Moments after I sucker-punched my pet monkey Gori into a rock wall, we were attacked by a family of raging woolly mammoths.
Thankfully, Gori has the intelligence of a gorilla living in prehistoric times. So I had him hurl a fistful of rancid poop, killing the mammoth calves immediately. Their mother choked through toxic fumes with tears in her dying eyes. My green-haired, Goku-looking cave boy named Pogo rushed forward to clobber the massive beast with a giant bone.
Victory never looks more ridiculous than in Live A Live’s prehistoric chapter, in which you can fart and poop your way through most battles. First released for Japan’s Super Famicom in 1994, Live A Live is only just now getting a North American localization in the form of an HD-2D remake from Square Enix, due out July 22, 2022. For longtime fans of classic JRPGs, Live A Live is nothing short of a cinematic masterpiece — so long as you can learn to love some of its riskier experiments.
All of time and space
Live A Live features seven stories, each with its own unique protagonist and setting. Various artists designed the lead cast for each section as well. Takashi Tokita, who also directed Chrono Trigger, directed both the original and this remake. Live A Live feels more experimental and less immediately likable by comparison, but any Chrono Trigger fans out there will find a lot to love in these tightly packed stories — doubly so if they’re also fans of Octopath Traveler, which takes a similarly anthologized approach to story structure.
Live A Live plays with a staggering variety of story and gameplay genres, culminating in a cosmic-scale final chapter that unites all of our heroes against a demon king.
The prehistory section (called “The First”) features a wide field with random encounters, which itself feels like a precursor to the open-world games that’d come far later, especially when you use your hero Pogo’s strong sense of smell to sniff out enemies or items. You’re caught in a conflict between two tribes, but everyone communicates through grunts, gestures, and images that pop up in dialogue boxes. Each section has specific design choices that make it stand out, and the tone varies wildly. The present-day scenario, “The Strongest,” basically functions like a serious fighting game.
“The First” is chock full of potty humor. Silly and occasionally perverse, it’s a charming blast from the past that contrasts with the more serious scenarios in Live A Live and more tame RPGs today.
Even Live A Live’s most trope-laden scenarios still have much to say.
In “The Infiltrator,” you’re a shinobi named Oboromaru in feudal Japan tasked with infiltrating a castle to free a prisoner, mournfully counting every kill as you go. But you can use the Shadowed Self invisibility cloak to sneak your way through in a pacifist run. (One can’t help but wonder how much this specific mechanic influenced pacifist routes in more modern games like Undertale or Dishonored 2.)
“The Wanderer” is, in some ways, a stereotypical Western where you play as a wanted lone gunman helping a town stand against a band of local outlaws. Yet it also delivers a harsh indictment of toxic masculinity as women and children consistently display greater heroism than the male drunkards and pushover sheriff. Things get even more interesting and unpredictable at later points in Live A Live’s timeline. In the near future, a young psychic uncovers a dark conspiracy. In the far future, a kind robot aboard a spaceship tries to save its human friends.
I half-expected these trope-filled stories to feel tired given the game’s age, but the tone that Live A Live achieves across its various chapters is impeccably reverent, always surprising, and oh-so-satisfying. Unique mechanics in each scenario keep things fresh, but unified combat and exploration systems make it all feel accessible. Once you really start to get into each scenario, the story crescendos towards a satisfying and well-earned dramatic conclusion. Better still — it’s over before you can get bored. And at about 20 hours for a full playthrough, Live A Live is a breezy experience overall.
Disorienting yet satisfying
If Live A Live has a flaw, it’s definitely the combat. Hard to pick up but strangely easy to master, battles take place in real-time on a 7x7 grid. (Think traditional JRPG turn-based battles mixed with grid-based TRPGs like Final Fantasy Tactics.) You must maneuver around the tight battlefield and maintain a firm understanding of each character’s abilities. Damage and accuracy change depending on whether you’re on the front, side, or back of your opponent. And some actions have totally bizarre attack patterns.
Gori’s poop bomb, for instance, is a ranged attack that would make even Sam Porter Bridges blush: It creates a persistent toxic field in a 3x3 grid. But this monkey can also clobber enemies up close. Oboromaru has plenty of close-range slashing attacks with his katana, but his shinobi arts also grant him elemental area-of-effect magic like the crucial Fireflies’ Wake, which leaves an inferno in a 5x5 grid. Over in the Wild West, where everybody’s got a six-shooter, it’s all ranged attacks. Some shots go three squares in any diagonal, others can go three squares in any direction.
Starting a new scenario’s combat sections is disorienting, to say the least, as you acclimate to your characters’ toolkit. But once you master the movement and attack ranges, every battle becomes a thrilling challenge.
Progression also unfolds at a snappy and satisfying pace. Some characters automatically start at the max level of 10, and others begin close to it. But in the sections where you start out lower, you’re rapidly leveling up and unlocking new abilities.
An updated classic
Classic RPGs from the early ‘90s usually don’t feel palatable three decades later. Random encounters are frustrating. Grinding for experience is a chore. Many ports rely on cheat codes to round out those rougher edges, but this remake makes me wonder if the original even had any rough edges to polish.
The overall production value in this Live A Live remake is nothing short of extraordinary. Square Enix rebuilt the entire experience from the ground up. Character models, backgrounds, and even the camera perspective have been overhauled. Virtually every design choice is tastefully done, including the sparse cutscenes. Watching genuinely good cinematography unfold in purposeful pixels feels like a fever dream, one that I’d gladly submit to any day.
The voice acting is also pitch perfect — even the weird little grunts from the prehistoric era. The original composer Yoko Shimomura returned to rearrange and update the score for modern ears as well, which pays off. The atmosphere and music of each scenario also resonates with the specific genre. “What is that silly cowboy game you’re playing?” my wife asked when she overheard “The Wanderer” with its whistle-heavy Wild West tune.
There’s something for everyone in Live A Live, a deliberate blast from the past that draws from Final Fantasy IV as much as it does 2001: A Space Odyssey and Shane. You’ll love some sections more than others, to be sure, but the way it all ties together is nothing short of spectacular.
Live A Live comes to Nintendo Switch on July 22.
INVERSE VIDEO GAME REVIEW ETHOS: Every Inverse video game review answers two questions: Is this game worth your time? Are you getting what you pay for? We have no tolerance for endless fetch quests, clunky mechanics, or bugs that dilute the experience. We care deeply about a game’s design, world-building, character arcs, and storytelling come together. Inverse will never punch down, but we aren’t afraid to punch up. We love magic and science-fiction in equal measure, and as much as we love experiencing rich stories and worlds through games, we won’t ignore the real-world context in which those games are made.