Live A Live is one of the most influential games you’ve probably never played. The role-playing game originally debuted back in 1994, but it never left Japan — but nearly three decades later, it’s finally getting a global release. The game is particularly notable as the directorial debut of Takashi Tokita, who went on to direct titles like Chrono Trigger and Parasite Eve. That makes Live A Live a fascinating piece of video game history — but it turns out it’s also a fascinating game.
Live A Live looks a lot like a traditional Japanese RPG, albeit one with some modern upgrades, including an art style that’s very similar to newer releases from Square Enix like Octopath Traveler and Triangle Strategy. It has turn-based combat, an epic story, and many of the other elements you’d expect from the genre. At the same time, Live A Live is unlike almost any RPG I’ve ever played — and it all comes down to its structure.
It’s basically like a collection of playable short stories. At the beginning of the game, you’re presented with seven different chapters that you can play in any order and which span from prehistoric times to the far future. Initially, these stories seem completely disconnected, though things start to make a bit more sense as you move toward the big finale.
What’s particularly interesting about the chapters, though, is how they all feel so different from each other. Part of this comes down to tone; being an outlaw gunslinger in the Wild West isn’t the same as playing as a Shinobi in Edo-era Japan. Some of the stories are extremely emotional, like the dramatic tale in Imperial China, while others can be pretty goofy, like the Saturday morning cartoon vibe of the prehistory chapter.
But they also play differently, utilizing the familiar JRPG framework to do some very cool things. Battles, for instance, are often used as a storytelling device, and the strategy changes depending on which chapter you’re playing. Training to become a martial arts master involves lots of repetitious battles, while a Wild West dual means short, dangerous fights from long-range. Live A Live has a very flexible battle system, where you move characters around a big grid, and the developers made use of that with plenty of unique scenarios. There are mech battles, stealth missions, and moments where you can read minds or sniff out a catch while hunting.
As with any large-scale experiment, not everything in Live A Live works perfectly. Some of the more oddball chapters are great; my particular favorite follows a budding street fighter through a series of battles that plays out like, well, a Street Fighter game. It’s very weird, and yet it works. On the other end of the spectrum, the prehistoric chapter features no dialogue at all. This makes sense given the time period, but it also makes the story extremely hard to follow. It doesn’t help that the chapter is full of juvenile humor; I found the most successful battle strategy was to fart and run away. That said, the chapters hit more than they miss, and even the failures are interesting.
Live A Live features some very welcome modern upgrades. Not only have the visuals been updated, but there are useful features like voice acting, a helpful mini-map, and the ability to save whenever you want. It can still feel like an older game at times — mostly due to some story moments that haven’t aged well and the occasionally tedious bout of battles — but for the most part, Live A Live doesn’t feel all that out of place in 2022. In fact, its relatively brief chapters, which only last a few hours each, are an almost ideal fit for the Switch, where you can pick up and play with ease.
Outside of just being a clever role-playing experience, Live A Live is also interesting because of how its experiments — in particular, a story that jumps around in both time and place and a large lineup of characters — seem to have influenced later entries in the genre. Tokita once again played around with different time periods in Chrono Trigger and its successor, Chrono Cross, had an absolutely massive cast for players to choose from. More modern games like Octopath similarly told a story from multiple viewpoints; I especially see Live A Live in 13 Sentinels, which explores time, location, and perspective in a myriad of ways.
Games don’t always age well, and so sometimes exploring the classics can feel like a chore, even if they happen to be influential. But that’s not the case with Live A Live. It’s a rare game that doubles as a great RPG and a great history lesson.
Live A Live launches on July 22nd on the Nintendo Switch.