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Sunday, July 31, 2022

Live A Live

An experimental Square Super Famicom RPG that was passed up for localization for nearly thirty years, but acquired a dedicated fanbase through the avenue of fan translations.  It's also one that proved ahead of its time in several ways and is credited with laying the groundwork for later hit titles like Chrono Trigger.  But is this odd outing one that's still worth trying out today, or was it left in Japan so long for good reason?

In the days where the Internet was starting to become mainstream, Square quickly became known as much for their localized games as for the ones that most English-speaking players never got a chance to play.  Hell, some of my earliest memories from surfing online were learning about the world of emulation and the vast number of games that never got brought over to our shores, and I actually tried out some early efforts at fan translations for games like Final Fantasy 2, 3 and 5, often with unfinished text and corrupted graphics (and more than a few instances of cringey, shoehorned-in swearing to make them more 'adult').  Live a Live wasn't one I tried out until quite a while later, and I didn't get too far owing to its strange format and offering the player quite a bit of openness and choice compared to JRPG norms.  But, with the game getting a surprise remake on the Switch twenty-eight years after its initial release, I figured it was time to finally give it another go.

Live a Live is one of Square's first attempts at an "anthology RPG" format; that is, telling several shorter stories rather than having one large, overarching plot that carries throughout the game.  Indeed, there are a total of seven stories to pick from and play through in any order, with each character coming from a very different walk of life and a totally separate time period from the others.  Each also brings at least one unique gameplay twist to the format. 
  • A caveman in a chapter which contains no dialog (as spoken language was yet conceived in prehistory), but the story is conveyed entirely through character gestures and animations.  It puts emphasis on a crafting system too, having you combine sticks, bones, rocks, hides and other items to create equipment.
  • A ninja sets out to infiltrate a palace in feudal Japan, and has a bit of a stealth element - you can press a button to hide behind a "screen" that makes you invisible to foes (even if you put it up while in their line of sight), and there are multiple hidden paths through the palace to take, with the story's outcome depending on which enemies you choose to kill (or if you choose to kill none at all save those strictly required).
  • Set in imperial China, an aged shifu is looking to pass on his arts to several prospective students; accordingly, he starts off the chapter with a wide variety of skills and quite high stats, but cannot advance them any further, while his students must learn his moves and boost their stats through training with him.
  • The Old West chapter stars a wandering gunslinger who must defend a town from a gang of bandits, utilizing traps to weaken and disable them to make up for being severely outnumbered.
  • In present day, you play as a fighter in training, who slowly learns moves by observing them in battle with other fighters.  This chapter also has a character select screen and pre and post battle taunt screens reminiscent of many fighting games from the '90s, though the actual combat still plays the same as it does elsewhere.
  • In the Near Future chapter, you play as an orphan with telepathic powers, seeking out a biker gang to avenge his father's death.  Fittingly, it also contains many science fiction and cyberpunk tropes, and even features a giant robot (complete with theme song) as a central element.
  • In the Distant Future chapter, you play as a robot named "Cube" who builds bonds with the humans aboard a spaceship transporting a dangerous cargo, and it plays out like a visual novel more than anything else, having almost no combat at all outside of an optional minigame.
After finishing all seven, you unlock an eighth chapter, which appears to be a more traditional fantasy RPG at first, with a sword-wielding hero, magic-users aiding him and a medieval setting, and the way it's completed will set up how you play the ninth and final chapter.  Each chapter in the game is only a couple hours long (in fact, some can be 'finished' via a bad ending in far less time) and, as mentioned, they vary quite a bit on overall style; some put heavy focus on combat while others are just about telling a story.

Live a Live's combat system was a relatively unique one, too.  Instead of a side-view combat system like Final Fantasy, Live a Live has more of a top-down perspective, and has both enemies and allies positioned about a 7x7 grid.  The Active Time Battle system from Final Fantasy is still sort of here, though 'time' only advances when you move about a grid or select an action to perform, with some of your more powerful spells having a considerable delay before they're actually cast (and if a character is knocked back or felled before then, it won't activate).  Each character has a list of skills to pick from, with all of them having unique attack ranges - they may be usable against enemies in any of the eight surrounding squares, in a straight three-square-wide line, in eight directions with only the closest square to the character being out of range, and so forth.  Each also has a unique element and may inflict status effects or debuffs on hit, which adds a nice strategic bent - you may not do a lot of damage with a particular move, but weakening an enemy's attacks or chance to hit for a short period may make it worth using anyway.  Even items follow these rules, as you need to be next to an ally to heal them, though the upside is that items also have relatively wide ranges and can heal (or harm) multiple characters at a time.  There's a little touch of the later SaGa games in there too, as one a character is downed they can be revived, but if they're hit again while downed they're removed from the field for the rest of the battle.  Leveling up is pretty brisk compared to most RPGs, too - characters typically gain levels in only 1-3 battles, but that's little surprise considering how short each chapter is.  One can also rather easily evade enemies if they don't wish to fight, as monsters are visible on the maps and you almost always succeed when you try to run (unless a scripted event dictates that you can't).

Being a game spanning numerous time periods, Live a Live has quite a bit to offer both visually and musically, with some inspired tunes and art styles fitting each of the periods and quite distinct character designs, with even some well-known mangaka getting involved; one in particular that surprised me was the Feudal Japan chapter having character designs by Gosho Aoyama, best known for creating Detective Conan/Case Closed.  (Incidentally, this also contributed to the game not seeing a re-release or remake for so long, as they would have to seek permission from their publisher to do so.) 

 The Switch version of Live a Live provides much the same experience as its original incarnation, but with some improvements made to its presentation and overall balance.  The sprites stay in line with Square's classic style but are redrawn and updated for this version, and they mesh surprisingly well with the 3D backdrops that utilize large-pixeled textures.  Most dialog scenes are now given high quality voice acting (for the most part; the accents are often more than a bit phony-sounding), the soundtrack is beautifully redone, the UI is substantially improved (with health bars and weakness/resistance indicators, among other things), and as someone who found the HD-2D gimmick lacking in the previous games utilizing it, I think it actually looks pretty damn good here - there's far less ugly stretched textures, pointless blurring and harsh contrast than earlier attempts, and while it contains numerous added flourishes like lighting and particle effects, they never feel overdone or distract from the beautiful 16-bit styled spritework (likewise updated from the original).  For the first time I think HD-2D has finally been done right, enhancing and updating a classic game to modern standards and adding something to the underlying 2D component rather than clashing with it.  If anything, Live a Live proves that this visual style works much better for enhancing games from an earlier era rather than making new games that try to somehow look 'retro' and modern at the same time and fail at both.

So, while its individual stories were quite short even in the timeframe of the late '90s, let alone by modern standards, and the overall simplicity of its mechanics may be offputting to some, I still think that Live a Live is worth a visit for any genre fan.  It's an interesting, experimental title that tries to do a lot and mostly succeeds, putting the player in several short stories, changing up its gameplay to each of them accordingly, and capping it all off in a surprisingly satisfying finale that brings all of the protagonists together for one final challenge.  Hell, its multiple story paths and range-based tactical combat system also arguably served as prototypical elements for classics like Chrono Trigger, SaGa Frontier and Bahamut Lagoon.  Speaking of... HD-2D remake of Bahamut Lagoon, Treasure of the Rudras or Chrono Trigger next, Square Enix?  Please?

Developer: Square, Square Enix, Historia
Publisher: Square Enix
Platform: Super Famicom, Switch
Released: 1994, 2022
Recommended Version: The Super Famicom version was famously fan-translated many years ago and enjoyed a small following among obscure RPG enthusiasts, and is certainly worth a look from a historical perspective.  However, the Switch HD-2D remake is the one I'd recommend now, as it's a substantial refinement gameplay-wise and aesthetically and, hopefully if it sells well, we'll see more old Square/Enix RPGs redone in this style.