Live A Live
Image: Nintendo / Square Enix

If you have any interest in Super Nintendo RPGs, then you’ve likely heard of Live A Live. Released in 1994 for the Super Famicom in Japan, it came out during what many claim is Square Enix's — then known as Square, or Squaresoft in the West — 'Golden Era', launching just under a year after Secret of Mana, and barely six months after Final Fantasy VI, two of the developer’s most well-known games on the system. Oh, and just months later, something called Chrono Trigger came out, too. Not a bad time for the RPG developer, then?

Unlike the aforementioned trio, however, this game never saw an official release outside of Japan – until now. Live A Live has been revived for the modern age with a glorious HD-2D lick of paint, the same retro-modern visual style made famous by Octopath Traveler and used again in Triangle Strategy. We’ve had a chance to go hands-on with four of the game’s chapters – three of which are playable in the recently released demo — and we can confidently say that, even 28 years later, Live A Live still feels like one of the most unique RPG experiences we’ve ever sat down with.

The immediate comparisons to Octopath Traveler are pretty apparent – from the HD-2D visuals to the multiple playable characters – but Live A Live is its own beast. In the four chapters we’ve seen, each story is an entirely separate scenario. None of the playable characters from one chapter show up in another character’s story, and each chapter has its own themes.

Every single one of Live A Live’s chapters is set in a different time period, and you can play them in any order. This means every single story has its own visual and musical identity. This was true back on the Super Famicom, and it’s still true today.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be too surprised given the pedigree of the developers. Takashi Tokita, director of the Super Famicom version and producer on the remake, went on to co-write and co-direct Chrono Trigger and Parasite Eve; battle director Nobuyuki Inoue directed GBA classic Mother 3; composer Yoko Shimomura (who supervises on this stunning rearranged soundtrack) has an endless list of RPG credits from Kingdom Hearts to the Mario & Luigi RPG series, and is also working on the upcoming Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope.

Live A Live tears up the '90s JRPG rulebook in terms of structure, and its combat also twists the known formula

Let’s start with an overview of the four chapters we’ve spent time with: ‘Twilight of Edo Japan’ stars Oboromaru, a shinobi who is tasked with sneaking into an enemy castle; in ‘Imperial China’, you are a kung-fu master who is looking to pass on his legacy and secret technique to a protegé; ‘The Distant Future’ follows an adorable little spherical robot (amusingly named Cube) as it and a crew of humans travel through space; and ‘The Wild West’ – the chapter not included in the demo – which features a wanted gunslinger riding into a town caught under the heel of a gang of outlaws.

From what we’ve seen of the stories of these four, they’re relatively simple, amplified by the setting, the music, and – most importantly – each chapter’s unique ‘gimmick’. In ‘Edo Japan’, for example, you can get around the castle either by using Oboromaru’s exclusive skill, which allows him to blend into the environment and go unnoticed. Or you can fight every single enemy you come across. In ‘The Distant Future’, however, there’s no combat at all up to where we’ve played. Instead, you simply explore your ship and solve a mystery with the help of your crewmates.

Of the four chapters we've played, ‘Imperial China’ feels the most like a traditional RPG, as you bring three potential successors back to train them up, taking them on in one-on-one fights. ‘The Wild West’ has some combat, but you spend most of your time exploring the town of Success and collecting and laying out traps to stop the outlaw gang from terrorising people. Even if we knew that these chapters would “play” differently, we were still surprised by the variety in just this handful of narratives and the small degree of flexibility, particularly because this is an RPG from 1994, and we haven’t seen anything like it since.

One consistent throughline in the game is the combat, which — so far — is the same in every chapter where it's present. Live A Live has already torn up the '90s JRPG rulebook in terms of structure, and its combat also twists the known formula. Battles are turn-based, but instead of lining your characters up in a row, you fight on a 7x7 grid. Once a character’s Charge Gauge (like the ATB Gauge that Square introduced in Final Fantasy IV) has filled up, you can move them around the grid and select what your next move will be.

Using the Gauge and the grid to your advantage is key, even early on. Watching the enemy’s Charge Gauge, and exploiting their weaknesses – which you can view in battle at will – is key to winning. When you select a skill, whether it’s offensive or defensive, you will see the grid light up in certain spots around you, showing the skill’s area of effect. This means some attacks you can use on enemies if you’re a few squares away from them, or others only work if you’re standing diagonally to them.

While we didn’t have a problem with many of the game’s fights early in these chapters, some – such as Oboromaru’s – can pose a challenge if you’re not used to the systems at play. This is perhaps the area that may take the most getting used to for some, and where the game shows many of its ‘classic’ RPG trappings.

with its beautiful look and sound coupled with a distinctive structure, Live A Live is a curio we’re very glad to see making a comeback

However, this isn’t an RPG dominated by combat and, from what we’ve played, every chapter feels appropriately scaled, meaning we haven’t had to grind early on. Aside from what we mentioned with Oboromaru, plus a boss in Sundown’s – which will vary in challenge depending on how you tackle their stories – Live A Live feels more about experimenting with structure and flexibility than its contemporary Super Famicom RPGs.

The demo gives you a nice flavour of just what to expect from Live A Live, and our time with the additional ‘Wild West’ chapter proves early on that this is an RPG that deserves to be remembered for its sheer uniqueness. This HD-2D remake is faithful to the Super Famicom release so far, so don’t expect any major changes, but with its beautiful look and sound coupled with a distinctive structure, it’s a curio we’re very glad to see making a comeback — and a Western debut.

We’re off to carry on travelling through the different eras in preparation for our final verdict.

Live A Live launches on 22nd July on Switch. You can download the demo, which covers a section of Imperial China, Twilight of Edo Japan, and The Distant Future, from the eShop right now.

Have you played the demo yet? What’s your favourite chapter so far? Let us know in the comments.

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