Live a Live review: a lost Japanese RPG gem from the 1990s

In a year where Kate Bush and Metallica re-entered the charts, it’s fitting that 2022’s most intriguing game so far has been plucked from the past. Directed by Takashi Tokita of Chrono Trigger fame, for decades Live a Live appeared destined to remain the RPG that time forgot. Its initial Japanese release on the Super Famicom (SNES) in 1994 was a commercial flop, ensuring it never left its homeland – until now.

Resurrected for Nintendo’s fittingly anachronistic current console, the Switch, this eyebrow-raising relic has been reanimated using Square Enix’s gorgeous 2D-HD engine, a graphical style that melds rich high-definition backgrounds with retro 16-bit sprites. The results are glorious, injecting once-flat environments with a playful, eye-catching charm that never quite loses its magic.

It’s not just Live a Live’s voluptuous visuals that distinguish it: it’s the concept. The Japanese role-playing genre is infamous for bloated runtimes, but Live a Live gleefully turns this trope on its head. A playable anthology series, this JRPG Black Mirror abandons the traditional epic tale in favour of seven standalone stories, each with characters designed by a different esteemed manga artist. Much like Netflix’s acclaimed Love, Death and Robots, the result is a beautifully unpredictable. One vignette sees you mastering kung fu in imperial China, and in the next you are a robot navigating a sprawling spaceship.

For those who love turn-based battles but can’t stomach the 150 hour runtime of the summer’s other Switch RPG, Xenoblade Chronicles 3, Live a Live is a godsend. With tales ranging from 90-minute curios to meatier six-hour odysseys, this compendium is a masterclass in playable, standalone ideas. Where grid-based battles and narrative choices ensure continuity, unique gameplay twists for each story such as shinobi stealth or science-fiction mind-reading spice things up.

One of the beautiful things about video games is that they trick your brain into feeling like you’ve achieved something. But if you abandon the latest Final Fantasy or The Witcher 3 for a few months, you’ll return befuddled; hours of play barely make a dent in your huge quest log. In Live a Live, you can start an epic adventure in the morning and see the credits roll by the end of your lunch break.

Live a Live Nintendo Switch screenshot.
Live a Live Nintendo Switch screenshot. Photograph: Square Enix

Like any anthology, not every story here is a masterpiece. The wild west is a clear highlight, with its Magnificent Seven-inspired plot telling a tight tale of saloons and outlaws, centrepieced by slick gunslinging showdowns. A shinobi caper offers the meatiest combat of the package, tasking players with either slaughtering their way through a Shogun’s keep or sneaking across the rooftops undetected. The aforementioned Imperial China outing is another delight: in this Dragon Ball-esque yarn, an ageing martial arts master seeks a band of new disciples to ensure his kung fu legacy lives on, culminating in a spectacular showdown. The Earthbound-inspired near future story, however elicits more of a shrug, and the slow-burn, dialogue-heavy sci-fi yarn certainly won’t be for everyone. This, however, is what makes Live a Live brilliant: no matter what you make of your current chapter, an exciting new tale lies just around the corner.

Despite its 90s origins, Live a Live feels novel, revitalising a genre that often feels too conservative. It’s a constantly shifting, time-travelling bonanza that foreshadows what Takita would perfect in 1995’s Chrono Trigger; 90s role-playing fans are now praying that it receives the same lavish remake treatment, alongside other classics of the time such as Final Fantasy VI. Live a Live is not without its faults, but in an age of fast-food entertainment that satiates without leaving a taste, this compendium is a curio that’s certainly worth your time.

  • Live a Live is out now; £39.99.

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