For a lot of JRPG fans who are a touch older than me, there is no more defining era on gaming than the Super Nintendo. Games like Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy VI are genre defining titles, still considered some of the best games to ever be created. This era, relatively early in the life of video games as we know them now, also featured a lot of titles that never made it to the west. If you’re like me and not the kind of person hunting down fan-translations of these impactful games online, then there can be celebrated cult classics totally flying under your radar. This was apparently the case with Live A Live, a game I had never heard of when it was announced but for which I have seen nothing but unbridled enthusiasm. While I’m currently keeping my distance from Squeenix titles due to their heartily embracing NFTs, I couldn’t help but be curious about this supposedly incredible JRPG. So I decided I would download the demo and give it a try.
Assuming you read the title of this article, you already know what I thought about the demo. I’m not sure if there’s something I don’t see simply because the SNES was just enough before my time that I don’t have nostalgia for this era, or perhaps because I didn’t play the entire game. But if the demo is any indication of how I would feel about the game as a whole, then Live a Live is not a JRPG that speaks to me. I want to dig into the reasons why, so strap in and join me for my reflection on my experience with this demo for a celebrated title that simply did not click with me.
The premise of Live A Live is that it allows you to experience a series of stories across multiple time periods. From feudal Japan to the “wild west” to a space colony in the distant future, Live A Live has a number of chapters that each focus on a different protagonist. While the different eras of history are a unique twist on the premise, it’s a concept we’ve seen in other titles like Octopath Traveler or – more contemporary with Live A Live – the fourth entry in the Dragon Quest series. Play through the journeys of separate heroes who are all going to wind up together at some point to take on a greater evil. The other aspect of Live a Live that I think sets it apart from these other concepts is that it in small ways, each chapter is also mechanically distinct. Depending on the era you are playing, you experience the game’s core mechanics in a bit of a different way. The demo features the opening of three different chapters: ancient China, feudal Japan, and the distant future.
One thing I’ll say right away for Live A Live: the game looks damn good. HD-2D continues to be an evocative style and Live A Live demonstrates the many different ways in which it can be pushed by applying it in so many different settings. The bright colors, simple but effective character sprites, and compelling environments make the game a pleasure to look at. The music is solid too; while the themes in China particularly stood out to me as being enjoyable, I enjoyed the soundscape in the other chapters as well. The one area where I will knock Live A Live in terms of presentation is the English VO; it was bad enough that I wanted to change over to Japanese dubs but the game did not offer me the ability to make that change from the in-game settings menu.
I’ve heard that China is considered by many to be the “best” starting point for the full game so I decided I would start there for the demo as well. In this chapter, you play an elderly master who is seeking out pupils in order to pass on your knowledge of kung fu. You select your students from among the downtrodden – people in the village who are causing trouble but perhaps underneath the surface have good hearts. As a kung fu master, the shifu begins the game at level 10 and has lots of powerful abilities to bring to bear – you likely won’t have trouble fighting enemies in this chapter. But the students have a lot to learn, and creating opportunities for them to gain much-needed experience is what the chapter is about.
Combat in Live A Live takes place on a grid. It’s not what I would call a tactics game, though. Allies and enemies alike have Final Fantasy -style ATB bars that have to charge up before they can take an action. While charging, you can move freely from tile to tile – this is important because moving out of the attack range of enemies keeps you from getting attacked and causes them to uselessly burn a portion of their gauge. Once your gauge is full, that’s the time to move in with one of your attacks. Characters can have up to eight different abilities with a variety of shapes and effects. Ideally you want to attack from positions where you can hit with your abilities but the enemy cannot reach you with theirs. In the China chapter, this is pretty simple because of the shifu’s huge selection of comparatively high-level skills.
When enemies do manage to damage you, you can use items or abilities to heal. Damage also doesn’t appear to carry over between battles (this could be unique to the demo, I’m not sure) so you’re really not worrying about repeated encounters being battles of attrition. This is further reinforced by the lack of any apparent MP mechanic – more powerful moves are instead restricted by either limited ranges or having to charge up in order to activate the ability in addition to waiting on the normal ATB gauge. Normally the advantage of a system like this is that each battle can really push you to understand and master the system, but there’s not much in the demo that suggests this would really be the case with Live A Live.
There is one section of the demo that demonstrates how complex the combat mechanics can get. On the space station in the distant future, you can play a “retro game” that is in reality a series of combat challenges. You are given a specific character – Captain Square – and must use his defined suite of abilities to defeat increasingly-difficult combinations of enemies. This section isn’t just about identifying what ranges are effective – you also have to pay attention to the elements of your attacks as well as their secondary functions. Some enemies have very high resistances and can only be worn down by creating dangerous tiles on the field for them to take damage from. Others can only be attacked with a specific move, requiring you to have precise timing to line up the blow with the time that the enemy is going to move into the targeted square. I would have liked if the game’s standard battles were as compelling as these challenges, but it seems the fights which actually require you to use your brain are mainly limited to optional content.
Overworld gameplay for the most part resembles any other JRPG you might have played. Walk around, talk to NPCs, and open everything vaguely container-shaped in hope of finding items. The one area in the demo that builds on this more is feudal Japan, where you have the option to stealth through the entire chapter and not kill anybody. When guards see you in the overworld, a single button press causes you to totally disappear from their sight; they’ll kind of poke around for you and then either return to their normal routine or hang out around the area where you shook them off. You can fight enemies normally as well but I wanted to see how viable it is to stealth through entirely, especially since the nonviolent path in most video games tends to be tied to a better conclusion. For the most part a stealth-only playthrough feels viable, but there was at least one area I found that forced an encounter I couldn’t flee from, so you’ll have to be careful where you explore.
Overall, Live A Live left me unimpressed not because it is bad, but because it doesn’t feel like it’s doing anything particularly compelling compared to other JRPGs of a similar style. I like how it looks but graphics aren’t enough to keep my attention. The mechanics have potential but that potential only seems to be fully realized in optional content and not as an integrated part of the chapters. It feels like the game is primarily noteworthy as a way to experience nostalgia for a particular era of gaming. Was it likely impressive in its time? Sure! But for me personally “impressive in its time” isn’t enough motivation for me to be compelled by a game. I’m glad for those loving Live A Live, but it’s not an experience that works for me.
Fair enough! I haven’t bought it, but I am interested because it has a pretty unique format. Plus, I have read every chapter plays quite different from the others.
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Yeah I wouldn’t necessarily dissuade others from trying it out even if it didn’t quite work for me. The demo should still be available so you always have the option of giving it a try before committing!
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This has largely been my experience when playing any of the highly praised JRPGs from yesteryear. I get that they were very influential in their time, but holy bajebus they feel extraordinarily dated because 25+ years of games have come out and iterated upon what they’ve done. What’s worse is that most people don’t seem to recognize that a lot of their enjoyment for this style of rpg stems entirely from their nostalgia for the era. If you don’t have said nostalgia then these games are almost entirely impenetrable.
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