Reviewed on Switch
Publisher Square Enix
Developer Square Enix
I went into Live A Live expecting the time-capsule experience of unearthing a long-lost Super Nintendo RPG from Takashi Tokita, one of the creators of Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy IV – two of the best games ever made. Even with Live A Live’s design roots stretching back to 1994, little about it feels classic. The colorful pixelated characters scream of that era, but most of the game is inventive, modern, and delightfully goofy (and sometimes shockingly profane).
It’s unlike anything else out there, delivering an unpredictable and joyous adventure that changes its narrative and gameplay foundation every couple of hours. I walked away from this odd game blown away by its variety and not knowing what would happen next, both in the story and play.
Square Enix establishes a unique pulse within seconds of booting up the game by dropping the player onto a character select screen without giving a clue of the narrative’s general direction. Here, the player must select their first viewpoint into a generations-spanning mystery from a batch of seven characters, each occupying a different era in time. From a troglodyte battling dinosaurs in the early prehistoric days to a robot lost in the cosmos in the distant future, each protagonist explores a wildly different story path backed by just as many gameplay changes. All seven chapters are breezy, lasting no more than a couple of hours at most, yet are long enough to tell interesting origin stories for each character. Think of them as short stories that lead somewhere.
Any time you select a character, expect the unexpected. In the prehistoric era, humankind hasn’t yet learned how to speak, so the entire story is pantomimed, often delivering plenty of humor through overly exaggerated expressions. In the present-day scenario, the story unfolds through a fighting game format, complete with a ladder of opponents and a final boss at the top. In the near-future chapter, the character can read minds, which takes NPC interactions to new heights and gives the tale a fun superhero vibe. I do have to give a warning that the humor in the entire game goes well beyond what you would expect, including a comedic sequence in which you click through the moans of two people making love. All timelines are thematic successes unraveling through beautifully rendered visuals using the dev team’s same HD-2D style for games like Octopath Traveler and Triangle Strategy.
The Wild West scenario, which puts the player in control of a Clint Eastwood-like drifter to save a town from a bandit incursion, has all its elements working. The characters are fun to follow, the humor is excellent (and irreverent), exploration is rewarding, and the gameplay is fun. After getting to know the townsfolk, you scour their houses and businesses for supplies to create traps, assigning their creation to the people you meet, hoping they can set them before a timer reaches zero. If you choose correctly in your assignments, the traps that work limit the number of bandits you battle. This chapter’s combat offers a fun mix of boss battles, most carrying a “high-noon standoff” intensity.
The Wild West chapter is easily the best, but most are enjoyable, even if they stumble in unique gameplay executions. For instance, running across the rooftops as a ninja in feudal Japan is invigorating, but the confusing design of this sprawling open area leads to some unwanted backtracking and general uncertainty as to where to go next. Thankfully, the ninja's unique invisibility ability limits the number of encounters when lost.
Highs and lows are also present in the distant future scenario. Figuring out why people are dying on a space station is a great narrative thread, but it sadly pushes you to ride an elevator far too often to uncover the mystery. Given your brief time with each scenario, the irritations don’t sting much, allowing the great content to bubble to the surface and stick with you as you move to the next chapter.
Some chapters have open areas to explore. Others don’t. Some stories lean heavily on combat. Others limit it to a battle or two. Some encounters are random. Others aren't. I can’t stress how much fun it is to discover what each scenario offers. Combat’s overall design is the one gameplay element that is the same in each chapter. Live A Live makes good use of a turn-based grid system, pushing the player to be strategic in where they stand when using specific attacks, abilities, and items.
Even though you only spend a couple of hours with each main character, there’s good reason to level them up and give them better gear. Bosses are no joke and can make short work of an under-leveled character. Each level grants a character a new attack or ability and stat boosts across the board. For instance, if you don’t hit level four in one area, you may not get a useful healing ability or an attack that exploits a boss’ vulnerability. This design encourages thorough exploration and pushes you to take on every foe. Most of your time is spent walking and talking, but the shape it takes and pacing of it is quite different in each scenario.
What happens after completing all seven chapters? That’s another big mystery that kept me playing long into the night. I will say the payoff is well worth it, both for the additional gameplay that unfolds and how the narrative unites the threads in a mystical or sci-fi way. On that note, the final chapter delivers player choice, so make sure you save the game before starting it so you can revisit it later to see how it changes.
We’ll never know how Live A Live would have fared in the U.S. back in the day. Flash forward nearly three decades, and I can’t recommend this revitalized relic enough. It’s that good. This is another must-play Switch RPG that entertains in ways I didn’t expect and kept me glued to the screen for well over 20 hours.