SquareSoft, now known as Square-Enix, is as revered in the Japanese RPG genre as LucasArts is to adventure games. Their creative zenith arguably came during the fourth generation on the Super Nintendo with titles such as Chrono Trigger, Final Fantasy and Secret of Mana causing a stir amongst gamers. Live-A-Live counts itself as one of those games, but few English speakers know it exists...
Released in 1994, it was one of the many classic games that would never see western shores. While America could satisfy themselves by playing some of the company's best efforts, us long-suffering Europeans would be left in the cold. This was a bone of contention for me growing up. The British Nintendo Magazine System or NMS had a tendency to give massive reviews on import games and gave Final Fantasy III (aka Final Fantasy VI) and Chrono Trigger their highest ever review scores. I salivated over the awesome screenshots and grew ever more impatient to play them. We wouldn't get a Final Fantasy until its seventh instalment on the PlayStation, with VI coming to that platform almost a decade late in 2002. The wait for Chrono Trigger was even worse - it wouldn't be until 2008's Nintendo's DS port that we'd actually got to play it.
It was for this reason alone that I discovered the world of emulation in the late 90s - if you can't play it legally, then what options do you have? The sheer amount of games now available to me not only opened my eyes to some awesome hidden gems, but it also allowed for some amusing hacks and modification. Amongst the cheat hacks, sprite swaps and re-makes lies emulation's most valuable of assets - the fan translation. If it wasn't for the hard work from groups such as Aeon Genesis - a king amongst such translation projects - then Japanese gems like Live-A-Live would remain lost to English speakers.
If you're familiar with the titles Square put out in this era, you'll be right at home with the presentation and mechanics of Live-A-Live, although there are several things it does differently. There's still random battles, a top-down perspective and an epic story that unfolds fantastically, but it's the way that story is told that is its biggest departure. You begin the game by selecting one of seven characters, each with their own storyline. They are all vastly different and range from a prehistoric caveman to a kung-fu master or even a robot. The game-play varies in each story too. While the cowboy chapter has no random battles (and only one scripted one), the wrestler sees you fight constantly. Hulk Hogan even turns up as one of his opponents!
Each character has their own unique ability. For example, Akira from the Mecha chapter can read minds and Orboro the adolescent ninja has a cloak on invisibility which results in some stealthy set pieces. All these stories and characters culminate in one final chapter where it all comes together in an epic finale.
Japanese RPG's are notorious for their fight systems. Like most of them, Live-A-Live uses a turn-based mechanic but it adds a strategic element in a similar way to Final Fantasy Tactics. Battles takes place on a chess-like grid, but you'll first have to manoeuvre into a position where your attacks can actually hit your opponent. The areas that are accessible on the board change depending on the character and attack you are using. Magic also plays an important role, but there is no MP gauge to limit their use. Each spell or special attack is free to use with the only restriction being the amount of time it takes to use them.
You do have hit points, however, but even this element is slightly tweaked. Once your HP hits zero, you will be knocked out as is the norm, but if you are hit again that character is out for the rest of the battle. Best get to your healing spell before your enemy hits him while he's down. The free use of magic and healing spells makes it a bit easier than the traditional Final Fantasy fights, but it is overall balanced by the strategy involved with the grid battlefield and the use of time.
Your health is fully restored after each encounter, which along with the unlimited use of magic makes me think that the game was perhaps aimed at those wanting a less demanding RPG. It is also far shorter than what the genre is known for. Each chapter can take between 1 and 3 hours depending on your play style with the entire game lasting around twenty hours. Compare this to the 80+ that is common for Final Fantasy and you have one of the shortest Japanese RPGs out there.
If you can look past the short length and relative ease, you have a hugely enjoyable game. The translation work done by Aeon Genesis is nothing short of perfect, giving each character a personality usually missing from such projects (go here to see more of their stellar work). If any of the huge number of SNES RPGs interest you, then Live-A-Live should be on your list of must-play titles. A lost classic if ever there was one.
As of 22nd July 2022, the Live-A-Live HD remake is now available to buy on Nintendo Switch.
Buy on Nintendo Switch
Live-A-Live is © Square-Enix
Review, Cover Design and Installer created by me