Don’t even ask me exactly how the title is supposed to be said.
I know a lot of my posts tend to be behind the times because it takes me forever to finally get around to playing some games. At least in this case I’m actually reviewing a retro game! Not only that, it is a Squaresoft SNES game that never received a North American release. I played this fan-translation (by Aeon Genesis) on a SNES emulator, via my laptop, and we watched it on the big screen TV. Talk about a makeshift merging of technology.
Live A Live is a unique experience. Instead of being a typical story featuring a main protagonist to play as throughout the adventure, instead you’re treated to different chapters featuring different characters during different time periods. These chapters can be tackled in any order. We played them in chronological order. First we were Pogo, the caveman who lives in prehistoric times before humans could even talk. Yeah, that was an interesting chapter. Then we bounced around from the Wild West, Bakumatsu Japan, Kung Fu… all the way to the future, which was dubbed the “Sci Fi” chapter. The chapters vary not only in lengths, but in content and game style. One chapter will be a traditional JRPG, while another can have more of an action game set-up.
Seriously, Masaru’s chapter looks like it was taken straight out of a Megaman game!
Each chapter runs about 1-3 hours, depending on the story and how much optional content you have to choose from. If you decide not to take on an uber-difficult optional boss your first time through, don’t worry; you can always replay a chapter to get any loot or other content you missed . I really liked this set-up for a couple of reasons. If you generally dislike a certain character or time period, you’re not stuck with them for long! Some of the chapters are more Earth-shattering “Oh my God WTF just happened?!” than others. And most of them have pretty forgettable (but laughable) supporting cast.
While the basic elements of battle stay the same so you don’t have to re-learn how to play the game, each character has their own unique ability set so things stay fresh. The constant learning of moves and abilities is fun… when the enemies don’t decide to take zero damage just because.
I also liked the very subtle tie-ins. You can literally play the chapters in whichever order you desire. The overarching link is easy to miss if you aren’t paying attention. In fact, at one point Steve-O and I looked at each other and were like, “I hope we aren’t supposed to know what the hell is going on already.” It isn’t until the eight chapter (unlocked after completing the seven available at the beginning) that everything comes together in a relatively surprising twist.
As I mentioned, the overall battle system remains consistent from chapter to chapter. It certainly has its pros and cons. Live A Live has turn-based roots with some strategy elements blended in. When it is a character’s turn, you can move them around the battlefield’s square grid. Keep in mind, enemies can take their turns while you’re trying to get a character situated where you want them to be to either do damage or not take damage. I really hated that. It felt like I’d move someone one or two blocks over to get the enemy within range of their attack, only to get them hit by the enemy first! Each character’s ability in their arsenal will have a different area of effect and range. So as I said earlier, it takes a little bit of learning and practice when you’re hopping from chapter to chapter. I did really like that there is no resource pool for any moves. No MP to worry about. Some abilities have charge times, which is understandable. And if you don’t feel like toggling through the menu at each character’s turn, with the tap of a button you can have them repeat the last move they made. There won’t be many opportunities to do this, seeing as how most enemies love to dance around and ensure you can’t simply spam the same attack against them.
While playing this game, it’s important to keep in mind the generation of gaming it came from. There are many staples of the JRPG genre and old school games that make me twitch with annoyance. In no particular order, they are:
1.) Poor ability/item descriptions. Not sure if this is a translation error, but I’ve seen it in mass-produced games as well. As a little aside, the caveman’s chapter consists of silly nonsense words and sounds to serve as names for his abilities. I imagine that was a bitch to translate.
2.) Lack of direction: It isn’t hard to mindlessly wander around and not know what you are supposed to do or where you’re supposed to go. If a character has a unique ability they can use while wandering their “world map” then use it. Often.
3.) Damage Inconsistencies: Okay, maybe it is an issue of just ignorance on my part. But when a character uses an ability against an enemy and it does 5 damage in one round and the next it does 100 without one of them getting buffs or debuffs, I get confused. Then I get annoyed.
4.) No inventory arrangement options. Pure laziness, Squaresoft.
6.) Boring, traditional leveling with little-to-no feeling of advancement. You know what I mean, right? A totally passive leveling experience. Characters get experience and gain levels as well as new abilities once in a while. But the battles never feel any easier. You’ll notice their hit points changing (and some characters get WAY more HPs than others). But the battles still seem to drag on sometimes.
5.) And last, but not least… Random encounters that are harder than boss fights with no warning label attached! Especially before auto-saving became a thing. They just LOVE popping up to ruin your day, without the decency of allowing you to level up first.
I swear, the fish was THIS big!
However, there is one missing RPG staple. Currency! There is no money in this game. In a way it makes sense, as you bounce from one character and time period to another. Yet on the other hand, I wouldn’t have minded if the more RPG-traditional chapters had currency accrual. Then I could’ve at least purchased healing items and equipment to make some of the battles less miserable. Being at the mercy of how many healing items the game feels like giving you (or how many you can find) is quite agitating in certain zones. In Ninja Assassin Oboro’s chapter, I’m pretty sure we had to fight the final boss with no healing items left and no heal spells. That was… stressful, to say the least.
While you’re wandering aimlessly or slowly plowing through some fights, you’ll be treated to amazing music! Yoko Shimomura composed this soundtrack and does not disappoint! Every song is atmospheric and contributes to the setting superbly. Each chapter you’ll be treated to new and enjoyable tracks. Definitely some of Shimomura’s best work.
I have my reservations about making too many comments regarding the final chapter. So I’ll just say this: use a walkthrough. There is a special set of armor to be unlocked and the requirements for doing so are quite random. Two examples: for one piece, you have to run away from 100 battles during the last chapter. For another piece, you have to turn away when you’re staring the final boss down, then wander in complete darkness to find an optional boss fight. Weird things that people like me forget to do. The final chapter is considerably longer than all the previous ones. If you want to level and see everything available, plan on this chapter taking you twice as long as the lengthiest chapter.
I’m quite surprised this game was never released outside of Japan. Compared to some of the other retro RPGs that made it to North America (*cough*BreathofFire2*cough) that I’ve played, this ranks pretty high. I mean, yeah, you have to have the stomach for the aforementioned list of annoyances. But Live A Live is one of those few examples of a JRPG breaking a lot of the rules of its own genre and actually accomplishing something noteworthy. In Live A Live’s case, this happened twenty years ago, and sadly not enough JRPG enthusiasts even know it exists.