Even with gaming in its infancy, there are still so many games tucked away in dark corners that too few people have played. I've dabbled in a great many hidden gems simply because my dad was way too into emulation and had me test all the games he'd... acquired in the late '90s and early '00s. But some games just go completely missed out on, either because they're challenging to access, lacking localization, or generally receive poor support from major publishers.
Live A Live, a 1994 Square SNES JRPG, is one such game — lost in the cracks of history because the graphics weren't good enough compared to other popular titles at the time, according to one of the localization staff members at Square.
As such, the Western world was deprived of one of the most fascinating RPGs I've ever played, regardless of era. Well, last year, Square Enix fixed that mistake by releasing the remake on Switch exclusively, and I spent some hands-on time with the PS5/PC release that followed in 2023. I guess the graphics got better.
Just the Facts
Developer: Square Enix
Publisher: Square Enix
Platform(s): PC, PlayStation 4 and 5*, Nintendo Switch *denotes platform reviewed on
Release Date: April 27, 2023 (PC/PS4/PS5), July 22, 2022 (Switch), Sept. 2, 1994 (SNES)
Review key provided by publisher.
My whole life, I've had a sneaking suspicion there was some interesting PSX/SNES-era RPG that I'd just missed out on. One I hadn't even heard of. Something with an interesting narrative, and tons of quirky design elements, thanks to the limitations of the era. One that generally captured the vibes of the era of gaming that brought to life some of my all-time favorites, like Secret of Mana, Chrono Trigger, and Secret of Evermore.
Live A Live is exactly what I'd been missing. This time-traveling collection of mini RPGs was a core piece of the era, a contemporary to some of those favorites of mine.
When it was first announced during a February 2022 Nintendo Direct, I'll admit I didn't know much about it. But it didn't take long for the rabid excitement from fans to seep in, and I began to track it as a game to watch. There are gamers who had been waiting nearly 30 years for this — for localization of a Square RPG that had otherwise been lost to time (pun intended).
Live A Live is an interesting game to write about. With a nonlinear narrative of seemingly unrelated chapters, each taking place in a wildly different setting and time period, each with its own special gimmick, it's almost like the RPG equivalent of a short story anthology.
Its structure is much more approachable in the wake of modern releases like Octopath Traveler, but what Live A Live is attempting here remains incredibly ambitious for 2023, let alone for 1994 when it initially came out.
It's a remake that adds all the bells and whistles you'd expect from a modern remake, including full voice acting and the beautiful HD-2D makeover it deserves, reminiscent of the art style employed in the aforementioned Octopath. But it's what remains untouched from the original that makes Live A Live stand out as a hidden gem and as the Square Enix RPG that deserved this treatment more than even classics like FF6 or Chrono Trigger, thanks to its circumstances and relative inaccessibility.
Across Live A Live's seven chapters, the only true connective tissue is the fact that you'll play as some unexpected hero who stands up against an incomprehensible evil to prove their innate good. Outside of that and the game's uniting closing chapter, there's little that connects the narrative, giving it that anthology quality.
You've got tragic backstories, revenge plots, genuine horror, a completely dialogue-free caveman adventure, and even a classic old-school Western told across the game's 20-40 hour story. None of the game's chapters (each about one to three hours in length) stands out as truly innovative in their fields, as each story seems happier to pay homage to classics of each genre than to do something truly unique, but they're more than competent in their own right. In fact, Live A Live's writing is all-around sneaky good.
Voice acting helps to elevate the overall feel of some patented '90s quirky Square dialogue, and the smallest throwaway observation lines are given just as much weight as the heaviest plot-moving lines. There's a surprising poetic quality to the game's writing at times, which helps sell a cinematic quality for Live A Live's long-awaited remake. Tie that to how every bit of ancillary writing possible (ex: tooltips, equipment description, skill descriptions) is tied to the chapter's theme, and you've got a game that regularly elicits surprising giggles and genuine awe in equal measure.
What you'll find below is a brief summary of each chapter and a rating out of ten denoting my impressions of its overall narrative. Half of the fun of playing Live A Live was going into it completely unaware and being so genuinely surprised by how fun these stories were. I've teased here and there, but will definitely be more explicit about what each chapter holds in the dropdowns below.
Skip ahead if you'd rather not know, but take this summary as my testament to their quality: Live A Live's seven chapters are the distillation of early '90s game design creativity. And surprise: that still plays incredibly well in 2023.
Twilight of Edo Japan
Live A Live is the kind of old-school RPG that is constantly doing things behind the scenes. It never points you directly at what might happen if you take certain actions, but does just enough to nudge you in the right direction. It's the kind where your creativity prevails — you might be surprised by how often you can rely on your instincts, instead of trying to understand what you're expected to do. Live A Live rarely blatantly instructs you, so it's an RPG you must pay attention to, especially as each chapter introduces an entirely new pretense, map, and way to interact with the world.
And that's considering all the work done to make this remake an infinitely more approachable game, like adding in notes about weaknesses in battle or better explaining the more obscure mechanics for some chapters. The best addition for the remake is actually a map that guides you to the next story-relevant waypoint, something that helps so much on some of the game's bigger and more open maps.
But if you're the type to strive for completion and the best endings — or even if you just want clearer guidelines for the game — following a guide will be helpful.
Combat takes place on a 7x7 square grid and is all about position and timing. Each of your character's abilities and attacks has a very specific range (a large square area of effect, all characters in a diagonal line, etc.), so it's all about where you place yourself and when. Moves have no AP or MP to worry about. Instead, you simply have to wait for your character's meter to charge, and then sometimes the ability's meter on top of that. The meters represent a mix between traditional tactics RPG gameplay and the classic active turn-based combat systems of PSX RPGs. You'll move across the grid, and each movement passes a chunk of time for each player's turn meter. When filled, they get to take their turn. Think SUPERHOT meets a traditional tactics RPG.
It makes for a fun game of cat and mouse, where every battle stands alone as a puzzle to solve. Everything resets after each battle: health, status, and all.
You're constantly making fun decisions. You might bait strong opponents out of a sheltered position by standing just outside of their range and go in for the kill with a one-shot move on the most dangerous enemy, rather than choose the attack that could wipe out a bunch of smaller enemies.
The straightforward approach makes it easy to adapt throughout all of the game's seven chapters, and none of them mess with the formula too much, so it's easy for players to keep up from end to end. Because of the game's design, where you hop into a brand-new RPG every two hours or so, it never feels too difficult. You're meant to be able to choose any of these chapters as your first, so they're all balanced to account for this. It's nice to enjoy a low-stakes RPG from time to time, though, so it doesn't hurt the experience too much.
That is... until you reach the game's final chapter.
Live A Live's combat screen in the original (left) and the modern remake (right). Yeah, the graphics got better.
The game's final act is a bit of a downer, as it introduces more traditional JRPG elements. Here, we see the return of the grind and battling in random encounters — something that had hardly been present in previous chapters — and the game makes those random battles incredibly frequent as you're required to run back and forth across the game's biggest map. It was a little bit of a disappointing "back to basics" moment when the game had otherwise been pulling off some more innovative design.
Without spoiling anything, the culmination of the game's core good versus evil message and everything that each chapter has silently been building toward... it all ends up diminished by the stuff it forces on you in its closing hours. For all the new things that the rest of the game does, there's also a ton of the classic JRPG grinding and mass-leveling needed for some of the game's biggest challenges held primarily in the final chapter. The sudden shift in design philosophy feels like it spits in the face of what the game is trying to do in all other parts of its design. And as the final "prize" following every other piece of the game? It falls flat.
I guess it's hard to shake all the '90s out of a game like this.
While we're talking negatives, for all the quality of life changes added in Live A Live's remake, it's a bit of a bummer that some key pieces seem left on the wayside.
For one, you can't speed up fights one bit. Even temporarily. It's a feature I loved in modern indie RPGs like Chained Echoes, and it's always appreciated when Square adds it to remasters of classics like Final Fantasy 8, so it feels like a huge misstep to not include the feature here. Especially since every character's "ultimate move" now comes equipped with a long cinematic animation. Toward the end, with all the fights I was stumbling into in the final chapter and all the fights necessary to level up my characters, I couldn't help but wish I could just hit fast forward, or even let the fight auto-battle when I knew my team could handle the enemies easily.
Something like that would have easily made the final chapter less of a slog and relieved some of the grumpiness I had by the time I rolled the credits.
But even with that... Live A Live still holds a special place in my heart. With its adventure game-like design outside of combat; its wildly varied and reorchestrated soundtrack from the game's original composer, Yoko Shimomura; and the beautiful HD-2D facelift that employs modern cinematic twists on the relatively untouched original beautiful pixel work, Live a Live's best qualities still shine.
Live A Live is a testament to creativity, perseverance and preservation. To see a giant company like Square-Enix spare the time for a game released nearly 30 years ago on one platform in one region? We need to shout from the rooftops about it. Seeing a team revisit such a hidden gem all these years later and knock it out of the park in nearly every way? We need to be celebrating. Live A Live is such a unique experience that even its era-specific missteps are worth forgiving. RPG fans of all levels, walks of life, and interests: Live A Live will transport you through time, in more ways than you'd expect.