Live A Live review: Time-traveling RPG shines in HD-2D

A screenshot for Dexerto's Live a Live reviewSquare Enix

Available outside of Japan for the first time, Square Enix’s Live A Live has been given a gorgeous 2D-HD remaster that lets its imaginative era-hopping RPG gameplay shine.

Originally released on the Super Famicom back in 1994, Live A Live failed to receive commercial success and seemed destined to live on in fan translations and as a footnote in RPG history.

But now, Square Enix has given this should’ve-been-classic a new lease on life with a lovingly-crafted 2D-HD remaster that enhances its totally unique concept – even if it does show its age in places.

Live A Live: Key Details

  • Developer: Square Enix
  • Price: $49.99 / £39.99
  • Release date: 22 July, 2022
  • Platforms: Nintendo Switch

Live A Live trailer

A totally unique time-traveling JRPG adventure

Live A Live begins with seven chapters to choose from, each taking place at a different time period from prehistoric days to the far-off future, with visits to the Wild West, ancient China, and more scattered in between. These chapters can be completed in any order you like, and you can jump in and out if you find yourself craving something different or struggling with a difficult battle.

Each chapter has a different cast of characters and a unique plot to follow, but what really sets them apart is that each one has a gimmick or two that helps you progress. In the Near Future, your character is able to read minds to discover clues after a child is kidnapped by a biker gang, while in the Present Day, you’re a fighter who can ‘steal’ the moves of your opponents on a journey to become number one.

A battle in Live A LiveSquare Enix

One thing that does link each chapter together is combat, which always takes place on a seven-by-seven grid with turn-based action. It’s standard RPG fare, although each chapter has its own little twists – in the Wild West, you’ll find yourself engaging in long-distance shootouts with rival gunslingers, while Prehistory sees you hunting wild animals by whacking them with your club or throwing poo at them (no, I’m not making that up).

My favorite chapter was the Dawn of Edo Japan, in which you play a trainee shinobi who’s tasked with infiltrating a sprawling temple to pull off a rescue mission. The gimmick here is a special ability that lets you temporarily turn invisible, giving you the option to sneak past enemy guards or leave a trail of bloodshed behind you. A counter reminds you how many bodies you’ve slain, which adds a compass of morality to your actions.

The Dawn of Edo Japan chapter in Live A LiveSquare Enix

While all of the chapters have interesting concepts and ideas to offer up, they’re not all great. I enjoyed the Wild West, where you race against time to set traps and ambush a group of invading bandits, and Prehistory, which focused on hunting and crafting, but the Present Day fighter chapter, which is pretty much just a string of several battles in a row, didn’t feel quite as imaginative.

The story-focused Distant Future was also a bit of a miss for me. Here, you play a robot who spends the majority of the chapter traveling back and forth between different areas of a spaceship, mostly observing what happens to other characters that you’ve not really spent enough time with to care about. Things do pick up eventually as it leans into its space-horror influences, but too much of the chapter felt like a slog for me.

The Distant Future Chapter in Live A LiveSquare Enix

Fortunately, Live A Live’s omnibus structure means you’ll never have to spend more than a couple of hours with each chapter, so if there’s one you really don’t enjoy, it’s not a huge commitment. Besides, this variety is part of the game’s appeal – even if that does mean you won’t love every single chapter.

A gorgeous 2D-HD adventure with character

In terms of the creatives behind Live A Live, it’s a bit of a dream team. There’s director Takashi Tokita, who went on to work on Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy IV; composer Yoko Shimomura, who’s written music for Kingdom Hearts and Xenoblade Chronicles; and a host of other talents including several manga artists who helped design each chapter’s characters.

As you’d probably expect, then, Live A Live is a visually impressive game made even better thanks to Square Enix’s 2D-HD upgrade, with vibrant colors, subtle depth-of-field effects, and a modern pixel art style that feels fresh enough to make you forget the fact that you’re playing a near-30-year-old game. In fact, one of the most enjoyable things about the game is watching how each distinct location has been brought to life – and they look especially stunning on the Switch OLED screen.

The Wild West chapter in Live A LiveSquare Enix

The music is bright and fun too, with quite a few catchy background tunes that you’ll find yourself humming long after you’ve put your Switch down. The only slight criticism I would level at the presentation is the voice acting, which often feels hammed up to match the cliched dialogue – although for some people, this will no doubt be part of the charm, as the game often thrives on being silly and over-the-top.

While the visual presentation is bang on, the game does show its age elsewhere. I found the pacing a little off, with some chapters feeling long and drawn out while others seemed to zip by in no time at all. Cutscenes move slowly and skipping them means you risk missing out on key story developments. Some of the humor feels dated, too, although these admittedly aren’t major issues.

Once you’ve worked your way through all seven chapters, you’ll find out (if you hadn’t guessed already) that these seemingly unrelated stories are in fact linked. We won’t spoil what happens, of course, but seeing how each story comes together for one final chapter is a satisfying end to a very enjoyable journey through time.

Live A Live feels like the kind of game that should have been a classic. It might be a little inconsistent in parts, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s a totally unique RPG experience that still deserves your attention almost three decades later.

Verdict – 8/10

Live A Live is an ambitious RPG – wildly ambitious considering the time it was released – with loads of interesting concepts and ideas that shine even brighter thanks to a fresh coat of paint.

Reviewed on Nintendo Switch