- Release Date (NA): July 22, 2022
- Release Date (EU): July 22, 2022
- Release Date (JP): July 22, 2022
- Publisher: Square Enix
- Developer: Square Enix
- Genres: RPG
A Little Lesson in Gaming History
The 90's are generally considered the golden age of Japanese role-playing games. This was the time when gamers got their hands on some of the best games in the genre, games that we continue to play to this day. The phenomenon that started off in the 8-bit era has fully matured, and with the hardware becoming increasingly capable, developers felt incentivised to experiment. Many moved away from simple games of stats-grinding towards more complex, narrative-based titles. It was in that decade that Live A Live (LAL) was originally released for the Super Famicom, and it was one such "experimental" title. The game failed to meet sales expectations, received middling review scores and never left the shores of Japan, like many games of the era... until now. I've never heard of it myself, which isn't surprising given the circumstances of the original release. To me, this was a "new game" rather than a trip down memory lane, so no nostalgia glasses were involved. Now, having played the remake from cover to cover... well, let's not get ahead of ourselves.
Variety is the Spice of Life
I usually start my reviews by giving a brief run-down of the story and the setting, but this time around I don't have such luxury - it would simply take too long to cover. On the surface, LAL is an anthology of "mini-RPG's" - each chapter follows a different protagonist and takes place in a different time period. The stories range from a pre-historic caveman's love quest to a robot's spacefaring adventure. Everything, from the setting and characters to the core gameplay mechanics differs wildly between scenarios, making each a unique experience. If you like variety, LAL has it in spades - it's a journey across time and genres. All of the stories are seemingly disconnected and self-contained, allowing the player to follow the story in any order they fancy. I say "on the surface" and "seemingly" because there's more to LAL than meets the eye - completing all 7 chapters unlocks the 8th story, followed shortly by a grand finale.
Including so much variety in a single game is a tricky endeavour - you're running a risk of alienating players who might really enjoy one chapter, but find the other ones uninteresting. LAL is not too dissimilar from a salad bar, in the sense that it has something for every taste. The problem is that when you go to a salad bar, you don't normally have a little bit of everything - you eat what you like and leave the rest on the counter. Thankfully, that wasn't an issue in this case - every single salad LAL had to offer was thoroughly enjoyable and memorable, as opposed to multiple variations of egg salad. Nobody loves egg salad, you can't change my mind.
Every scenario felt unique and brought different gimmicks to the table, keeping the experience fresh all the way through. I particularly enjoyed the wild west and space scenarios, simply by the virtue of how innovative they were. In the wild west chapter you play as The Sundown Kid, a wanted man who finds himself in a position of having to defend a quaint little town against a gang of outlaws. Assembling the villagers, collecting gear and preparing traps is a literal race against time as every step you take draws you closer to the the final showdown. The space scenario follows the first steps of a little robot on a space ship headed towards Earth. The ship's crew wakes up from cryo sleep only to be plagued by a series of tragic events, and it doesn't take long before they begin pointing fingers at each other. Things turn from bad to worse when their dangerous cargo breaks loose and a routine voyage back home becomes a desperate fight for survival. Utterly engrossing, suspenseful and in parts terrifying, in spite of an almost complete lack of combat. It's weird to call what's effectively a beat-by-beat remake of a nearly 30 year old game innovative but, if anything, that speaks volumes about how stale JRPG’s have become over the years. LAL felt like a breath of fresh air in a genre marred by convoluted plots that take forever to get to the point - the game has some stories to tell and it's not wasting any time along the way. The chapters are mostly bite-sized, with some featuring multiple endings which have an effect on the finale, lending to their pick-up-and-play nature as well as the game's replayability.
The one thing that is consistent across all scenarios is the combat. The characters fight on a grid and take turns based on a system similar to Final Fantasy's Active Time Battle. In addition to health, characters have a action gauge which fills up at different rates depending on the character's Speed stat. Some are slow and tanky while others are speedy glass cannons, requiring the player to adjust their playstyle and equipment accordingly in order to get the best out of their team. In terms of abilities, the game streamlines them into one category. There is no real distinction between physical attacks and magic and no mana bar in sight. This simplified combat system requires less resource management, it doesn't drown you in a sea of bars and stats that you have to keep track of or replenish, making battles fast-paced. By simplified I don't mean to say that there's no depth to it - far from it. You still have your textbook elemental weaknesses and status effects, not to mention that some attacks can take multiple turns to execute or affect the play area by turning the tiles poisonous, electrified, engulfed in flames or flooded. With that being said, in practice the freedom to use any ability at any time means that you'll end up finding one or two that work best for you, leading you to neglect the rest of them. I consistently found myself using the same attacks even if my enemies were resistant to them simply because most times they still dealt more damage than the "correct" ones my foes were vulnerable to. As soon as you get a new attack, there's really no reason to use your old arsenal unless it gives you an advantage, which seemed highly situational and rare.
Since this is a remake, it's important to touch upon what's different compared to the Super Famicom release. As far as I can tell from comparisons online, the game stays faithful to the original, improving upon it with the "HD-2D" treatment. Side-by-side pictures look near-identical in terms of layout, but with added detail and depth. The new score sounds great and the addition of voice acting lends to better characterisation, at least in my opinion. There's a lot of criticism online in regards to censorship, or adjusting the dialogue to the point that some characters don't come across the same way as they did in the source material. As I said at the beginning, I didn't get to play LAL back in the day, so I wouldn't know about the latter, but the former is apparent even to me. The first thing that comes to mind is the replacement of alcohol with milk, or cigars with carrots. I can see why that would annoy some, but on the flip side, the game's rated T - these things are to be expected, and didn't annoy me too much. It's an obscure Japanese title, I'm sure some things were lost in translation. What I can say is that it's excellent as it is, and if anything, some of the replacements in the localisation actually came across as humorous.
History Repeats Itself Until You Break the Cycle
It's hard to argue whether spoilers of a nearly 30 year old title are still a faux pas - there are some things I'd like to say that could be construed as such, so if you find that objectionable, consider skipping the next paragraph and perhaps come back to it later after you've played the game. I'm not going to delve into the details, but nevertheless, you've been warned.
There's something to be said about the game's ending, which I found very impressive. It's clear to me that Live A Live was a labour of love, and the final chapter makes it blatantly apparent. Small details the writers sprinkled throughout the game that could be easily missed by players or dismissed as running gags come together to tie a perfect bow on the anthology. The 8 distinct tales merge at one singular point, telling the story as old as time. In one masterful stroke the collection of disconnected mini-RPG's turns into a cohesive narrative about the cycle of violence, and the struggle of breaking out of it. It's about the blurred lines between good and evil, about loss and about redemption. It's clear that despite how dissimilar the chapters are, the writers had the forethought to subtly steer the game towards that conclusion, and if the player wasn't paying careful attention, it will catch them by surprise.
"Let not this mem'ry fade. My words preserve."
And so, we reach the time for a conclusion - is Live A Live worth your time and money? I think I made it clear that I loved every bit of it, and it comes pretty close to the coveted perfect score in my book. The sheer variety in settings, characters and gameplay that makes you look forward to what the next chapter holds in store for you, the bite-sized chapter format and the commitment to not waste the player's time are all things that I value in a video game personally. With that being said, objectively I have to mention the flaws in the product, of which there admittedly were a few. The length of the chapters for instance seems arbitrary - some of them can be completed in about an hour whereas others are significantly longer, making them somewhat unbalanced. This is due to two reasons. The first is that some chapters feature truly labyrinthian maps whereas others are pretty straight-forward, with one featuring no map at all. I can understand why that aspect of the game was preserved, if only for the sake of being consistent with the original - that's fair. The second reason is more damning, and it has to do with the overarching design of the game. The more combat-heavy chapters simply take longer to complete by the virtue of having to deal with enemy encounters. This not only affects the pacing, but also gameplay balance. Chapters that rely on combat allow their respective protagonists to reach a higher level and obtain better equipment compared to characters whose chapters are more focused on narrative, making the latter grossly underpowered when it does come to blows. Simply making the characters in story-oriented chapters start at a higher level and with better equipment would've at least partially addressed the issue - it wouldn't change much in regards to chapter length, but it would make those characters more viable choices later down the line. Are those deal breakers though? By no means - they're minor gripes.
LAL is a great game that I can thoroughly recommend, especially given the lower-than-usual price point. I started the review by saying that upon completing the game I had a realisation, and that realisation is pretty simple - we missed out on this one back in the day. I'm glad it received the treatment it did so that players in the west can experience it too. It's been a while since I enjoyed a JRPG to this extent, perhaps because I was always partial towards the classics, perhaps because the classics were just better - at the end of the day it's all a matter of taste. What I can say for certain is that you owe it to yourself not to miss out on it again. With multiple endings, both for the individual chapters and the grand finale, the game has around 30 hours of fun to offer, and they're worth it. I know what you're thinking - "that doesn't sound like a very long JRPG", and you know what? You would be correct. Nearly all of the 70 hours of tedium and grind were trimmed off, leaving you with a lean, mean role-playing machine. Live A Live doesn't have time for padding - it has better things to show you. True to its name, it lets you live a different life, one bite-sized chunk at a time, and I hope that this remake turns a "cult classic" into just a classic, for all of us, not just a select few connoisseurs.
- Very well-written, varied and imaginative scenarios
- Fast-paced combat that feels snappy
- Beautifully remade "2D-HD" presentation that's truthful to the original release
- Great soundtrack
- Attractive price point for a triple-A release
- Missed opportunity to expand on the game with additional scenarios
- Balancing problems that leave certain characters underleveled
- Controversial localisation quirks
- Very little incentive to experiment with different attacks in combat