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Live A Live (Super Nintendo) Review
~by tankMage (October 2018)
Score: A (9.5/10)
8 Games Packed into One Cartridge…Sort of…
(Update: I wrote this guide years before Live A Live was released on virtual consoles, so parts of this review are outdated. However, the modern port seems fairly faithful to the original game, so the review should ring true.)
Live A Live was never officially released in North America…a bad move on Square’s part, because this is one of their best games for the SNES. There are a total of eight story lines that have their own unique themes and characters, along with a final mission that ties each plot line together. Some of the scenarios in this RPG are very imaginative, while others are rather orthodox. The result is an adventure that stays fresh from beginning to end and has something to offer just about any 16-bit RPG fan. As cool as Live A Live is, I wasn’t really feeling the art style (though I liked the sheer variety of environments, character sprites, and enemies) and the battle system was somewhat unwieldy. Even so, this is one of the best games I’ve reviewed these past three years and it is well deserving of the 9.5 I gave it, just don’t confuse excellence with perfection.
Live A Live has a total of seven protagonists that players can choose from. Each hero has his own story that ties into a greater arc and there’s a lot of variety to the cast. Ninjas, cowboys, psychic teenagers, cavemen, robots, martial artists, and even wrestlers fill the ranks of this title. Each story has its own tone as well, with some being more serious and others more light hearted. Overall, this RPG has a sort of experimental feel to it thanks to the various ways in which the game is narrated.
The caveman story unfolds with almost no dialogue and is told through the actions of its cast. On the other hand, the science fiction story is mostly narrated through dialogue, the player must investigate and talk to NPCs in order to understand what’s going on. At the end of each chapter, the player has to fight a boss and will likely begin to notice some patterns after completing a few scenarios. Once the first seven chapters are finished, the end game will begin and all I will say is the set up for the end game pays off with an entertaining twist on some rather conventional RPG story elements.
As much as I enjoyed the variety in Live A Live, I felt that the heroes were often a bit underdeveloped and cliche, aside from Akira the mecha chapter’s protagonist. In some cases this was appropriate, because the cowboy character was purposely enigmatic and no one expects a robot to have much of a personality, but heroes like the ninja are almost completely devoid of character. While this detracted from the story somewhat, I think the cast was stereotypical by design, because Live A Live has a sense of humor and isn’t afraid to poke fun at RPG conventions. Speaking of humor, there are some rather whimsical moments and bawdy jokes in this game, which is something I really loved about it. With that said, the humor is also rather immature and may rub some players the wrong way.
I used the Aeon Genesis translation to play this game and was quite impressed by the amount of work put into it. Each playable character has his own unique font, the text seemed free of typos, and there were very few of the minor bugs that usually crop up in translation patches. The only bug I encountered while playing the Aeon Genesis patch was associated with the status screen which did not always load with the first button press. Instead the screen would go black and I’d have to push the X Button or even B to get the status screen to appear. This didn’t really affect the game and could very well have been associated with the emulator I used. As for the accuracy of the translation, I have no idea how closely it reflects the original game, but I don’t see any reason why it wouldn’t be close to the original and Aeon Genesis has a good reputation.
I cannot quite put my finger on what I do not like about this game’s graphics, because they’re pretty good for a 16-bit RPG. The best I can come up with is that the sprites have this rough look about them that wasn’t normal for a mid nineties Square release. Maybe they had an intern who was trying to imitate the style of Final Fantasy 6 and Chrono Trigger do the artwork? With that said, the graphics aren’t at all bad; I was pleasantly surprised by the sheer variety of environments, enemies, characters, and effects. There were also a ton of animations for the heroes, which were a bit crude at times, but set this title apart in an era where animations for RPGs were often either awful or non-existent.
Players will explore locations that range from spaceships to old west mining towns, which were all well crafted. The environments also shared a sense of brooding that was understated. Even in the more lighthearted chapters, the colors were slightly darker than you’d expect and shadows seemed just a little longer than they should be, which was a nice bit of visual foreshadowing that pays off later in the game. My favorite areas were the feudal Japanese castle, the western boom town, and the spaceship, which managed to capture the mood of each era with the right colors and designs. They were also a bit more novel than the usual medieval fantasy settings of many RPGs.
The enemies were appropriate for each time period the game visits and some of them were really original. Players will battle wooly mammoths, martial artists, evil computer programs, and gangsters to name a few of the bad guys. Of course, the enemy sprites have little in the way of animations, but they do have front, back, and side profiles which was a nice touch. Many of the enemies get recycled later in the game, which was a standard practice for the time, but it isn’t done to the point of absurdity and it makes sense that we’d see some familiar foes in the final chapter.
As for the character sprites, I really wasn’t taken with them. They were a strange cross between the short, squat characters of older RPGs and the more realistic sprites of more modern titles. Still, there were some that had more natural designs, such as Sundown the cowboy and the ninja, Oboro. Others were lame, particularly Cube the robot, who was essentially a baseball with tank treads. Cube also wore glasses, which makes no sense seeing as how he is a robot and I can only guess that this was a reference that flew over my head or an attempt at irony that didn’t quite click into place. Many of the heroes had pretty decent animations, as I said before, and there were a ton of special attack effects. None of the special attacks were all that great looking, but there were a lot of them for both the villains and heroes. So I guess the driving philosophy behind Live A Live’s graphics was “Quantity over quality.” when all is said and done.
Music and Sound
Don’t expect a super amazing soundtrack from this title. However, the music was competently executed and manages to set the tone for each scenario. Even better, Live A Live knows when to be silent or even use a little ambiance, which really captured the tension of certain scenes and chapters. You can expect the usual stock Squaresoft RPG sound effects from this game, which isn’t a bad thing since they are high quality and well implemented.
Live A Live utilizes standard menus and controls that should be familiar to anyone who has played a 16-bit RPG. Everything about the game works well, though I felt the battle system was a bit clunky. Combat takes place on a 9×9 grid that both player controlled characters and monsters can move around on. While I like this type of battle engine, I’m of the opinion that it needs an auto-battle feature, because fighting random battles without one becomes very cumbersome after a while. There are also a few features that really improve quality of life in this game, such as the ability to save anywhere and the ability to run while on the map.
Live A Live squeezes a lot out of its design. Every character plays out a little differently and several RPG sub-genres are reflected here. Cube’s story (which is my favorite) takes place on a ship that he must explore and there’s very little combat. Sundown, the cowboy, has to prepare for a deadly showdown by finding and setting traps within a time limit, which was a novel concept that I really enjoyed. Oboro the ninja has to find his way through an enemy castle filled with secrets. Even better, the gameplay in Oboro’s mission is really open ended and players can complete it in a number of ways. There’s much more, but I’ll get to the missions I didn’t like very much for the sake of brevity.
The only missions I felt missed the mark were the caveman and wrestler. I liked Pogo the Caveman’s mission in many ways, but it was also one of the chapters where the devs obviously had to cut corners and it felt a bit grindy as a result. Players will probably need to spend some time leveling to prepare for the end of the game and Pogo’s chapter since the devs threw in difficulty spikes to pad play time. Masaru the wrestler’s chapter was set up like a fighting game and was kind of fun, but it was also way too short and the player barely gets a chance to get familiar with Masaru before it ends. Maybe some kind of training system at a gym with NPCs to talk to would have beefed Masaru’s story up a bit in terms of narrative and gameplay.
In battle, players can move up to four characters around on a 9×9 grid and will need to use a little strategy, because attacks in this game have effective ranges as well as blind spots. One of the cool things about the battle engine is that special techniques do not cost MP or Stamina. Instead they either execute immediately or need to charge for a few turns, which is a nice change of pace, though enemies are given the same privilege. The strategy aspects of combat give it a lot of depth, but this comes at the cost of a rather clunky engine. Having to shuffle characters around during random battles you are bound to win gets old quickly without an auto-battle system, but you can at least run away.
Elemental fields are a clever feature of Live A Live’s combat that I do not recall encountering in other RPGs. Basically some skills will coat portions of the battlefield with fire, water, electricity, or poison. Characters standing on one of these fields will take a set amount of damage every few turns. Of course players will generally want to avoid these fields and lure enemies onto them, which gives combat another layer of strategy. There’s no need to heal in between battles; your heroes will have their status and HP restored upon victory, even if they are killed. Not having to manage HP/MP and cure status ailments after a fight was a nice change of pace that helped keep Live A Live moving.
This game is loaded with weapons, armor, accessories, consumable items, and special techniques, but there’s not much in the way of character customization. Instead, players can choose what heroes they want to take into the final battle by forming a sort of custom party. Many pieces of equipment have special properties and players can tinker with setups for some interesting effects. While there’s a lot of techniques, most of them become obsolete as the player levels up and learns new ones, so be ready to spend a lot of time using the same skills.
Finally, there’s also a lot of replay value to this game, even if you use guides, because there’s so much hidden stuff and many ways to complete certain tasks. Some of the secrets are a bit cryptic, however, so you’ll probably spend a lot of time searching for them. It’s also very easy to lose certain pieces of equipment when a hero’s chapter ends, because he will only take the stuff he is wearing into the final chapter. Fortunately, the last chapter has plenty of good equipment and each hero’s ultimate weapon, so losing a few pieces of gear won’t hurt too much.
By now I’ve played a few fan translations and have been waiting to find that hidden gem. Truth be told, titles that only saw release in Japan are no different from those that saw international release. Some suck, some are very good, and the vast majority of them are average. Live A Live is one of those cool outliers people have in mind when talking about all those great games that never made it to the English speaking world.
Live A Live is a great choice for anyone who enjoys SNES RPGs, especially if you want to play a game that never made it out of Japan.