additions make the game far easier to digest for newcomers. It’s highly experimental and oftentimes weird, yet it keeps that wondrous charm found in games like Terranigma, Secret of Mana, and Final Fantasy V. It’s whimsical when it wants to be and serious when it needs to be. While the pacing is a little off at times, and combat does grow a bit stale by the 15-hour mark, there is a lot to love about Live A Live, and any fan of SNES RPGs—or RPGs in general—should give the game a look. It’s a glimpse into the past with a modern touch, which is fitting for a game about living lives throughout time.