Most traditional role-playing games feel like setting out on a long road trip. Live A Live, the newly remade version of a 1994 Super Famicon RPG never released outside of Japan, is more like a weekend of whirlwind visits to tourist attractions.
This is largely due to Live A Live’s structure, which breaks the game into just under 10 short stories featuring characters living in vastly different periods of time. There is, for example, a ninja tasked with rescuing a political prisoner from a well-guarded 19th-century Japanese castle, a young man trying to win the affections of a woman in an unnamed prehistoric land, and, in one of the best of these tales, a martial artist who travels the globe beating the snot out of rival fighters in order to become the strongest warrior in the modern world.
Each of these stories is structured within the loose framework of a turn-based RPG. Fights take place on grids that resemble digital graph paper, the player character and their group arrayed against a selection of enemies who politely wait in a queue for their chance to attack or heal. Actions are taken by scrolling through lists of moves and tools in a menu.
Live A Live shines when it experiments within the design conventions this kind of game provides. While most of its stories involve the usual experience point-gathering and item- and equipment-hunting of a ‘90s Japanese RPG, plenty of the chapters play fast and loose with expectations regarding what can be built atop these genre foundations.
The aforementioned martial artist chapter consists entirely of one-on-one fights, selected through a Street Fighter-style menu. In the “Distant Future” segment, a baseball-shaped robot with glasses solves problems by walking around a sci-fi spaceship, eschewing almost all combat in favour of chatting with the ship’s crew (and serving them cups of coffee). A brief western-themed chapter that cribs from The Seven Samurai/The Magnificent Seven’s siege involves laying traps for incoming raiders while a timer counts down. In this last example, Live A Live even manages to squeeze outlaw gun duels into the rigid confines of its turn-based battle design.
This kind of variety offers frequently exciting displays of imagination — slow-fingered jazz exercises based on pulling new arrangements from the familiar scales of the era’s Japanese RPGs. But Live A Live isn’t entirely successful in finding a good rhythm for these experiments. Much of the joy of an RPG comes from the sense of long-haul adventure engendered by dozens of hours spent embarking on an (often cosmically significant) mission with a group of virtual friends. Growing with those characters by gradually uncovering their personalities, exploring a setting together, and, of course, beefing them up for tougher fights is naturally satisfying, just like very slowly working toward any kind of far-off goal, from the destination at the end of a road trip to the final pages of a long novel.
Live A Live, by its very nature as an anthology, can’t offer this same kind of experience. If its stories — and the overarching plot that emerges from each section’s thematic suggestions to form its climatic chapter — were stronger, it could make a better case for its anthology approach. But, like the blank-eyed, squat-bodied sprites that constitute its cast of characters, Live A Live’s narrative is too simple to feel like much more than a cartoon.
Throughout its various chapters, cultural shorthand and caricature replaces meaningful depiction. Instead of exploring the mind of an elderly shifu searching for a student to inherit his martial arts knowledge with any kind of nuance, the protagonist of the Imperial China chapter is simply portrayed as an uncomplicated, stoic, wise, and morally upright teacher familiar from any number of kung fu stories past. An overweight student who is initially shown to struggle with how everyone, excepting the shifu, looks down on or mocks him ends up as a running fat joke, with gags devoted to his insatiable need to eat whatever’s nearby.
In rare instances, this approach works. The cursory look at how a far-future artificial intelligence might model itself on the best and worst human behaviours it observes is well executed, and the slapstick jokes of the prehistoric chapter’s pantomiming sprites and pictographic speech bubbles often benefit from this kind of simplicity. But dipping in and out of so many stories so quickly, especially when each is written with such a surface-level interest in character, too often makes the entire game feel cursory.
A culminating chapter attempts to snowball these smaller stories into something more substantial. The thematic depth that comes from Live A Live’s conclusion, enhanced by its willingness to provide a pair of bleak optional endings if the story’s moral is ignored, grasps at a greater impact than the many hours preceding it are capable of supporting. The stories of each character are simply too flimsy to add up to much in the end. Worse, the previously breezy combat that made each individual story fly by suddenly becomes much more protracted, highlighting the sluggish tempo of its battles.
As a diversion — approached as a volume of fairy tales or selection of cartoon episodes — Live A Live is brisk enough to entertain. But, even with this caveat, it still rings with a hollowness that introduces the unwelcome, creeping concern that its light pace and novel concepts are only a temporary distraction from the fact that Live A Live really asks for too much of its player’s own life for what it offers in return.
Though its anthology structure allows Live A Live to experiment with a wide variety of design ideas and settings across its different chapters, that same format keeps it from providing a sense of real depth. The creativity evident in its experiments with traditional RPG conventions means there’s enough novelty to propel the story toward its conclusion, but simplistic and stereotypical character writing adds up to very little of note in the end.
- Welcome variety in setting and design
- Simplistic writing style and visuals help sell some of the most archetypal short stories
- Wonderful displays of creativity within traditional RPG conventions
- Uneven pacing that leaves most stories feeling too cursory to have much impact
- Stereotypical characters and surface-level storytelling
- Overemphasis on slow, repetitive combat in later sections
- Overarching plot fails to make good on its culmination of the preceding stories