Live a Live is a weird game. You only need look up a few of the reviews to get an idea for that. Originally released only in Japan in 1994 on the SNES, this RPG has been considered something of a hidden gem ever since. A fanmade translation patch came out for it in the early 00’s, and I certainly took the opportunity to play it back then, what with being a major fan of RPGs in general, and Square-Enix’s in particular.
I remember bits and pieces of that playthrough, and remembered them as I played this Switch “remake,” but I forgot a good chunk of it, and apparently missed a good chunk more. It’s a bit ironic, as when I played the SNES version, I do remember beating all three optional super bosses that appear in various scenarios.
See, that’s this game’s big thing. It broke its narrative across seven different characters. Each one represents a different moment in time, and they sort of play out like what a child is likely to pretend to be during playtime: a caveman, a martial arts master, a ninja, a cowboy, an MMA champion, a psychic punk, and a robot. They’re also in many ways a sort of time capsule of when this game was made: the “Present Day” chapter is definitely from the ’90’s, and the “Near Future” chapter feels like what the ’90’s thought now was going to be like. This lends the game some charm, but does date things a bit.
What’s more fascinating is that as you play through the various chapters, a theme starts to develop. Each and every story climaxes with a creature/character that goes by some variant of Odio being the source of the trouble. The caveman discovers that his love interest is about to be sacrificed to Odo, the last t-rex; the robot discovers that the AI, OD-10 just might be malevolent; and every group in between faces their own version.
Each of these mini encounters plays out almost cinematically, like a good ’90’s movie on the particular topic. This really shows more in some chapters than others: the Cowboy chapter almost could not play more like a Western if it tried, and the Far Future plays like a great survival horror film. But each time the player encounters a festering evil that uses some combination of those letters.
According to sources (i.e. the internet), Odio or some variation of it can roughly be translated to “hate.” Thus we see the theme that the game is trying to go for pretty loudly and clearly: hate is the source of all evil. And each time we can see that hate is attempting to tear down some element around our heroes.
This works in no small part to that bit I mentioned where each of the scenarios plays out almost like a traditional story in the genre they’re playing around with. It’s fascinating how well this works too, with the gameplay being strongly tied in with the various stories. See, the other big gimmick of Live a Live is that each scenario plays slightly differently (they claim on the box that each is a “new way to play” which isn’t strictly accurate).
The caveman scenario is a wordless romantic comedy about young lad Pogo finding… well, love might be stretching things, though the story does play out more like a cute romance than anything else. There’s no dialogue, just grunts and such. And for the most part, it plays like a RPG, with areas to roam, a starting “town,” and a pretty simple and easy to abuse crafting system.
A few of these do play out more like traditional JRPGs, with only some slants. This goes for that prehistory one, but also the Near Future, and pretty much the Imperial China.
However, Imperial China/Martial Arts chapter is the one that really does this great job integrating gameplay elements we’re used to, and it starts to hint to something more. You take the role of an aging shifu, a master of the Earthen Fist (you can technically name it). Realizing that age is catching up with him, he sets forth to find a successor.
He finds three wayward youths, each showing promise, each initially weaker than him. You easily defeat these three in combat, then move on to training them. The first sessions prove as easy as ever, with the Shifu handily defeating his proteges. However, after the sessions, the protege grows… but the Shifu doesn’t. He gains no experience, grows no stronger throughout the duration of the chapter.
They’ve used the standard leveling system to show us how the Shifu has aged, has learned all he can, and now must pass on his knowledge. We watch the successor grow stronger and stronger, until they could handily beat their Shifu, and then they finally take on their version of Odio (Ou Di Wan Lee, and yes, they have too much fun with the naming conventions).
The developers clearly have fun during these various stories. Sometimes it’s in the naming conventions or the actual narrative, sometimes it’s in how the games play out. That modern section riffs hard on Street Fighter and the like, essentially playing out like a boss rush.
The idea here is that each time the world the character inhabits is beset by hate, and each time someone rises to meet it. Motives change, though they’re often some slant on love. But each time the hero proves that humanity is worth saving, that they can find reasons to give into hate.
Then you get to the medieval chapter, and obviously spoilers ahead….
This chapter plays so much like an old school JRPG that it almost feels flat at first. The story follows Oersted, a bold knight who wins the princess’s hand through a tourney. But alas, the demon king has arisen and kidnapped the princess! Our brave hero must gather his ally and companion, Streibough, find the retired heroes who defeated the Dark Lord previously, and save his lady love.
So yeah, standard stuff… suspiciously standard. Then again, each other chapter borrows themes and essentially plays a story straight. That’s the fun expectation that the game establishes. Going in, a player would likely think that this is almost the reward. Now that you’ve played through all these weird sections, with survival horror puzzles, timed trap setting, weird leveling, and *shudders* stealth gameplay, it’s time to get your classic JRPG reward.
Yes, enjoy actually having a full party of four characters throughout a large chunk. Enjoy being able to grind, to face random encounters, to gather loot and explore a medieval world. Oh sure, it’s still relatively small: this is still one chapter among eight. But it’s still got charm, with a few fun writing moments (as you exit the town, everyone’s giving you stuff, and one guy literally takes the shirt off his back; it is… not a useful item).
Then you reach the Dark Lord. You triumphantly face him with your party… only for the old hero Hasshe to state that this was a shadow. A trap shudders the room.
Streibough is caught in the trap, our best friend is lost. Defeated, Oersted slinks backs to the castle, head low. That night, he is visited by a nightmarish vision. It calls him forth… and he slays the king.
Here the game goes wild. This is the chapter that makes everyone claim Live a Live is something special. Oersted is declared the Lord of Dark for this mistake (never mind that he’s a knight with no discernible dark powers who lets himself be thrown into a prison; oh, and the holy priest who’s an old hero says Oersted’s a good lad). He attempts to prove he’s innocent…
And it turns out… Streibough’s behind it. Our companion, who was with us through the entire journey, used demonic powers. He conjured images to play with Oersted’s mind out of lust for power. He loves the princess, and cannot abide Oersted, the knight who always wins, winning her too. He lashes out.
Naturally you kick his butt. Then the princess Alethea comes, our beloved who promised to love none but us, her future husband. She calls not for Oersted, but for Streibough. See, she loves him. Perhaps because he saved her, or perhaps she’s bespelled or maybe she loved him all along; it’s unclear.
Oersted is left alone, and, well, hate wins. The villain wins. He becomes the Dark Lord, changing his name to Odio and extending his powers forward and backward in time to infect others.
And thus the game does something truly impressive. It gives us a villain narrative that makes almost too much sense. It’s practically impossible not to root for Oersted; not just because you play as him, but because in the beginning, he does nothing wrong. He acts the part of the hero, only someone’s put him in the wrong play. Hate grips him in the end; hate wins.
Then there’s this whole coming together thing where he foolishly summons the other seven protagonists from across time and dumps him in the realm. It’s a load of fun getting to make your own party of fun characters (I ended up with my female martial arts master, Cube the healing robot, Akira the psychic punk kid, and the Sundown Kid, western gunslinger) and have fun.
But the whole point is the theme. This idea that hate rises up and humanity must deal with it. Each time we hope to be better, to prove humanity right. But sometimes… sometimes hate wins. Sometimes the dark gets the better of even the best of us. But what matters is how we react to that, how we rise to the challenge.
Yeah, in some ways it’s a simple message. And the various scenarios are a mixed bag. Some are wonderful (like Imperial China or the Medieval Saga), others are… they’re bad. The ninja section is bad. So, so, so bad. It made me want to quit the game with its stupid stealth mechanics and poor characterization and “eff you, why weren’t you using a guide?” moments and hidden superbosses that require you to be end game levels when there’s not even a good grinding spot to get to that high of a level.
So yeah, game’s flawed. But it tells this message beautifully, and it has some truly amazing moments. It plays with formula, gives this unique gameplay experience that’s unlike anything else out there. The closest game to this is probably Saga Frontier, and that game almost plays it safe compared to what Live a Live does here, what with its shops and its larger parties and places to grind.
This game really is the classic people said it was. It’s severely flawed, and some of those flaws may be hard to look past, but there’s a diamond here with a really good interesting story to tell, some gripping gameplay, and a unique take on the whole system.
9 all the wonderful storytelling and great scenarios still can’t take away the pain of that ninja section (or the lackluster modern fighting game thing that was kinda boring and tedious)