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All Things to All People: GeekDad Reviews ‘Live A Live’ for the Nintendo Switch

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For the benefit of those who are decades past their freshman psych class, allow me to define the phrase “cognitive dissonance.” Cognitive dissonance describes the feelings of discomfort that arise when one is confronted with multiple contradictory beliefs or pieces of information. For example, Live A Live, the latest Nintendo Switch exclusive from JRPG powerhouse Square Enix, was originally released on the Super Famicom in 1994. However, it is also somehow one of the most modern, engaging, exhilarating role-playing experiences I’ve had in… well, let’s say at least the last 28 years.

Like most western gamers, I didn’t experience Live A Live in its original form. Aside from an unofficial fan translation, the game never really came stateside in any shape I could comprehend or enjoy. But that’s not to say I wasn’t familiar with the title’s pedigree.

Directed by Takashi Tokita (of Chrono Trigger fame), designed by Nobuyuki Inoue (the man behind Mother 3), and with music from iconic composer Yoko Shimomura (Super Mario RPG, Kingdom Hearts, and many, many others), it’s practically legendary—a JRPG perfect storm. Perhaps that explains why, though it sold poorly at the time, it feels perfectly contemporary in 2022, like something from the creative mind of Toby Fox or the team at Double Fine Productions.

Obviously, the version of Live A Live I’ve spent the last two weeks enjoying on my OLED Switch isn’t the same product that rolled out on the Super Famicom way back when I was still in high school. Inspired by the success of games like Octopath Traveler and Triangle Strategy, it’s been given a full HD-2D overhaul, with the new graphics also accompanied by top-shelf voice acting, a brilliantly rerecorded soundtrack, and quality of life improvements like in-game maps and a handy objective radar in the HUD to keep you heading in the right direction.

The gameplay, though, remains largely unchanged. This makes me wonder if, perhaps, its initial failure wasn’t just a case of the game being so far ahead of its time.

Live A Live chapter select
The ability to play through the chapters in whichever order you choose is just the first of many interesting quirks. image: NOA

The turn-based combat in Live A Live takes place across a gridded battlefield. (Think more Fire Emblem, less Final Fantasy.) Yet, while the standard health meter is there, you don’t need to concern yourself with secondary resources like mana. Instead, this gloriously uncomplicated interface ties every other aspect of combat to a charge gauge that refills over time.

When their gauge is full, that individual ally or enemy can choose an attack or skill from a growing list of options or use an item from their shared inventory. The catch is that each attack, skill, or item has a very specific effective range. Maybe a group of allies must be within two squares to take advantage of a buff effect or enemies can only be hit with a weapon strike if they’re located diagonally from the attacker.

This often requires movement, repositioning on the battlefield, but this also consumes the charge gauge. Move too much and you might find yourself pushed down in the turn order, allowing your foes to strike while you hastily try to get into position.

Live A Live battle
A rare instance of classicism in an otherwise idiosyncratic game. image: NOA

The result is an economy of movement that’s truly inspired, even by today’s standards. You must be aware of not just your party’s combat options, but also those of your opponents. This makes for a delicate game of stick and move, maximizing damage while dancing around your enemies.

Add to this a smattering of automatic reaction effects, a weakness/resistance system that raises/lowers some damage types, and additional charge time for more powerful attacks (which allows ample time for targeted enemies to wander out of range) and you get an amazingly robust system without a lot of extraneous moving parts.

Still, this is only half the fun of Live A Live. The structure of the game leaves much up to the player. Initially, you’ll have access to seven independent chapters, each featuring a different protagonist scattered throughout the timeline. Though seemingly unrelated at first, these stories of good triumphing over evil play into a larger narrative that’s uncovered later in the game when some additional scenarios become available.

Not only do these time-hopping adventures allow Live A Live to showcase subtly different visual styles and soundtrack instrumentation, but they also change up the gameplay. While all ultimately fall back on the gridded, turn-based battles I described previously, some lean more heavily into combat than others.

Pogo, who lives in a wild prehistoric world where he tracks by smell, and the Shifu of Imperial China focus greatly on combat, growing along with their allies as they seek to confront injustice. This stands in sharp contrast to the Sundown Kid, a roving cowboy who spends the bulk of his adventure collecting supplies and setting traps with the downtrodden townsfolk of a sparse old western town.

The path of Oboromaru in Edo Japan can either include nonstop bloodshed or a more reserved stealth gaming approach, while modern-day warrior Masaru Takahara’s adventure plays out as a novel spin on the traditional arcade fighting game. In the near future, Akira’s chapter combines psionics and mech-based combat to great effect, while even further in the future, in deep space, the egg-like android Cube experiences what can best be thought of as sci-fi survival horror.

Surely some of these heroes and their corresponding play styles will appeal to you more than others, but each adds something uniquely charming to the overall experience of Live A Live. You can even bring back your favorite character in the game’s closing chapter, which wraps things up nicely but without a lot of unnecessary pomp and circumstance.

Live A Live enemy select
“Whatcha gonna do when Maximania runs wold on you?” image: NOA

As for complaints? Well, I don’t really have any! My only real note about the experience—my playthrough came in at a little more than 18 hours or so—is that Live A Live certainly earns its T rating. The language is, shall we say, colorful, and that profanity accompanies no shortage of violence and adult situations.

So, while I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it to very young gamers, any teen or adult who loves traditional RPGs, or their more modern incarnations like Undertale, will no doubt be enamored by Live A Live‘s peculiar magic.

Look, I get it. The summer game season is, as always, bursting at the seams with triple-A titles on your system of choice, and the Nintendo Switch, in particular, is certainly not hurting for new JRPGs. So why should you devote your time, attention, or limited financial resources to a nigh-30-year-old game?

Live A Live old west
The Sundown Kid remains my favorite Live A Live protagonist. image: NOA

Obviously, I could simply point out that Live A Live is a historic release, the first official English-language version of an early chapter in the 16-bit role-playing renaissance. I could play the cult-classic card, encouraging you to experience it for its sheer novelty. Hell, I could even push it so far as to say that it’s a vital release, an important, if long-ignored, lesson in anyone’s JRPG education.

But all that pales in comparison to the true crux of my argument. You should play Live A Live because it’s a spectacular game. Its blend of humor and heart and straight-up innovation was clearly ahead of its time. So much so that it took the rest of the world 28 years just to catch up.

Review materials provided by Nintendo of America. This post includes affiliate links. Live A Live is legitimately one of the best RPGs I’ve ever played. Go grab the demo right now!

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