Platform: Nintendo Switch
Release Date: July 22, 2022
Live A Live is one of the most unusual Japanese RPGs I’ve played in years. This isn’t a story about a group of young friends banding together to save the world. It doesn’t take place in a medieval fantasy kingdom. Don’t expect any larger-than-life villains, interminable cutscenes or a playtime in excess of 100 hours. But assuming you’re not married to any of those things, Live A Live can be downright refreshing — and more often than not, it’s fun, too.
Live A Live is a remake of an SNES game that never made it to the West, until recently. Rather than playing through a single story, start to finish, Live A Live offers you the choice of seven different protagonists, each one of whom offers a story that lasts for a few hours. The result is a varied experience with lots of interesting design choices. On the flip side, however, not every one of the seven stories is a winner, and some are downright dull.
Still, there’s more to like than dislike in Live A Live, between its intriguing characters, good-enough combat and diverse settings. And whatever else you can say about the game, if you find yourself bored with a section, there are six completely different ones to try out instead. Read on for our full Live A Live review.
Live A Live review: Gameplay
Live A Live is, in the strictest sense of the term, a JRPG. It's a role-playing game from Japan, and it has some of the genre's hallmarks, including turn-based battles, explorable towns and a lot of dialogue-driven story scenes. But combat isn't really the central mechanic in this game. In fact, what you spend most of your time doing depends entirely on which chapter you pick.
In Live A Live, you'll play through seven distinct character stories, with some more material toward the end to tie everything together. You can play through these stories in whatever order you choose, and until the endgame, none of the characters or story elements cross over with each other.
There's a tremendous amount of variety on display among the seven stories. In no particular order, you can play as:
- Pogo, a caveman in prehistoric times
- The Earthen Heart Shifu, a martial arts instructor in Imperial China
- Oboromaru, a shinobi in Edo Japan
- Sundown, an outlaw in the Wild West
- Masaru Takahara, a globetrotting fighter in the present day
- Akira, a mecha pilot in the near future
- Cube, a sentient robot in the distant future
Not only that, but each character's section features a remarkably different central hook for its presentation. Pogo's section plays out entirely without dialogue, since humanity hasn't invented languages yet. Masaru's section plays out like a Street Fighter tournament, with six different combat scenarios that you can play in any order — and not much else. The Shifu's adventure is less about the master himself, and more about the apprentices he can train — and you can choose which one ultimately becomes the strongest.
Apart from combat (which we'll cover below), there's not that much crossover in the game's structure from chapter to chapter. As such, some chapters are riveting, some are shrug-worthy, and some are unbelievably boring.
Oboromaru's section, for example, is a tedious stealth slog, where you'll spend most of your time simply waiting for enemies to walk away from you. Cube's chapter is arguably where the game hits its nadir, though. In this uninspired Alien ripoff, you'll wander around a spaceship, talking to the same characters again, and again, and again, until you fight a single boss about three hours later. And remember: none of these chapters are optional. You'll have to complete them all to get the full experience.
It's easy to appreciate Live A Live for its incredible range of characters, settings and gameplay mechanics. At the same time, I imagine every player is going to dislike — if not despise — at least one section. When that happens, there's nothing to do but grin and bear it.
Live A Live review: Combat
The only thing that every chapter in Live A Live has in common is the combat system. Like many other JRPGs, Live A Live has a turn-based battle system with some light positioning elements — and that's about it. There's nothing really wrong with the game's battle system, and it's a diverting enough way to break up the story cutscenes every so often. But once you get past the novelty of controlling each new character, combat can feel both repetitive and arbitrary.
The setup for battles is pretty simple. Every so often, you'll run into an enemy while exploring a town, dungeon or overworld area. You appear on a separate battle screen, where you and the enemy occupy a grid. You, and up to three allies, can move around the battlefield, one square at a time, and make use of your combat abilities. These range from offensive kicks and punches, to powerful elemental magic, to valuable healing techniques.
Combat gets most of its depth from positioning. Each attack has a different range and pattern, which means you'll have to position yourself accordingly — and hope that the enemy doesn't move out of the way before you do. A simple punch, for example, might work in any square adjacent to your character; a long-range gunshot might require you to line yourself up diagonally from many squares away. Similarly, you'll want to position yourself where the enemy's most powerful attacks can't hit you.
The constant push and pull of positioning versus using abilities is somewhat interesting, but most enemies go down easily, and boss fights can feel either repetitive or unfair, depending on how difficult their patterns are to discern. The combat isn't strong enough to carry Live A Live single-handedly, although it's usually a fun way to spend a few minutes at a time.
Live A Live review: Story
Much like the characters, the quality of the story in Live A Live is highly variable. Up until the end of the game, there's not much of an overarching plot, so the real draw here is simply getting to experience a whole lot of different narratives in a single game. The dark, paranoid tone of Cube's story is nothing like Masaru's upbeat tournament. There's a certain dignity to the Shifu's quest, and a lot of silly humor in Pogo's.
Which stories resonate and which ones don't are largely down to personal taste. Still, I find it hard to believe that most JRPG fans would walk away without finding at least one enjoyable chapter — and at least one that they could have done without.
Live A Live review: Visuals and sound
Since Live A Live was initially an SNES game, it channels the early '90s era of colorful pixel art and lively sprites. However, the game has received a full remake on Nintendo Switch, utilizing the "2D-HD" style found in games such as Triangle Strategy and Octopath Traveler. (Octopath Traveler is actually a spiritual successor to Live A Live, so fans of the former, take note.) That means detailed characters, fluid animations, gorgeous backgrounds and a vibrant color palette. The Wild West level in particular looks great, with dusty brown vistas, green cacti and clear blue skies as far as the eye can see.
The music and voice acting are a little less consistent. The battle themes all sound spirited, and each one fits the chapter theme, from flutes in Edo Japan to strings in Imperial China. On the other hand, I can't remember any of the melodies, and didn't sit up and take note of any while they were playing. Similarly, the voice acting is mostly on the inoffensive side. Some characters during Cube's section really ham it up, however, which can be distracting.
Live A Live review: Verdict
Live A Live deserves credit for not being just another JRPG in a market that's already full of them. It's not necessarily one of the best JRPGs on Nintendo Switch, but it's worth a look from fans of the genre who are in the mood for something a little different. With seven distinct characters and chapter styles, you won't be bored — at least most of the time — and you'll probably find at least one that sticks with you. (I personally liked the Shifu's chapter quite a bit; your mileage may vary.)
Pick up Live A Live if you want to experience a lost part of the genre's history. On the other hand, if you want a much more polished version of the same concept, there's always Octopath Traveler, which is arguably one of the best Nintendo Switch games.