It feels as though another port, remaster, or remake of a presumed-forgotten gem arrives every month. I’ve personally enjoyed and written reviews for Moon, Radical Dreamers – Le Trésor Interdit, and Biomotor Unitron since starting at RPGFan. Recently, Square Enix’s 1994 Japan-only title, LIVE A LIVE, finally got its chance to shine with a Nintendo Switch remake released worldwide. In the years since its release, LIVE A LIVE received a fan translation and widespread praise among those who played it, so a remake is an exciting opportunity for the rest of us. And it does not disappoint.
LIVE A LIVE is packed with endless surprises. It consists of several self-contained storylines to play in any order and move in and out of as you like. These scenarios are wildly unique and creative, incorporating inspiration that JRPGs have rarely touched to this day. For example, you can play as Cube, an adorable little robot brought to life on a spaceship transporting a dangerous alien lifeform. The ensuing tale is equal parts 2001: A Space Odyssey and Alien with little to no combat and a heaping helping of humanity. If you tackle Oboromaru’s tale instead, you get a sprawling, non-linear infiltration into a feudal Japanese castle where you can choose whether to take lives. Do you want to enjoy the odd mixture of Mega Man and a classic fighting game? Tackle Masaru Takahara’s scenario.
The variety of these scenarios is one of LIVE A LIVE‘s greatest strengths, but I can also see it as one of its greatest weaknesses. Every player will have different favourites among the scenarios, which, aside from their unique hooks, have varying lengths and amounts of dialogue and combat. Because of this diversity, players might love specific scenarios but find themselves slogging through others. I find something to love about each segment, but I still have preferences. A personal favourite is the Earth Heart Shifu’s scenario, where you must train a successor in a tale straight out of a classic kung fu movie, but I can easily see other players finding it tedious. Undoubtedly, they will change their mind when they realize one of Shifu’s pupils is voiced by the talented Suzie Yeung, the Remake Yuffie Kisaragi, and that said character is just Yuffie unhinged.
Despite their differences, the scenarios do share a unifying grid-based battle system. All actions by a player character or enemy on the battlefield, whether a move, attack, or item, advance the charge gauge of every other participant in the battle. An enemy acts as soon as their charge gauge is full, whether you’ve finished your turn or not. In this way, the battle system is much like Final Fantasy’s ATB, but with the addition of positioning. Your characters’ abilities do not have a limit or cost any resources, so you can spam your best, but remember some abilities take time to charge before they work.
Abilities also have a wide range of properties that might make you choose them over the most destructive move. They can buff or heal your allies, debuff your enemies, apply status effects like disabling an enemy’s arms or legs, or target their vulnerabilities. Enemies are often resistant to damage types, so even if you want to cause the most damage, you’d better look beyond the skill listed as “Damage: Massive” if the enemy is resistant to it. Every player character gains an array of abilities, making everyone a toolbox in the end.
You have a massive tactical advantage over your opponents, which makes the game far easier than it could be. On your turn, you can move about freely. Doing so charges up your enemies and brings them close to acting, but they, on the other hand, must spend their entire turn moving a single space. As a result of your mobility advantage, you can always stay ahead of your enemies and avoid their most dangerous attacks. Consequently, there were very few fights in the game where I felt genuinely challenged. Even the more difficult battles feel more like a puzzle that, once solved, becomes trivial. Thankfully, the tactile nature of moving about the battlefield and using flashy attacks never gets old.
Outside of combat, each character has their own systems at play. Akira, for example, who can read minds — a talent often required to progress his story. Pogo can find battles or items through scent and craft equipment out of pelts, horns, bones, and claws. The Sundown Kid has a time limit to gather items and set up traps before a gang of bandits arrives at dawn. I have already mentioned aspects of the other four scenarios giving an idea of their unique attributes.
I tread carefully around spoilers, but the seven scenarios available at first are not all the game has to offer, and the surprises refuse to stop until the very end. An end that takes a very reasonable amount of time to reach, as the game sets a blistering pace. It can be beaten in fifteen hours and is unlikely to take more than twenty-five. While I appreciate LIVE A LIVE’s pacing as a breath of fresh air, I will say that a few scenarios feel more unfortunately abbreviated than others; I would love to have a full-length game of some rather than a truncated, couple-hour experience. Akira’s adventure immediately springs to mind.
I never played the original release, so I cannot compare changes in gameplay or story, but I can talk about the new graphics. LIVE A LIVE follows Square Enix’s recent trend of HD-2D style games that began with Octopath Traveler and has continued with Triangle Strategy. I’m a fan of this style, but I think LIVE A LIVE is a considerable step forward and shows a maturation of the approach. The glare effects that could be a little overpowering in Octopath Traveler are masterfully done in LIVE A LIVE. There are a bunch of beautiful locales to explore across the ages, and I never get visually bored spending time with LIVE A LIVE. Drool-worthy spritework and combat animations make battles a particularly powerful spectacle.
LIVE A LIVE was famed composer Yoko Shimomura’s first big JRPG project, and she returned to work as the soundtrack’s producer, though the arrangements were handled by a team of ten arrangers, including Natsumi Kameoka and Sachiko Miyano. There is much to enjoy in the game’s soundtrack: each scenario has music to match its era and tone, and much of that music goes hard. LIVE A LIVE‘s sound effects leave an especially lasting impression on me, and I can still hear the sounds that go with various abilities in my mind. Finally, the remake has full voicework, and it’s both impressively done and perfectly matched to the characters. LIVE A LIVE is a joy to listen to no matter which part of the sound experience you are evaluating.
As a package, this title stands up impressively well, to this day. Every scenario presents a unique and compelling message with relevant lessons, and its short runtime means barely a second is wasted. Numerous cinematic touches throughout make it feel like a collection of experimental short films. And it all comes together beautifully in the end for a truly rewarding experience that any JRPG fan will not want to miss. It was also nice of Nintendo to confirm that both sides of the title are pronounced “live” as in “alive.”