Live A Live was a game made by SquareSoft. It was released in 1994 for the Super Famicom, the Japanese equivalent of the Super Nintendo. It’s an extremely ambitious RPG game; rather than being one long story, you are given many short stories, each in a different time period from prehistoric times to the far future. This concept provides one of the most unique experiences in gaming history that is sadly, though understandably given its lack of a Western release, often overlooked.
Playing the Game
Live A Live is an RPG game with the added twist that you play as multiple characters in multiple settings. Despite this, the gameplay for all of the chapters is largely the same.
Combat takes place on a 7X7 grid and you can make your character physically move before executing a command. Instead of a basic “attack” command, every character has a list of techniques, including physical and non-physical attacks. Attacks have different ranges and directions in which they can be used; some are close-range melee attacks, others are long distance attacks. Some techniques only work if you’re a certain number of squares away from an enemy while others require you to stand diagonally from them. The same applies to enemies as well; sometimes it’s best to fight them from a melee distance while at other times doing so would be a death sentence as they crush you with their best techniques.
Also noteworthy is that unlike many RPG games from the same era, there is no MP or mana. In other words, even attacks that could be considered magic attacks have no cost associated with them. Furthermore, HP or health is restored at the end of every fight, so recovery items and techniques are only necessary in battle. You can equip up to ten items per character: one for the right hand, one for the left hand, one for the body, one for the head, one for the feet, and five accessories.
The core gameplay of Live A Live is unique and lends itself to some interesting and creative enemy encounters. The only complaint I have with the combat system is that there is a certain mechanic that isn’t explained very well – charge times. Different attacks take longer to execute depending on the charge time of the technique itself and the character’s speed rating. It’s not explained in the attack description how long it will take to execute that command.
While the game is programmed competently and, as far as I know, there aren’t really any major game-breaking glitches that Square was somewhat notorious for at the time, Live A Live suffers from absolutely horrible design choices. The effect of this flaw manifests itself in many ways. In one chapter you have to push a button exactly one-hundred times while facing a rock to open a passageway that will get you a good item once you do it again inside and use a specific item afterwards (using the wrong item will prevent you from ever getting the reward). In two chapters, you can have a character make an item by giving them multiple useless ones. You would have no idea which items would be required to get the best ones and in one case, the person upgrading your items can fail, potentially misleading the player into thinking that giving that item was a mistake. Finally, you have to do ridiculous things in order to trigger event flags in some chapters. There is one chapter where you have to climb a mountain, look at an object in a cabin, then go back down and examine an identical object in a house in a village to advance the plot. All of these things have one thing in common; you’re not told by anyone in the game that you can (or have to) do these things. In the case of the optional items, the uninformed player wouldn’t even know of their existence let alone how to get ahold of them. In the case of the event flags, people could wander for days not making any progress, wondering what to do. The chapters are generally short and allow you to start over or redo them if you missed something, but it feels like a feature to make up for a flaw the programmers couldn’t be bothered to iron out more than anything else.
Analyzing the Story
Or in this case, I should say stories as there are several and they exist independently from each other. I will present the basic premises in chronological order.
Prehistoric Chapter: You assume the role of a young caveman who has just met a cavewoman of unknown origin. It’s love at first sight and, naturally, hilarity ensues.
Kung-Fu Chapter: You assume the role of an old master in ancient China. His time is nearing its end and he seeks to pass down his techniques to a new generation.
Bakumatsu Chapter: An enigmatic lord by the name of Ode Iou seeks to throw feudal Japan into a state of perpetual war. You assume the role of a ninja who has been tasked with the goal of rescuing an important prisoner from Lord Iou’s castle and assassinating the warlord.
Western Chapter: You assume the role of an outlaw in the old west. He and his rival, a bounty hunter, arrive at a town frequently terrorized by a gang of bandits. Your goal is to work with the townspeople and your rival to defeat the gang by setting up traps and confronting the leader.
Present Day Chapter: You assume the role of a wrestler seeking to become the world’s strongest.
Near Future Chapter: A biker gang known as the Crusaders has been kidnapping people for unknown reasons. You assume the role of a young orphan with psychic powers. Only when he and his friend investigate their base do they learn the horrible truth behind the kidnappings.
Distant Future Chapter: A starship is making its way back to Earth from the cold reaches of space having captured an extremely dangerous life form. You assume the role of a robot built by the ship’s mechanic and are free to explore the ship and meet the crew before things inevitably go wrong.
The stories are, in a word, simple. They aren’t very long and consequently, aren’t fleshed out very well. They play up a lot of clichés associated with their respective genres. For instance, you can probably guess the major twist in the distant future chapter within the first few minutes of gameplay even if you have but a passing knowledge of sci-fi. Despite the stories being simple, they’re presented surprisingly well for such an old game. Arguably the best example would be the prehistoric chapter, which takes place before the concept of language and, therefore, features no dialogue. Because of this, the designers had to rely solely on their 16-bit sprites’ facial expressions and gestures to convey a plot. It’s really quite remarkable.
While the idea of playing through several simple stories instead of one complex one may seem like a waste of time, trust me, it’s not. What makes this game truly shine in regards to its story is something I refuse to talk about in this review, even in spoiler tags. Seriously, go into this game as blind as you can. Find a spoiler-free guide and avoid reading or watching anything having to do with this game online until you’ve cleared it. You’ll see the reason for my secrecy by the end.
Drawing a Conclusion
Live A Live is a somewhat difficult game for me to pin down in terms of quality. For all its ambition, I think of Live A Live as a case study in how not to go about level design. The game can very quickly become a tedious experience depending on how you play. When I played it, I found myself having to take long breaks every now and then because I often found myself frustrated with some of the chapters (the prehistoric and Bakumatsu chapters especially). That being said, I highly recommend playing this game at least once. All I can say is that something will happen that makes suffering through the mediocre sections totally worth it. It’s a game that, despite its age, manages to be an unforgettable experience for those who have beaten it and I think at the end of the day, even though it can be rough around the edges, I feel that the good qualities ultimately shine through. Just please remember to use a guide.
Final Score: 7/10