Originally posted on 1UP.com 9/28/12
Living in the Past: Live-A-Live
A Japanese only Squaresoft RPG that is more than the sum of its parts.
Note: For the sake of making the post easier to read and follow, the commonly accepted English names of characters have been used, as the game has never been officially translated to English.
If you were playing video games during the Super Nintendo era or a fan of classic JRPGS, then the name Squaresoft likely holds a great deal of meaning for you. The company released many of the best RPGs available for the Super Nintendo, several of which are considered among the greatest games ever released. Though RPGs were still something of a niche market in the west, in Japan the genre was in full swing and Squaresoft was experimenting with the limits of an RPG, crossing genre boundaries and daring to try new and untested ideas. One such game, lost to the annals of obscurity especially here in the west, was 1994’s Live-A-Live.
Live-A-Live is at once a collection of very clever ideas, and the poor execution of several of those same concepts. It is a game that has a great deal of heart, but not the resources to see the vision through as intended. Live-A-Live as a product of post Final Fantasy VI Squaresoft is a telling artifact of Square’s future that was to come. It is a lost piece of Squaresoft history that never made it to America, and Live-A-Live is far more than the sum of its parts. It is a title that is full of fantastic ambition, yet sometimes riddled with the worst elements of JRPG design. Live-A-Live is an experiment of sorts, stretching the boundaries of what a JRPG could be with divergent gameplay and narrative styles presented through eight unique chapters that each follow a separate protagonist and a final chapter that ties the various stories together.
As a Super Nintendo game released in 1994, Live-A-Live is far from any sort of major technical achievement, featuring graphics that look like a step backward from the previously released Final Fantasy VI, looking more like Final Fantasy IV and V in design and world navigation. Most of the game looks solid aside from a few of the chapters which are lacking in cohesion. There are colorful and detailed sprites on display, especially for the protagonists and chapter bosses. Some of the designs feature creatures more bizarre and otherworldly than even Final Fantasy titles, with at least two sprites for each enemy. The same compliment cannot be said of the battle animation. For the most part, the protagonists are all well animated and feature differing art based on what percentage of health they have remaining, but the same cannot be said for the enemies. While Final Fantasy IV through VI featured enemy sprites without animation, watching the still sprites move about the battlefield and use some of their special abilities looks awkward at the best of times and outright poor at the worst. A fair amount of palette swapped enemies also diminishes the impact of the art design. While some moments of very clever and inspired art design show through, such as the end credits sequence, the game on the whole suffers from mediocre presentation from a company known for pushing hardware to its limits. It looks worse than both the last great Square game before it, Final Fantasy VI and far worse than the next to come, Chrono Trigger.
Live-A-Live struggles with consistency in narrative, gameplay and visual design but an area where it universally succeeds is in the soundtrack. Composed by Yoko Shimomura of Kingdom Hearts, Legend of Mana, and Super Mario RPG fame, the Live-A-Live soundtrack spans a strong blend of multiple styles to fit the eight protagonists and give each a distinct set of tracks. Each of the eight initial chapters features a set of unique exploration themes and a unique battle theme to break up the typical RPG monotony of the same battle music for an entire game. All of the music is solid and there are a few standout tracks which have continued to appear on Square Enix music compilations, remix albums and on Drammatica, a collection of Shimomura’s best work. From the faux Spanish guitar and lonely whistles of the western chapter, to the pump-you-up modern day themes that echo Shimomura’s work on Street Fighter II, to the gothic tones of the final chapter, the soundtrack to Live-A-Live is far and away its strongest aspect. Yoko Shimomura produced a soundtrack full of surprises for the SNES era, evoking a soundtrack completely different from previous Squaresoft RPGs.
Live-A-Live follows eight different characters with gameplay variations in each chapter, but the battle system remains a unifying element between them. It is a unique beast, unlike any of Squaresoft’s other Super Nintendo RPGS. Battles are fought on a 7×7 grid in a manner almost like small scale Tactics Ogre battles combined with aspects of Final Fantasy, Grandia or Lunar. All attacks are special abilities chosen from the particular character’s repertoire and there is no MP or SP system as all attacks can be used without limit but stronger ones take time to charge. Characters are completely healed after every battle, which is a necessity of Live-A-Live’s narrative focused design and eliminates the need for inns and all but one shop. While this system has the potential to make each battle significant and challenging, it turns most into meaningless conflicts that consist entirely of abusing your current character’s most powerful attacks. It makes many of the scripted battles feel hollow as they either present no strategic challenge or are overly difficult because of inconsistent battle design. The system gives almost no information to players and the strength of enemies, effectiveness of items and attacks must all be learned through experimentation. There is simply not enough information available to the player to understand the mechanics of the game except through trial and error. The different narrative structures also leave certain characters heavily underpowered for the finale while others are able to grind during the course of their narrative. The battle system manages to make a passable RPG experience by the final chapter once a full party has been assembled, but the game loses all challenge once each character has their final technique. Live-A-Live will leave you with fond memories of its story and music, but not its battle system.
The narrative of Live-A-Live is one of its most interesting aspects, and stands alone from other RPGs in the Square catalog. While having multiple protagonists to choose from was something the SaGa series had previously done, Live-A-Live features a story that spans multiple time periods with storylines indirectly tied together by the final chapter. Each chapter features characters designed by a different prominent manga artist, but without knowing it, it’s hard to tell. Live-A-Live is largely a story about different heroes finding their place in the world, but the overall story touches on much more interesting notes than the idea of the hero’s journey. The chapters are so notably different in design that each bears its own mentioning and examination.
This chapter tells the story of a juvenile hunter coming of age in his tribe who discovers a mysterious woman escaped from another tribe and starts a tribal war. Told almost entirely without words, it is a charming reminder of the ability Square had to deliver emotion through 16-bit sprite animation. This chapter is the most like a traditional RPG in that it features the closest thing Live-A-Live has to a shop, a barter system that combines items to make new ones. Players are also able to explore the map at their leisure for most of the chapter to grind experience and items using Pogo’s sense of smell to locate battles. Featuring optional bosses, the chapter works well for the most part aside from a later spike in difficulty that will force you to spend some time grinding.
Kung Fu Chapter
This chapter features a traditional story of a martial arts master near the end of his life seeking out someone to inherit his martial arts style before he dies. After locating three potential students, he sets out to pass on his techniques while still answering calls for help from a nearby village. The chapter is largely story driven with a lot of the battles found while wandering the map being rather pointless. The master is unable to gain experience and his students will mostly power up through training. Though the game offers to let the master train all three students, players should only focus on one student as only the strongest student proceeds to the finale. Even the story driven fights in this chapter feel like filler content as the student and master are able to easily defeat any enemies encountered until a tournament style series of fights which make up the finale. The tournament ladder style fights are far more interesting and strategic than other battles throughout the chapter, but can be somewhat difficult if the player has not invested all of the master’s training in the pupil who is present for the finale. Aside from being able to choose which student ultimately inherits the master’s martial arts, there is nothing especially ambitious about this chapter, but the story is told competently for being so predictable. Lastly, it is worth special mention that the chapter fields one of the best songs on the soundtrack and in Yoko Shimomura’s entire catalog of work ‘The Fish Swims in the Ocean, The Bird Flies in the Sky’ which has stellar instrumentation on the SNES sound chip, and closes out the chapter on a fantastic note.
This chapter focuses on a young ninja named Oboro during the waning years of feudal japan, who is tasked with infiltrating the castle of a demonic warlord and rescuing a prisoner held there. While very light on actual story and narration, this chapter is by far the most mechanically complex and has very interesting gameplay. Serving as something of a ninja RPG version of Metal Gear, Oboro is free to explore the castle as he wishes to discover the tricks and traps laid throughout the castle. Battles are fought against enemies patrolling the castle which can be avoided if the player holds down Y, which allows Oboro to turn invisible while stationary on the world map. Oboro will keep track of how many humans he has killed during his assault, and the player is able to clear the castle as they wish, killing as many as all one hundred humans in the castle or none of them, slaying only the undead and demons. Most of the exploratory mechanics in the chapter work well, though there is again a bit too much information about the chapter’s nuances left for the player to discover through trial and error.
Wild West Chapter
Set in a period not enough RPGs have dared to tackle, this chapter follows a gunslinger named the Sundown Kid on the run from a bounty hunter named Mad Dog. Stopping for rest in a formerly rich mining town, the Sundown Kid finds himself the honorary sheriff after the town is threatened by a vicious gang called the Crazy Bunch. In what feels like a tribute to the Magnificent Seven or Seven Samurai, the Sundown Kid must hurry to prepare the town for the coming attack from the crazy bunch. While the idea works well for the most part, a few hitches hold it back. The search through the town quickly becomes a sort of SNES pixel hunt and none of the interior art is off limits in terms of potentially housing a useful item. Collected items must then be given to the townspeople to set up as traps and each unique style of trap successfully set up will eliminate one of the enemies from the coming battle. While a neat idea, the entire chapter is timed. Atop that, traps must be prepared by giving items to townspeople, all of whom take different amounts of time to set these traps so you can’t be sure which townsfolk are the most useful to you. Fortunately, the showdown with the crazy bunch can be won with solid strategy even if a single trap isn’t used and can actually provide quite a challenge. This showdown is also the only real battle of the entire chapter, with a few small scripted fights with Mad Dog taking place at the beginning and end. The music in this chapter also stands out among the rest, with great instrumentation once again capturing a very strong feel of the wild west atmosphere.
This chapter follows a martial artist named Masuru who seeks to become the world’s strongest warrior and sets off to challenge the greatest fighters in the world. This chapter attempts to copy quite a number of traits from Street Fighter II including a win/lose screen, and features only a series of battles. Opponents are chosen from a stage select style screen and after a fighting game style versus screen, Masuru is dropped directly into battle with them. The fights in this chapter require quite a bit of strategy in choosing your moves and positioning, as Masuru has no items and only a very weak self heal. To help expand his roster of available moves, Masuru is able to learn two signature attacks from each opponent which can be instrumental in completing the chapter. The music in the chapter attempts to channel the same vibes as the score Yoko Shimomura worked on for Street Fighter II as well as some hints of Punch-Out and Rocky. Overall the chapter is over quickly enough, provided players find a good order to tackle the world champions in.
Near Future Chapter
Though most of the chapters in Live-A-Live present unique or interesting twists on JRPG design, the near future chapter is the worst of the bunch because it represents a collection of the worst aspects of JRPG design, and is saddled with a low grade giant robot anime plot. After opening to a theme song for a giant robot, the chapter follows Akira, a youth with the power to read minds who lives in a near future japan filled with vicious biker gangs and shadowy government plots. The story is bland, absurd and filled with a lot of typical anime cliches, and becomes far too random and nonsensical to really enjoy once liquid humans are introduced as a plot element. Progress is too heavily reliant on talking to specific characters to advance the plot which is made even worse by the occasional requirement to read the minds of NPCs to progress. Players will turn a dying pet turtle into an android, steal underwear and there’s a bizarre moment where you have to use a toilet of all things to proceed to the cockpit of the giant mech featured throughout the chapter. While it was nice to see Squaresoft try and insert humor and not take itself too seriously, the humor of the prehistoric chapter works far better than the toilet humor and underwear stealing antics of this chapter. The chapter features free roaming exploration of a city map that just looks garish and incomplete compared with some of the other areas of the game. The battles become wildly unbalanced and are hard to avoid when simply trying to cross the streets of the city to advance the story. The chapter fails to succeed on any level, and even the finale piloting the near invincible Buriki Daioh does nothing to really salvage the experience.
Featuring the player as a small self aware robot named Cube, the future chapter is set on a starship returning to earth with a captured alien life form on board. The chapter features no combat aside from a final encounter, except for a series of optional battles as Captain Square which can be found on a terminal on the ship. These fights are actually quite challenging and strategic, but offer no reward for completion. The entire story is plot driven and actually works very well aside from a few strange moments where serving coffee is the only way to proceed. The story follows the crew members of the ship dealing with a catastrophe that strains the human crew’s ability to trust one another as the ship descends into chaos. Featuring aesthetics that look heavily inspired by the Alien movies, this chapter actually works very well as it evolves into a sort of survival-horror scenario, and is the most interesting divergence from typical JRPG gameplay found in the entire game. Cube is unable to fight against the enemy that eventually begins patrolling the ship and contact with it will instantly result in a game over, which ratchets up the tension very well and begins to evoke a sense of dread as the player travels between rooms. It is a curious reminder of how effectively Squaresoft was able to bridge genres when set to it. It is easily one of the strongest chapters of the entire experience.
Unlocked after the previous seven chapters have been completed, this chapter follows the story of the knight Oersted who becomes the celebrated champion of the kingdom and poised to marry the king’s daughter. A demon interrupts Oersted’s plans however and kidnaps his queen-to-be, prompting the hero to set off on a quest to rescue her. This chapter plays the most like a traditional fantasy JRPG with swords and spells, featuring all the regular trappings. Unfortunately this chapter also introduces random battles, which feels like a distinct step backwards from previous chapters, even though the design is likely intentionally trying to be reminiscent of Final Fantasy and other RPGs. Most of the chapter is spent fighting demons to level up and eventually assault the demon’s lair. The story of this chapter is by far its most interesting element, and though it starts out fairly typical, the finale is quite unlike anything Square had done up to that point, turning the player’s expectations entirely on their head and tying the plot threads of the various characters together in a uniquely interesting way. It is one of the most effective plot twist moments in Square’s storied history.
The final chapter allows the player to choose their favorite protagonist from Live-A-Live’s cast to see the story through to the end. Featuring a set of new and re-purposed maps to create the final scenario, the player must search for the other heroes and create a party to confront the demon king Odio. Unfortunately, random battles make a return in this chapter, and the uneven states of the various characters coming from their own storylines can make for a very uneven experience trying to find a capable party that is able to power up sufficiently. While most of the random encounters will typically be scaled to the player’s level, a few boss strength encounters can crop up from time to time with no indication to the player that they may be seriously outmatched. Each playable character also has their own dungeon that contains their ultimate weapon, but most can be very difficult to locate and like many aspects of Live-A-Live require a lot of player time and effort or a walkthrough. Without giving the story away entirely, it is important to note that the final chapter features two distinctly different paths and endings depending on the protagonist that the player chooses, as well as a false ending for each path. The overall story touches on some good notes in the role of a hero and what happens to those that are pushed too far, and that will never come back.
Ultimately the overarching story was the most satisfying element of the game along with a great soundtrack, and while I doubt the title would have found much commercial success in America given its wavering quality and poor communication with the player, traits of Live-A-Live stand as among Squaresoft’s best moments. Live-A-Live has a sense of purpose and imagination in that it wanted to tell a story perhaps too grand for the current technology available, or perhaps too grand for the budget allotted to the game. It has something to it that most games are missing in this day and age, a sense of creative purpose and identity. Though it’s rough around the edges and some aspects succeed more than others, Live-A-Live is a daring attempt to do something different with JRPGs of the Super Nintendo era. Considering that Live-A-Live was also directed and designed by Takashi Tokita, Live-A-Live likely contributed a great deal of insight towards Squaresoft’s masterpiece time traveling RPG Chrono Trigger.
Live-A-Live offers insight to Squaresoft beyond its own offerings as a game, as it still has an impact on those who helped create it. As mentioned, the title was directed and designed by Takashi Tokita, lead designer of Final Fantasy IV, a director on the peerless Chrono Trigger, The Bouncer, Parasite Eve, and serves as current head of Square Enix’s mobile development team. Tokita himself has even said the lessons he learned from the chapter by chapter format of Live-A-Live went on to formulate his contributions to Final Fantasy IV: The After Years, which like Live-A-Live was interesting as a story but had a share of gameplay flaws. Tokita is also the director and creator of Final Fantasy Dimensions, which is his own take on Final Fantasy V’s gameplay, and is yet another title broken into various chapters for consumption. Tokita has even expressed his own interest in remaking or reviving Live-A-Live for mobile phones, and it might actually serve as the first SquareEnix mobile RPG that would actually benefit from the broken chapters format, if the pricing could be made reasonable.
Ultimately Live-A-Live isn’t a game that changed the landscape of the industry, and wasn’t among the greatest titles of what many consider Squaresoft’s golden era of peerless RPGs. It probably was for the best that the title wasn’t risked in America, considering the cost of SNES cartridge production. That said, it is without a doubt worth your time if you are a fan of retro JRPGs, and are willing to give it a chance. Technically, it isn’t the most solid RPG around, but it has a fantastic soundtrack, genuinely interesting story, and charm in spades if you are willing to overlook the faults. Give Live-A-Live a shot, and live a little.