You'll love it if:
- You’re looking for a bite-sized JRPG
- You’re a first-time JRPG player
- You're craving for a beautiful pixel art game to play
Not for you if:
- You expect a deep story from your JRPGs
- You want replayability and customization in your RPGs
- You’re not a fan of JRPGs in general
We genuinely take JRPGs for granted these days. During the 80s and 90s, it wasn’t unheard of for entire gaming series to never make it outside Japan. While they garnered a cult following then, casual gamers had to wait for years if not decades to play some of Japan’s biggest titles.
Live a Live is one such hidden gem. Originally a 1994 SNES Japan exclusive, Live a Live slowly outgrew its small team and minuscule budget to become one of the most beloved games of the era. Fast-forward to 2022, it received a proper remake, with the game’s original director, Takashi Tokita, now serving as the remake’s producer.
Studio Historia, with the help of talented people from Square Enix’s Team Asano, could finally get a second lease on life for Live a Live in 2022 on the Nintendo Switch. And on April 27th 2023, the game finally arrived on Playstation and PC platforms, making the 90s classic available to even more gamers worldwide. So, how does it fare compared to other Square Enix titles which share the same DNA, such as the recent Octopath Traveler II?
Live a Live is the perfect entry-level JRPG for gamers who’ve always felt curious about the genre. While it’s not as deep or ambitious as other Square Enix titles from the 90s, it has its own appeal and identity. Long-time genre fans will also find plenty to love here, with each of the game’s eight chapters paying homage to Japanese games, movies, and pop culture of the 90s.
Story – Vignettes Throughout Time and Space
Live a Live doesn’t have a traditional overarching story as most JRPGs do. Instead, you’ll play as eight different characters at eight distinct points throughout human history. In this sense, Live a Live is the progenitor of the gameplay style later revolutionized by Octopath Traveler.
From Prehistoric times, throughout the Wild West, all the way to the distant future, there’s plenty to look forward to here. Best of all, you can pick up, drop, and switch stories to your heart’s content. There’s a story of a lone gunman coming to a small town in the desert here. There’s also a story of an old Kung Fu master looking for a successor before he passes. Each story is unique compared to one another and there’s very little overlap in terms of themes, structure, or main inspirations it draws from.
And while the stories do converge at the end in a certain fashion (no spoilers, we promise), they’re still very individual and stand on their own. They also don’t overstay their welcome, with each taking 1-3 hours to complete at the most. What Live a Live lacks in gameplay depth, it most certainly makes up for in its heart and messages.
Gameplay – It Hasn’t Aged Very Gracefully
Gameplay is where everything should come together in a great JRPG – and Live a Live aged less than gracefully in this department. At its core, this is a turn-based, party-based JRPG. However, each of the game’s eight scenarios varies wildly in how much freedom you have.
For example, the Present Day chapter will see you remaining at level 2 throughout its run, while the Edo Japan one will see you levelling up and customizing your character with far more flexibility. Whichever chapter you play, and in whichever order, the core gameplay will remain the same. You’ll still fight enemies on a grid, choosing which skills to use and which items to rely on.
In some chapters, navigating the world will also become available. Again, some chapters feature more freedom than others in this department, with the Edo Japan scenario being the most non-linear in how you can tackle your objectives. Every other chapter draws inspiration from other games of the time, with some featuring classic bird’s eye view navigation and others relying on a stylized overworld on which your entire party is represented by the party leader.
Little to No Replayability
Beyond that, there are dialogue options to choose from, although they do very little in terms of player freedom – most chapters have fixed endings. This is a shame because Historia could have implemented a more non-linear approach to gameplay given that you can already choose which characters to play as and in which order.
At a healthy 20-25-hour runtime, the game is perfectly suited for every calibre of gamer. Ironically, this makes Live a Live the perfect contender for a Game Pass or Playstation Plus release, although Square Enix is unlikely to ever release their games on a subscription platform on day one.
Visuals – Team Asano’s HD-2D at its Best
Team Asano, under the guidance and leadership of Tomoya Asano, producer at Square Enix, has built its reputation on its striking visual direction. Dubbed “HD-2D” by Square Enix, this visual style is reminiscent of JRPGs of old, while embracing modern hardware capabilities to bring games to life.
Live a Live manages to look just as good as games like Triangle Strategy, Octopath Traveler, and Team Asano’s past titles like Bravely Default II. As is the tradition at this point, the team expertly merged classic 2D sprites and pixel art with a modernized environment design that doesn’t overstep its boundaries. Live a Live is still very much a “modernized SNES game”, albeit with a few visual quirks that make it stand out in 2023.
Visual effects like particles, bloom, depth of field, and others find their way into the title but are used in a healthy measure. The game runs exceptionally well and isn’t buggy or broken in any way, which is especially commendable in today’s gaming landscape. While it’s still very much a “budget” title for Square Enix (which also reflects in its lower retail price compared to AAA titles), Live a Live received all the love and care it needed to make a proper comeback.
Audio – Surprisingly High Production Value
Despite its visual style, the game features exceptional audio design and voicework. Because each of its chapters takes place in another space and time, the developers had to get creative with voice acting. The results are nothing short of exceptional.
The Wild West chapter features genuine cowboy accents you’d expect from a spaghetti western. On the other hand, the Prehistoric chapter features no voice acting and no dialogue whatsoever. Instead, characters communicate through comical speech bubbles, gestures, and body language. Whether you play the game with Japanese or English voice acting, Live a Live will make you genuinely laugh and cry alongside its quirky characters.
Beyond the voice acting, the game sports traditional SNES-inspired sound effects which we’ve all come to know and love. The 16-bit soundscape sounds both modernized and retro at the same time, in a way only the SNES could pull off.
Stellar Score by Yoko Shimomura
Yoko Shimomura is a name you’ll likely recognize if you’ve played JRPGs for a while. Known for her iconic work on the Kingdom Hearts series, Live a Live represents a Yoko Shimomura we’ve not had the pleasure to hear in the West. Thankfully, she joined studio Historia on this remake and closely supervised the reimagining of the game’s original soundtrack for our hearing pleasure.
As one of her earliest works at Square Enix, this soundtrack is as rich and varied as you’d come to expect from a game featuring eight separate worlds you’ll explore. Its soundtrack is exceptionally addicting and you’ll find yourself listening to the game’s music long after you’ve completed your favourite chapters.
Conclusion – Should you Play Live a Live?
Described as an “omnibus of RPG stories” by its original director, Live a Live represents a piece of Japanese gaming history. While it may seem like Octopath Traveler’s less ambitious sibling from today’s perspective, the latter wouldn’t exist without the former. The fact is that Live a Live walked so that Octopath Traveler could one day run and become the JRPG staple it is today.
That leaves one question – should you play Live a Live? Yes, you should. Whether you’re a hardcore JRPG fan or someone with a passing interest in the genre, you’ll find something to love here. The game truly does respect and reward your time without overstaying its welcome at a brisk 20-25-hour runtime. While there is little here in terms of replayability, players looking for a bite-sized experience will definitely walk away satisfied.
Whether we’ll ever see a proper sequel to the 1994 original is anyone’s guess – what’s here however is worth the price. Live a Live is now available on Nintendo Switch, Playstation, and PC platforms, with Xbox sadly being passed on by Square Enix once again.
Huge thanks to CD Media for providing us with the review copy!