Hands On: ‘Live A Live’ gives a unique 16-bit RPG a beautiful new life

Image: Nintendo / Square Enix

If you’re interested in Super Nintendo RPGs, you’ve probably heard of Live A Live. Released in 1994 for the Super Famicom in Japan, it came out during what many believe to be Square Enix’s – then known as Square, or Squaresoft in the West – “Golden Era,” launched a little less than a year after Secret of Mana, and barely six months after Final Fantasy VI, two of the developer’s most well-known games on the system. Oh, and just a few months later, something called Chrono Trigger also came out. So not a bad time for the RPG developer?

Unlike the aforementioned trio, however, this game has never seen an official release outside of Japan – until now. Live A Live has been revived for the modern age with a glorious HD-2D coat of paint, the same retro-modern visual style made famous by Octopath Traveler and repurposed in Triangle Strategy. We’ve had a chance to go hands-on with four chapters of the game – three of which are playable in the recently released demo – and we can confidently say that, even 28 years later, Live A Live still feels like a of the most unique RPG experiences we’ve ever been in.

The direct comparisons to Octopath Traveler are pretty obvious – from the HD-2D visuals to the multiple playable characters – but Live A Live is its own beast. In the four chapters we’ve seen, each story is a completely separate scenario. None of the playable characters from one chapter appear in another character’s story, and each chapter has its own themes.

Each chapter of Live A Live takes place in a different time period and you can play them in any order. Each story has its own visual and musical identity. This was true on the Super Famicom, and it is still true today.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be too surprised given the developers’ pedigree. Takashi Tokita, director of the Super Famicom version and producer of the remake, wrote and directed Chrono Trigger and Parasite Eve; combat director Nobuyuki Inoue directed GBA classic Mother 3; composer Yoko Shimomura (who oversees this stunning recast soundtrack) has an endless list of RPG credits from Kingdom Hearts to the Mario & Luigi RPG series, as well as working on the upcoming Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope.

Live A Live is tearing up the ’90s JRPG rulebook in terms of structure, and the fights also twist the familiar formula

Let’s start with an overview of the four chapters we spent time on: ‘Twilight of Edo Japan’ plays Oboromaru, a shinobi tasked with sneaking into an enemy castle; in ‘Imperial China’ you are a kung fu master who wants to pass on his legacy and secret technique to a protégé; ‘The Distant Future’ follows a cute little spherical robot (amusingly called Cube) as he and a crew of humans travel through space; and “The Wild West” – the chapter not included in the demo – in which a wanted sniper drives into a town trapped under the heels of a band of bandits.

From what we’ve seen of these four’s stories, they’re relatively straightforward, enhanced by the setting, the music, and – most importantly – the unique ‘gimmick’ of each chapter. For example, in ‘Edo Japan’ you can bypass the castle by using Oboromaru’s exclusive ability, which makes him blend in with the environment and go unnoticed. Or you can fight any enemy you come across. However, in ‘The Distant Future’ there is no battle at all to where we played. Instead, you simply explore your ship and solve a mystery with the help of your crew members.

Of the four chapters we’ve played, Imperial China feels the most like a traditional RPG, as you bring back three potential successors to train them and take on them in one-on-one battles. ‘The Wild West’ has some combat, but you spend most of your time exploring the town of Success and collecting and setting traps to prevent the outlaw gang from terrorizing people. Even if we knew these chapters would “play” differently, we were still surprised by the variety in just this handful of stories and the small amount of flexibility, especially since this is a 1994 RPG, and we’ve never seen anything like it ever since.

A consistent running line in the game is the combat, which – until now – is the same in every chapter where it is present. Live A Live has already torn up the 90s JRPG rulebook in terms of structure, and the fights also twist the familiar formula. Battles are turn-based, but instead of lining up your characters, you fight on a 7×7 grid. Once a character’s Charge Gauge (like the ATB gauge Square introduced in Final Fantasy IV) is full, you can move him around the grid and select what your next move will be.

It is critical to use the gauge and grid to your advantage, even in the beginning. Watching the enemy’s Charge Gauge and exploiting their weaknesses – which you can watch at will in battle – is the key to winning. When you select a skill, whether it’s offensive or defensive, you’ll see the grid light up in certain spots around you, showing the skill’s area of ​​effect. This means that you can use some attacks on enemies when you’re a few squares away from them, or others only work when you’re diagonally across from them.

While we had no problem with many of the battles in the game at the beginning of these chapters, some – like Oboromaru’s – can be challenging if you’re not used to the systems being played. This is perhaps the area that some may have to get used to the most, and where the game showcases many of its ‘classic’ RPG attributes.

with its beautiful looks and sound coupled with a distinctive structure, Live A Live is a curio that we are very pleased to see making a comeback

This isn’t a combat-dominated RPG though and, from what we’ve played, each chapter feels appropriately scaled meaning we didn’t have to grind early. Aside from what we mentioned with Oboromaru, plus a boss in Sundown’s – which will vary in challenge depending on how you approach their stories – Live A Live feels more like experimenting with structure and flexibility than its contemporary Super Famicom RPGs.

The demo gives you a nice taste of what to expect from Live A Live, and our time with the extra ‘Wild West’ chapter proves early on that this is an RPG that deserves to be remembered for its sheer uniqueness. This HD-2D remake is true to the Super Famicom release so far, so don’t expect any major changes, but with its beautiful looks and sound coupled with a distinctive structure, it’s a curio that we’re very happy to have a make a comeback – and a western debut.

We continue to travel through the different eras in preparation for our final judgment.

Live A Live launches on Switch on July 22. You can download the demo, which includes a portion of Imperial China, Twilight of Edo Japan, and The Distant Future, from the eShop now.

Have you played the demo yet? What is your favorite chapter so far? Let us know in the comments.

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