Live A Live Review: Undercooked RPG In Time

Originally released in Japan in 1994, Live A Live garnered a cult following due to its non-linear structure one in which each selectable character receives their own story. The Nintendo Switch HD-2D remake marks the game’s first official release in the West, which is great news for the JRPG genre. Given the genre’s fragile history with localization, any reintroduction of previously unreachable titles is always appreciated. It just means more options for non-native JRPG fans. Unfortunately, Live A Live’s random pacing and underdeveloped mechanics make for a release that delivers too little too late.

Live A Live Review: Undercooked RPG In Time

The center of Live A Live lies in the very structure that sets it apart from others in the genre. You can start the game as one of seven playable characters, each with their own gadgets. The prehistoric chapter introduces object synthesis, for example, while the near future introduces a protagonist who can read people’s minds. On paper, the system is a canvas ripe for a vast JRPG experience of unparalleled scope. In practice, however, this leaves a lot to be desired; the chapters are too short and too complete. None of the stories overlap, leaving each character to fend for themselves. While some decent vignettes exist throughout, Live A Live’s chapters struggle to really resonate. Ranging from 30 minutes to two hours is not enough to chew. The current chapter is one of the most glaring examples. After a short monologue, you are presented with a fighter selection screen. From there, you marathon six one-on-one fights with no dialogue outside of introductory banter. After defeating everyone in your path, you face the final boss, which features the only other cutscene in the chapter. The distant future is at the opposite end of this spectrum. The conflict between his stranded crew members leads to some genuinely interesting character moments with palpable tension. Unfortunately, the entire section is devoid of combat without the chapter boss. There is an optional video game console with the chapter’s only battles. Although they play like those in the main game, this turn-based distraction features no progression, making it irrelevant to the bigger picture. This lack of meaningful progression runs through the majority of a typical game. Game systems, plot threads, and characters are introduced and launched in a snap. Any mechanical complexity is rendered moot by the brevity of each character’s individual story.

A decisive confrontation

Of course, there is a reason for all of this. In a baffling design decision, the first 80-85% of Live a Live is just an introduction to the final chapter. An eighth chapter unlocks after completing the levels associated with the first seven characters, and it’s just as short as those of the original cast. After a series of events that we won’t spoil, the real final chapter begins. Miraculously, this last act barely saves Live A Live. Without delving into specific narrative elements, you select one of the original seven characters as a party leader and recruit the others in preparation for the final battle. You also get complete freedom when it comes to party composition, which plays a part in the fairly extensive optional content in this chapter. This section is filled with optional dungeons that don’t offer entry without specific active party members, and its dungeons house some of the most powerful gear for their respective characters. They range from simple 10-minute antics to expansive, convoluted mazes, many of which include secret bosses. It’s here, expanding on its RPG elements, that Live a Live becomes truly engaging and begins to shine. But everything is optional content. If you don’t care about secret bosses or completing all the dungeons, the epilogue boils down to spending 10 minutes recruiting three party members, grabbing a sword on top of a mountain, and heading to the final boss. You will likely spend time working out of necessity; the characters have too few opportunities for progression in their respective stories. But even then, there isn’t much room for growth. With each character gaining their final skills at level 16 – which doesn’t take long – Live A Live still feels underdeveloped.

Live a live or live a die

Even though the rest of the game offered the freedom and breadth of optional content present throughout the final act, the combat doesn’t offer much overall. Live A Live battles take place on a grid, with turn order decided by a meter that gradually fills up. Every action, from activating a skill to orienting a character’s stance, causes everyone’s meter to fill up simultaneously. The system sometimes requires acute spatial awareness with factors to consider such as speed, range, weaknesses and enemy resistances, but it never really deepens. At its toughest – namely during some optional dungeons – it’s satisfying enough to keep you invested. At worst, it feels like we’re on autopilot. The vast majority of Live A Live rarely tests your understanding of its mechanics. Even as late as the ultimate dungeon, spamming the same few single-target AoE or devastating attacks becomes the strategy of choice. With no resource management and magic points to consider, healing skills can be used without repercussions, and most skills simply don’t matter.

Live Live Review The Bottom Line

Advantages

The final chapter opens things up considerably. Some interesting stories and mechanics.

The inconvenients

Takes too long to start properly. All the chapters are too short. Most chapters don’t have enough combat. The lack of management of the deputies delays the battles. Even at its best, Live A Live feels like a badly mixed adrenaline rush. The vast majority of its execution is dominated by self-contained, mundane narratives and game systems that are abandoned upon introduction. By the time it expands on its interesting elements, you’re already within reach of the end credits. An unbalanced combat system doesn’t help its case either.
[Note: Nintendo provided the copy of Live A Live used for this review]

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