Live A Live is a pixel-art role-playing game that’s here for a good time, not a long time, a formula that’s sorely needed in today’s games space where RPGs often demand dozens if not hundreds of hours to see through to the end.
Of course, that isn’t to say that massive RPG epics aren’t pleasant to get lost in, but what makes Live A Live exceptional is that it offers all the depth and narrative scope of games twice its length. What’s more, it pulls off this feat while telling not just one tale but eight delightful, seemingly unrelated short stories that span space and time.
Live A Live, by Square Enix, is a remake of the 1994 RPG of the same name for the Super Famicom that’s never before received an official western release. While the game presents itself as a rudimentary mid-90s JRPG, Live A Live is brimming with charm and stellar storytelling that would put most HBO shows to shame.
You play as eight different protagonists spanning different eras in human history: prehistoric, imperial China, the middle ages, the wild west, Edo-period Japan, the present day, and the near and distant future. It’s okay if one chapter doesn’t entirely click with you because it’s likely that the next one will. Even when a given chapter seems like it’s not going to be your jam, Live A Live finds a way to breathe life into it with a bountiful array of wacky references and subtle homages sewn within its stories. Whether you like tokusatsu shows like Kamen Rider, spaghetti westerns, kung fu dramas, or claustrophobic sci-fi space drama like Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, Live A Live’s wonderful assortment of heroes and settings is sure to have plenty that appeal to you.
By far, the chapter most deserving of my “prestige” TV comparison goes to the one set in Imperial China, subtitled The Successor. In it, you play as a Shifu, a martial arts master approaching the twilight years of his life. In his final days, the Shifu trains three rapscallion pupils in the ways of his dying martial arts in hopes of keeping his craft alive. Throughout their training, you dictate which students require extra rearing in Shifu’s Earthen Heart discipline by sparring with them more often than the others. The pupils, in turn, replicate the moves they learn from Shifu after being bested by him during training. However, the more the three improve, the more Shifu’s fighting ability decreases. Role-playing games so often give us a constantly rewarding sense of progression for all of our experience; here, those mechanics are used to poignantly communicate a sense of aging and decline.
Before their training can bear fruit, a rival school attacks Shifu’s dojo, killing two of his pupils. Not wanting to doom his surviving pupil with the cycle of revenge, Shifu sets out alone for one final battle against the rival school in a Game of Death-esque battle, leaving his once-cowardly student behind. I won’t give away how Shifu’s tale ends, but its thematic throughline of imparting life lessons and unearthing the latent potential within people society deems as worthless hits every bit as hard as Shifu’s ultimate technique, Heavenly Peaks Descent.
Even the game’s weaker chapters found a way to keep me engaged thanks to their gameplay gimmicks and homages to popular media in their respective genres. For example, let’s take the present day chapter. Subtitled The Strongest, this tale evokes the structure of wrestling and fighting games as it focuses on one man’s quest to assert himself as the greatest fighter in the world. In pursuit of this glory, he travels the globe, taking on the masters of a variety of fighting disciplines.
The cliché structure initially led The Strongest to feel like it was going to be your standard fight-night chapter, but it actually approaches this tried-and-true territory with real cleverness and enthusiasm. The best part: you can bait moves out of your opponents so you can add them into your arsenal. Needless to say, seeing the prompt “German Suplex learned” gave me a visceral sense of accomplishment no other game to date has ever given me. Present Day: The Strongest quickly became Present Day: Suplex City because that move was strong as hell. I have no shame in spamming it, though I do regret beasting on the chapter’s luchador martial artist before learning the Frankensteiner from them.
The throughline for each chapter’s battles is a turn-based combat system, though unlike Live A Live’s mid-90s Square contemporaries such as Final Fantasy 6 and Chrono Trigger, here, you also position your party members on a grid during fights, with their placement playing a key role in how battles play out. Learning the range of both an enemy’s attacks and your own raises the effectiveness of your turns. In the near future chapter, for instance, the best example of efficient tile management comes as you defeat goons with protagonist Akira’s hypnotic psychic powers.
Akira has the ability to read people’s minds. These psychic powers unearth an individual’s inner-most thoughts, but in battle they manifest as powerful, and ridiculous, psychic attacks. Akira’s major strength in the battlefield isn’t his punches or kicks, but his disorienting psychic attacks, some of which he can use on multiple enemies at once. Unlike the knight or rook-style chess movements of Live A Live’s physical attacks, Akira’s psychic abilities affect a generous column of tiles affecting as many enemies as possible. One such attack is Mother’s Shame–an attack that confuses enemies by invading their minds with thoughts of their mothers, causing them to lose the will to fight. Imagine preparing to put hands on someone, and then suddenly reliving in excruciating detail that time your mom tore your ass out the frame for not thawing out the chicken like she asked you to in front of all your friends. How terrifying.
Depending on the type of attack you dish out, you can give tiles elemental damage that chips away at enemies before their turns. For the prehistoric chapter, that means shitting and farting on enemy cavemen and ancient beasts alike. It’s super effective.
Visually speaking, Live A Live, a pretty standard pixel-art JRPG in its original incarnation, has now been given the HD2D treatment of games like Octopath Traveler and Triangle Strategy. The result is occasionally breathtaking, though those moments are mostly thanks to the game’s use of depth of field, bloom effects, and the bonkers sprite detail during its climactic boss fights. However, don’t let the cutesy sprites fool you: Live A Live is rated T, and for good reason.
The game might be called Live A Live, but folks nevertheless die unceremonious, gruesome deaths throughout its multiple chapters, be it at the hands of a vengeful martial artist, a troupe of dastardly bandits, a demonic dinosaur, or perhaps worst of all, a giant chicken kaiju. On the lighter side, Live A Live left me jokingly clutching pearls at the swearing, snarky comebacks, and brutally honest motivations for its protagonists. Hell, the driving motivation for the plucky caveman Pogo and his ape friend Gori in Prehistory: The First involves rescuing a woman and a band of gorillas so the duo can eventually bust their first nut. It be like that sometimes, I suppose. Instead of being tonally jarring, these absurd and light-hearted moments sing as a much-needed counterbalance to the game’s more somber and tragic events.
And without giving anything away, Live A Live culminates towards a powerful conclusion that will have its time-spanning heroes living on in your memory long after its credits roll…for the ninth time.