Final Fantasy 6 and Chrono Trigger are among my favorite games, so when I heard about Live A Live, a game made by a bunch of the Square teams who worked on both of them I was intrigued. Unfortunately, I first heard about it years ago before the fan translation came out and because of that I also spoiled myself on some of the major twists thinking that I wouldn’t be able to play it anytime soon. When the fan translation did come out I didn’t really get around to it because I can just be real bad at starting games in my backlog. That all changed when the official remake was announced because I knew now was the time I finally would play it. I’m really glad I did wait too because this remake does a fantastic job being faithful to the game while infusing it with whole a bunch of quality of life improvements and new content that improves the game even more. The remake also just looks fantastic too and the remade soundtrack is phenomenal. Having it completed recently I can say with certainty that it’s become one of my favorites alongside CT and FF6, making a phenomenal hat trick for Square of that era. While I’m still a bit more partial to Chrono and FF6, Live A Live still awed me by how ambitious and ahead of its time it was and still, unfortunately, is. Live a Live trail-blazed the mechanics of the JRPG into game genres that weren’t even fully realized yet during its original ‘94 release such as stealth games/immersive sims and survival horror. The game also critiqued the tropes of the JRPG that had already formed, twisting them around to bring a new perspective. The game just holds up so well, it’s amazing.
I’ve kind of fallen out on modern JPRGs some; there’s still quality ones being made and games I enjoy such as FE: Three Houses and Mega Ten 5, but a recurring problem for me in recent years is how modern JRPGs tend to regurgitate the same annoying tired light novel/anime tropes and aesthetics without any introspection. Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is a good recent example of this to me, but these problems even extended to older RPGs too; like I bounced off Trails in the Skies 1 several hours in after like the twentieth time some rando townsfolk told the game’s two adoptive sibling teenage protagonists that they should totally bang (Which I find out later that they actually do in the sequel! Just grand!) and the cast included such wonderful and engaging character archetypes such “drunken lady who creeps on teenage boys and is considered an unromanceable hag because she’s single at 24 ”. Live A Live does wear its genre influences proudly on its sleeve and most of the chapters play their corresponding genres pretty straight. But in stark contrast to the negative examples I listed, this works so well in Live a Live because it is clear that devs had a genuine love for the genres they adapted ranging from super robot manga/anime, westerns, sci-fi horror, and fighting games as well as having a clear understanding of what made them work and how they could be recontextualized through an RPG lens. They just didn’t mindlessly ape what was popular or just what they just consumed on a surface level like some modern JRPGs wont to do. Not to mention all of these genre shifts all build up to the game’s central themes which end up being itself a celebration of recurring themes that tended to pop in JRPGs but done with actual insight.
There’s seven initial chapters you’re free to choose to play in any order; Prehistory, Imperial China, Twilight of Edo, Wild West, Modern Day, Near Future, and Distant Future. Present Day was the first chapter I played it and it was a strong introduction. Present Day is essentially Street Fighter: The RPG as it pits you against essentially a bunch of fighting game characters complete with a fighting game character select screen. You learn your opponents’ moves once they use them on you, adding to your repertoire of moves. The chapter also felt like a good introduction to the game’s combat system, which is set on a grid, with different moves having different ranges and area of effects. It’s a solid system that I liked throughout the game and it does its own thing separate from CT and FF6. The chapter is overall just an unambiguous love letter of fighting games and their stylings.
Prehistory and Near Future are more standard JRPG fare, they’re still quality and not bad at all, but they’re the weakest of the chapters, with Near Future beating out Prehistory for me because its climax is hype and the kind of over the top anime silliness I am here for. Both don’t have a lot for me to really gush over like the other chapters, I’d actually recommend knocking them out early so you can really dive into the more interesting and ambitious chapters later so they feel like better narrative climaxes.
Imperial China was my favorite, a genre standard wuxia tale of a shifu training his students but recontextualized through RPG mechanics to bring it to life. The Shifu is in his twilight years and this is illustrated by him being stuck at level 10 throughout the chapter, he has learned all that he can and no longer gains experience. By battling the students you train them to become stronger, gaining levels, stats, and learning the Shifu’s skills. Eventually they will surpass the Shifu in level and through that it does a masterful job of giving a player an emotional connection through the mechanics. The chapter culminates in one of the best emotional beats in the game.
Twilight of Edo blew me away with how much of a genuine stealth game it felt, a genre still in its relative infancy when Live a Live first released; the only other real games in the genre at the time I can think of being Metal Gears 1 and 2. The intricate level design with multiple avenues to progress with a bunch of optional encounters to discover as well as the ability to play through the whole mission without killing anyone were mechanics games such as Thief and Deus Ex would do years later, but here’s this SNES JRPG doing it in 1994. Mind you there’s some trial and error to do so because you have to do it in a specific way and it can be rather easy to lock yourself out of it but it’s not too bad and as someone who loves stealth games I was accustomed to creating a bunch of save slots to reload from; not to mention that you don’t need to do it at all if you don’t want to.
The Wild West chapter takes the usual JRPG mechanic of rifling through townsfolks’ furniture to find random junk and it transforms into a frantic search for items you need to procure in order to create and set up traps to prepare for the final showdown with a ruthless gang of bandits at dawn. Live A Live manages to capture that feeling of dread and anticipation of an impending final showdown codified in classic Western cinema such as High Noon, The Dollars Trilogy, and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance better than even dedicated Western games like Red Dead Redemption and Call of Juarez: Gunslinger. The climactic battle is just great and of course it wouldn’t be complete without riding off into the sunset.
The Distant Future chapter is a shift to survival horror adventure set on a spaceship mostly devoid of combat taking heavy cues from Alien and 2001: A Space Odyssey; there’s only one proper fight that’s not a mini-game. Like Twilight of Edo, Distant Future also feels ahead of its time with genre; Alone in the Dark was two years prior to Live a Live and Resident Evil 1 would be two years later. One must contend with a monster that Cube the robot has no chance of beating so fleeing the beast through the claustrophobic corridors of the ship is your only option, akin to later horror games like Amnesia that wouldn’t come out for another fifteen years. Distant Future is also just a really fascinating and engaging chapter.
Finally there is the Medieval Chapter as well as The Final Chapter where all the previous 7 protagonists team up and while I won’t dive into spoilers too much, the Medieval Chapter is a genuinely interesting twist on stock JRPG plots mainly focusing on how its two male protagonists believe they are owed whatever they want due to their status as heroes of the realm and how that leads to tragedy. And what makes the chapter even more interesting is how it ties into the other chapters as well as the Final Chapter. While the Medieval Chapter pokes holes at a bunch of JRPG narrative clichés and mechanics, as previously I alluded at. the Final Chapter ties them all together with the previous 7 chapters and reconstructs it to the usual JRPG tale of human connections and optimism saving the day but it does so with real thematic understanding and after all that you’ve done in the game it feels completely earned and leads a to great climax that the remake improved on even more.
Live A Live is one of the finest RPGs I’ve ever played and one I wish was brought outside of Japan sooner. Just imagine who and what it would have inspired in the medium if a larger audience was able to play it. Definitely probably going to be my GOTY even though there’s still a bunch I need to play. Highly recommended for RPG fans, truly one of the absolute classics.