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Live a Live Tells Stories Worth Reliving

Alive and better than ever.



Live a Live

Live a Live Switch Review

Developer: Square Enix | Publisher: Nintendo | Genre: RPG | Platform: Nintendo Switch | Reviewed on: Nintendo Switch

Until recently, Live a Live was the most influential RPG you’ve never heard of. There was nothing quite like it when it released on the Super Famicom in 1994. A collection of seven short stories starring protagonists like a gunslinging cowboy, a pro wrestler, and a nonverbal caveman, Live a Live was a far cry from the traditional tales of swords and sorcery that dominated RPGs of the nineties. The game soon became a cult classic in its native Japan, where it would inspire RPGs as disparate as Undertale and Octopath Traveler–but with no official localization, those unfortunate enough to be born outside Japan had to resort to expensive imports and legally dubious fan translations to experience this seminal title.

That’s why this Switch HD-2D remake feels like such a pivotal moment in RPG history. At long last, Live a Live has received a new lease on life for the international audience it always deserved—and most importantly, it holds up brilliantly. With a stunning new coat of high-definition pixelated paint and plenty of quality-of-life enhancements, Live a Live feels just as daring and original today as it did in ’94. While this reimagining holds onto a few frustrating idiosyncrasies from the original release, the game as a whole emerges as something far more than a historical curiosity: Live a Live is still a compelling compendium of roleplaying adventures that dazzle in their diversity and unite into a remarkable sendup of its genre, leading to an experience that RPG fans deserve to live and relive.

Image: Square Enix

Living your best live

Players booting up Live a Live for the first time will be greeted not by a grandiose opening cutscene as in other RPGs, but will instead find a scrolling carousel of characters: it’s time choose your protagonist. Live a Live consists of seven standalone chapters that can be played in any order, each one starring a new hero in a completely different setting. Live a Live may be a single game, but for all intents and purposes, the game is more like a collection of seven standalone mini RPGs that eventually happen to tie together—each chapter even has its own title card and credits sequence.

Glance at the summaries of each chapter, and it’s easy to see that they all conform to an archetype of some sort. The Distant Future chapter is prime sci-fi space horror, starring a lone robot on a doomed spaceship; the Wild West chapter is a classic spaghetti western; and the Near Future chapter is essentially a 90s-style mech anime complete with its own opening theme song and cinematic. It’s hard to overstate just how different each story is from the next: tragedy, comedy, drama, intrigue, Live a Live has it all with a tonal mishmash that extends from storytelling to gameplay.

The game’s greatest strength lies in this variety. Taking anywhere from thirty minutes to three hours to complete, each chapter has its own unique merits. Some, like the Distant Future’s tale of suspense and dread, excel in creating an evocative world in a bite-sized setting. Others, like the Wild West, thrive in creating unique combat scenarios and memorable gameplay set pieces. Of course, these tales are not all created equal—the Present Day segment feels especially underbaked, consisting of pure combat with almost no storytelling—but ultimately, the game is so much more than the sum of their parts. Live a Live’s seven stories have such variety and so many memorable scenarios between them that there truly is something for everyone in its roughly 25-hour campaign—and perhaps most significantly, every one of the game’s disparate threads feels strangely cohesive.

Image: Square Enix

Live a Live’s impressively deep focus on nonlinearity plays a large part in tying the package together. While the overall structure of every chapter is generally linear—you start by being introduced to a new world and its inhabitants, and you end by facing down a big bad boss—the path toward that conclusion is often riddled with secrets and branching paths. In the Feudal Japan chapter, for instance, you play as a ninja infiltrating a castle with the option to either sneak past every guard you see or to slaughter every person you find–greatly impacting your outcome at the end of the journey. Sometimes your choices can lead to hidden paths or secret bosses, and sometimes still, your decisions can impact the stories you unravel during the game. Live a Live becomes not just a set of disconnected tales, but rather a series of snapshots throughout history that you, the player, helped influence. There’s enough flexibility throughout the campaign that it can easily merit multiple playthroughs.

Brilliant as Live a Live’s compendium structure might be, it also brings with it the game’s largest issue: pacing. By its very nature, having seven bite-sized games in one package means that players need to endure the tedium of starting a new RPG seven times throughout Live a Live. Seven times you’ll need to be introduced to a new set of environments, characters, and narrative arcs—and then, just as the momentum builds to a peak by the time you arrive at the boss battle, the chapter concludes, the credits roll, and it’s time for you to move on. Needless to say, this flow can get tiresome by the time you’re wrapping up your final episode.

Live a Live
Image: Square Enix

Yet while the pacing can be frustrating in the moment, these disconnected tales ultimately intertwine into something that makes any initial frustration more than worth it. Without giving too much away, Live a Live’s final act can truly boggle the mind, forcing players to reevaluate all the stories that led up to it. Every splintered narrative thread eventually unites in a remarkably ambitious, delirious sendup of all the genre stereotypes that define the game. Between its varied tales and exemplary payoff, Live a Live emerges as a precious example of a title that not only introduces an interesting concept, but also capitalizes on it to its fullest extent.  

Survive-a-lival of the fittest

One common thread uniting Live a Live’s differing chapters is the game’s distinctive combat system. Imagine classic Final Fantasy’s active time battle system dropped into grid-based arenas, and you’ll have the gist of what the game’s strategic fights are all about. Enemies and player characters are dropped onto a top-down grid, and each character has a meter dictating their actions: once that meter fills, they can move around the map or use a special move. Magic points are nowhere to be found, as everything revolves around that action meter. Each move has a designated area of effect, where some will only affect the tiles next to a player character while others are more long-range and can reach enemies at the other side of the arena—success requires carefully considering the whole arena.

Quite literally, these battle mechanics add a new dimension to combat compared to other turn-based RPGs released in Live a Live’s time. Not only do you need to consider the strengths and weaknesses of your opponents, but time and space also need to be considered—and when you eventually accumulate a full party of four, there are boundless enticing strategies to dominate the arena. Apart from a handful of difficulty spikes—which, frankly, are to be expected from games of this era—fights are typically balanced to provide a solid but hardly overwhelming challenge. More often than not, victory merely requires clever strategizing instead of extra grinding (although that certainly doesn’t hurt).

Image: Square Enix

This grid-based layout allows for some unique battle scenarios not possible in other systems. Sometimes a powerful enemy will barricade themselves behind a wall of grunts, requiring you to fight your way to your primary target. Other times, enemies will align themselves like a maze on the map, rendering close-range physical moves useless when you’re trying to reach a leader on the other side of the map. These situations demand that players take full advantage of every move at their disposal to overcome and vary throughout each chapter depending on the characters in your party, begging players to constantly think up new strategies.

This being a turn-based RPG, monotony can occasionally set in as you find yourself drawn into battle after battle. It certainly doesn’t help that the game lacks a fast-forward feature that is now present in many other similar games. Yet there are still plenty of welcome conveniences in this system that make moment-to-moment gameplay that much smoother: health points are fully restored after battle, moves don’t cost magic points, and with only a handful of notable exceptions, random encounters are mercifully absent. These niceties streamline the moment-to-moment gameplay and cut out the frustrations that so often come hand-in-hand with roleplaying adventures, leaving Live a Live with an engaging battle system that rewards creativity and ingenuity above all else. For an RPG, it’s hard to get much better than that.

A lively revival

All this praise was true of the game’s original 1994 release, but it is even more apparent now through the many improvements added in this HD-2D remake. While the core content of the game has gone relatively unchanged—you won’t see much that’s outright new in this iteration—there have been numerous quality-of-life enhancements that make the game that much more palpable for first-time players (as in, basically everyone outside Japan). Some of these include a new radar mini-map pointing to important landmarks for progression, an overhauled battle system UI, and more balanced battles—the original was something of a complete pushover—to name only a few. That’s all on top of a top-notch localization that brings each character to life with phenomenal writing and (barring a handful of overly campy performances) voice acting that accentuates the game’s often over-the-top drama.

Live a Live environment screenshot of a Japanese castle
Image: Square Enix

But none of the remake’s improvements leave as much of a lasting impression as the game’s extraordinary visuals. Live a Live has been recreated in stunning fashion with a new HD-2D art style that reinvents the characters and levels of the original with immaculately detailed pixelated sprites transposed against vibrant, often surprisingly three-dimensional environments illuminated with lush lighting effects. While other HD-2D games like Octopath Traveler and Triangle Strategy were certainly graphical showcases in their own right, with Live a Live, Square Enix demonstrates a true mastery of the art style.

Every chapter has a look and feel of its own, from the brooding corridors of Edo Japan to the bright and colorful vistas of Prehistory. This stylistic choice was already present in the original, but it has been bountifully accentuated with the remake. Each little detail, from the smallest intricacies of character sprites to the grandest distant panoramas in the background, has been rebuilt with elaborate pixel art and advanced environmental effects like dynamic fog, water, and lighting. This may not be the most graphically intensive RPG on Switch, but the combination of its striking art style with its select high-powered graphical elements makes it purely breathtaking, easily among the platform’s best-looking titles.

Fittingly enough, the soundtrack has received a similar upgrade. Composed by Yoko Shimomura of Kingdom Hearts fame, Live a Live’s music was already one of the game’s greatest highlights; much like the rest of the game, each chapter has a musical identity all its own, and the remake has only accentuated this description. Every track has been entirely rearranged for a vast lineup of instruments. Now, erhus and guzhengs dominate the Imperial China story, shamisens play throughout the Edo Japan arc, and bongos and marimbas are a frequent sound in the Prehistory chapter. Even Hironobu Kageyama, the singer of some of the main themes of Dragon Ball Z, was brought onboard to sing an anime opening theme for the Near Future chapter. Perfectly complementing the sumptuous graphics, the music reinforces the creativity and stylistic diversity that characterizes the whole game.

Live a Live battle screenshot
Image: Square Enix

Relive a Live

It’s hard to overstate how significant it is for the history of the roleplaying genre that Live a Live is finally widely available—and it’s even more impressive that it still holds up so well. At its core, this has always been a breathtakingly inventive RPG that reimagined its genre at a time when RPGs were still coming into their own, delivering something quite unlike anything else that has hit the market since its debut decades ago. The gorgeous new coat of HD-2D paint and quality-of-life enhancements help emphasize the wild creativity that made the game such a cult hit back in its home country.

Sure, it hasn’t aged perfectly—but who has? Its pacing issues can drag down the experience at times, and the occasional ommissions in its remake’s improvements can seem baffling, but by the time its final credits roll, this groundbreaking title stands still as one of its genre’s most memorable entries. It’s been a long time coming, but this Switch remake lets Live a Live finally assert its place as a true giant of its genre, an experimental adventure that genre fans deserve to live for themselves.

Campbell divides his time between editing Goomba Stomp’s indie games coverage and obsessing over dusty old English literature. Drawn to storytelling from a young age, there are few things he loves as much as interviewing indie developers and sharing their stories.