In RPGs, some eras are avoided more than others! After all, why not go to prehistory, the Far West, or even Imperial China instead of heroic fantasy or the dystopian future? Better yet, why not do everything at the same time? In 1994, that’s exactly what Live A Live offered Japanese audiences. A cult RPG that – until then – had never been released in Europe. An insult now mended thanks to a remake on Switch. Here is our verdict.
Well, Square Enix would like to offer us games in HD-2D! After Octopath Traveler and Triangle Strategy, it’s now Live A Live that benefits from this very special engine that mixes 2D models with three-dimensional decorations. But this time it’s to revive an RPG that never left Japan – at least officially – when it was released in 1994. With this Switch version, many players are preparing to discover Live A Live, a game that almost owes its status as a cult work for its sole concept: to browse seven stories set in seven different eras (Prehistory, Far West, Present, End of Edo Japan, Imperial China, Near Future, Far Future). Each chapter is self-contained with its own characters and environments. The idea is that once you’ve completed them all, you’ll unlock two final sequences that reveal the connection underlying these stories, separated by centuries.
Buy Live A Live on Fnac for €39
7 ways to play
Before telling you its latest secret, Live A Live will therefore take you on a journey through time and borders, which is undeniably its greatest strength. In addition to the excitement that rises when we start a new story, we must especially salute the care that Square Enix has taken to create these atmospheres. With one or two exceptions, Live A Live happens all the time to wear, thanks to a fine mix between artistic direction and successful soundtrack, sometimes brilliant staging, without forgetting the synchronization (in English only) during important passages, which really help to embody the whole. Of course, the HD-2D engine brings its grain of salt, for a palette of colors and depth effects that hit home.
Rather docked or portable?
In our testing, we didn’t notice any noticeable difference between Live A Live’s handheld and docked modes. Square Enix’s JRPG just seems to suffer from very slight slowdowns in the most detailed areas, such as End of Japan Edo.
But the best part of it all is that each chapter is characterized by mechanics which are specific to him. Imperial China, for example, allows embodying Shifu, the kung-fu master, during his training with three disciples. Here, the player must decide which apprentice will be stronger, faster or more resilient, as the choice may have consequences for the continuation of the account. In the Wild West, you will be tasked with gathering resources in a limited time and setting up traps to corner an opposing gang. While in the near future, you play as a young man able to read the minds of other characters. Other phases have a more radical bias, such as in Edo Japan, taking the form of an action and infiltration sequence. Without forgetting that the very level design of the stories changes, sometimes openly or rather linearly.
Back to the Future
So yes, it all shows one variety more than welcome and Live A Live is a title full of great ideas. But it is clear that their implementation often smells too much of the 90s. In some cases, we would not have said no to a more extensive overhaul! For example, Japan’s Edo Castle is very labyrinthine and punishing, with traps that send you back without warning from back floors or bosses that drop out of nowhere when their model initially resembles any character. Believe us, you will quickly thank the new automatic save system and the “mini map” at the bottom of the screen that shows the areas left to visit and the main objective (which does not exclude a few small moments of confusion). We can also mention the training system in Imperial China, which boils down to a series of unsavory battles. For the rest, despite a rather interventionist structure, in general – especially with the addition of the radar – everything is fluid and very pleasant to browse.
Live A Live – A Trip to the Present (Gameplay)
In fact, the concept itself brings Live A Live quite counterintuitive situations for a JRPG. While some chapters rely almost entirely on the narrative, others favor a much more action-oriented approach where you have to level up to take on the bosses. When you start with the first case, it’s not easy to activate the “classic RPG” notch later, where training and exploration can prove crucial (there are two or three balancing issues that cut progress). And after all, what’s the point of taking the time to develop the hero from each era when we’re not guaranteed to see him again during the grand finale? Result: we lost interest in secondary battles for a chapter where enemies appeared without warning, good era RPG style. Fortunately, you can run away from collisions without restrictions. It’s a bit of a shame.
As long as we’re talking about the action phases: know that Live A Live deviates quite a bit from turn-based JRPG conventions, favoring a more “tactical” approach. There are no magic or action points here. The tendons of war are time. The skirmishes thus take place on a chessboard with seven squares by seven, and the smallest movement will save the opponent vital time. This resource is symbolized by a meter above the enemies. As soon as it ends, the villain can attack. Of course, you can do the same as long as your hit range hits its target. The goal is to use the opponent’s position to your advantage. A backhand will be more effective, as will a technique that is one of the opponent’s weaknesses. Also, if you’re far enough away when the enemy’s timer reaches its maximum, that’s it Bye Bye the attack! Faced with multiple villains, it’s a real game of chess.
Overall, the matches in Live A Live work well and reserve quite a few moments where you will have to use your brain. But they are not definitely not perfect however. The absence of action points or magic, for example, encourages the player to always use the same attack, especially when out of reach of the bad guys. Certainly the most powerful techniques require you to wait a round or two to recharge, during which time the opponent can move or “break” your next strike. Unfortunately, these moments are few and far between, and we feel that the clashes could have delivered more. Still, we rarely balked at the idea of hitting ourselves in the head, so engaging are the music and visual effects. Not to mention the main rewards: resources, levels or even equipment.
Mistakes quickly forgotten
As we’ve just seen, Live A Live is clearly not without flaws, whether it’s in its structure or its matches. Is it that serious? No way! During the fifteen to twenty hours it takes to complete the adventure (count between 1 and 3 hours per story), there was very little room for fatigue. The different chapters and eras always arouse interest, especially thanks to new gameplay and varied atmospheres. There is also an equally neat writing – despite some clichés – and a finale that is worth the detour. In short, we always want to see more. You will therefore have understood that it is a success.
Live A Live – A Few Minutes in the Wild West (Gameplay)
- Always a solid and original concept
- Varied fantastic atmospheres
- Lots of gameplay ideas
- Dubbing and soundtrack
- To write more than satisfactory
- A successful combat system
- Some old fashioned mechanics
- The chapter in the present, disappointing
- Some balance issues
Almost twenty years after its release in Japan, Live A Live is still a journey separated through time and borders, here enhanced by Square Enix’s remake work. It’s simple, the different eras that the title offers (from Prehistory to the Future via Imperial China) have never been so intoxicating, especially thanks to the Japanese developer’s HD-2D engine. The result is colors and depth effects that very often hit the spot. A choice setting for a very engaging piece of writing despite the years, made even more immersive by English dubbing. On the other hand, certain design and mechanical choices are still stuck in the 1990s, which can sometimes interfere with enjoyment and the pace of progress. There are also matches that still had some under the pedal. But not enough to taint the experience deeply. Whether for nostalgia or for newcomers, Live A Live is a journey to be savored with pleasure from start to finish. A fantastic adventure that you really have to (re)discover!
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Buy Live A Live on Fnac for €39
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