Early on in Square Enix’s remake of Live A Live, it’s plain to see the influences the game had on Chrono Trigger. From spanning multiple timelines to the inventive area of effect skills, and right down to the simple, sometimes deep story, director Takashi Tokita clearly used 1994’s Live A Live as a springboard for his eventual masterpiece. But Live A Live deserves its own time in the spotlight, and after never officially being localised for the West, now this 28-year-old JRPG is finally getting the chance.
One thing we were keen to emphasise after our hands-on time with it was this game’s uniqueness. We were stunned by just how distinctive it still felt today. And beyond the first four chapters, that novelty never really stopped. Live A Live starts by presenting seven different characters all related to a different time period. You can select any one of the seven to start your journey, and each character has a self-contained story that you can save and exit out of whenever you want.
You don’t need to play through these in a specific order, they’re all very different, and there’s only one small thread connecting them that doesn’t knot together until you’ve beaten each scenario. We’ve talked about a handful of these in our preview, such as ‘The Distant Future’ where combat is pretty much non-existent, but there are other nuances too, like the ‘Present Day’, where fighter Masaru Takahara takes on six different combatants in a Street Fighter-style RPG tournament. So there are essentially seven delicious slices of cake, and each slice tastes completely different.
Many of the chapters have some obvious influences such as Alien and 2001: A Space Odyssey in ‘The Distant Future’, or Chinese poetry in ‘Imperial China’ which is all tied together beautifully by the game’s HD-2D visuals. This is a remake done in the same vein as Octopath Traveler, and a template that the Dragon Quest III HD-2D Remake is following. This nostalgia-inducing visual style is both faithful to the original Super Famicom game, and also stunningly detailed, and might just be the best-looking HD-2D game yet.
Not a pixel is out of place, as every single environment is utterly gorgeous, with character models that look distinctive and sharp and crisp, and colourful pixel environments that blend seamlessly with the 3D aspects. Rocks on cliffs, computer units, forests of bamboo, and more all meld together perfectly as jagged grass sways in the wind, or a warm flame flickers with sunset orange digital dots. Even the crystal clear water looks flawless as you sneak your way through Edo Japan underwater with your cute little pixel snorkel poking out of the top. And, on an OLED, it’s a real feast for the eyes.
Yoko Shimomura’s stunning score – rearranged for this remake – also really propels the feel of each timeline into the stratosphere. These rearrangements do the original justice and more; from an intense battle that will rock through the ages to a quiet walk along a Chinese mountain, the use of traditional instruments helps emphasise each time period, feel, and mood perfectly.
The remake also attempts to make the game’s accents match up to the era and location, where appropriate, with mixed results. Most of the chapters that are clearly set in a particular location – like ‘The Wild West’ and ‘Imperial China’ – nail their respective accents with some nice, immersive voice acting. But the HD-2D voice acting curse largely returns, with plenty of out-of-place voices, stiff delivery, and mismatched lines that can take you out of the action. It’s better than Octopath Traveler and Triangle Strategy, but still jarring.
Live A Live’s biggest strength is its structure, where it plays around with traditional RPG conventions and blends this with unusual themes and settings perfectly. As a result of its chapter-based structure, these all feel like bite-sized adventures that take between 30 minutes to three hours to complete. While it may feel like a whistle-stop tour as you breeze through the timelines and the characters don’t all get a ton of development, we felt like we were flicking through an adventure book, peeking through the pages and stopping when something interested us, then going back to each chapter until we’d finished it off.
But wait! There’s more! Live A Live loves a surprise, and after the first seven chapters, it still has more to give. Square Enix hasn’t been shy about advertising ‘The Middle Ages’ and the eighth character Oersted, and this unlocks once all seven chapters have been beaten. Completing this unlocks a final chapter where everything comes together. We wouldn’t want to spoil anything regarding these final chapters, but this is where fans will get their narrative fix. It’s nothing too deep or complex, but the story manages to convey some sombre, reflective themes that feel very mature even today.
Make no mistake, however. Despite the new layer of skin, Live A Live still contains the bones of a Super Famicom JRPG. This means there are times when things can get very vague. Edo Japan, while having one of the most interesting gimmicks, can also be one of the most difficult chapters because of it. Oboromaru can kill as many inhabitants of the castle as he wants (up to 100), or use his unique ability to hide and sneak. Depending on who you, ahem, leave alive (please, don’t groan!), you can get different rewards. Letting all 100 survive is particularly challenging, and we struggled to make it through without dying multiple times. Luckily, Live A Live is mostly linear for a chunk of its playtime, and the game autosaves after you reach each new area.
The very last chapter is perhaps the most guilty of being vague, throwing you into a scenario where you can choose your main character and recruit the others to join you. Without a guide, one or two of these can be a real pain, with lots of back and forth required, particularly if you miss a key item or don’t know where to find the character. And while there’s a handy radar (added for the remake) that guides you on which direction to go, it’s certainly no map, especially if you end up in one of the endgame character dungeons. Still, we loved it for the challenge, and the triumphant feeling of these characters all finally meeting. Don’t go in expecting a lot of interaction, but do expect some surprises.
These gimmicks don’t always lead to frustration, and almost every time, creativity wins out every time. ‘The Near Future’ lets you use Akira’s telepathy to read the minds of NPCs, which adds some fun flavour text to the world and characters. And in ‘The Wild West’, setting traps in a time limit, while amping up the pressure, captures the quiet restlessness of a Western perfectly. We couldn’t help but be swept up in their charm, as each one fitted its respective timeline perfectly.
The icing that holds this cake together is the combat. As mentioned in our preview, not every single chapter relies on (or even contains) combat, but when it’s there, it’s fun – after you’ve got your head around it. Battles are mostly random encounters (depending on the chapter), and you’re thrown onto a 7x7 grid. When your Gauge fills up – which is sort of like an ATB gauge – you can move your character around the grid. Every move you make, however, means the enemy’s gauge also charges slightly, so get used to playing a little bit of chess figuring out where best to place your character.
This is because many of the skills you can use in Live A Live have an area of effect (AOE). When you select your character's skill, you can see where the attack can hit. Sometimes, you’ll only be able to attack an enemy if it's on one of the squares surrounding you. Other times, you can hit them from a distant diagonal with a shot. And some skills can disrupt enemy attacks, push them back a square or two, and even lay down dangerous poison or elemental traps that cover a small portion of the arena.
At first, it feels like there’s a lot to get your head around, but there are a lot of little conveniences – old and new – that really help to make the combat fun and engaging, but also not too easy. Firstly, there’s no MP so you don’t need to worry about managing an extra resource. Instead, spells take varying lengths of time to charge up, depending on how strong they are. The game’s structure also eases you in to give you enough time to see what each character is good at and get used to their playstyle.
You can also see what each enemy is strong and weak against. Every single skill has an attribute, whether it’s a Strike or a Kick or fire elemental, and using these strengths, along with positioning yourself, is key to victory. We really enjoyed how you could often change the tide of battle by simply moving a character out of the enemy’s line of sight, and how laying down traps often clinched victory for us. Even when the final chapter ramped up the difficulty, and we sometimes bashed our heads against the wall as we had the wrong character or skill with us, we pushed through triumphantly. It’s just a shame that all endgame encounters are random encounters, though.
Live A Live has been well worth the long wait. This remake reintroduces an influential, unique JRPG to the wider world with aplomb, with a cacophony of different gameplay styles, music, and visuals that somehow hang together beautifully. Despite looking like Octopath Traveler and perfecting the HD-2D visual style, you'd do well to remember that this is still a Super Famicom RPG, with many of the frustrations that come with ‘90s RPGs still intact in this remake. Still, we admire that Square Enix decided not to change too much with this remake, instead delivering an authentic and faithful update to the game that the majority of players outside Japan missed nearly three decades ago. This is a piece of gaming history we have loved getting to experience for the first time.