Live A Live Impressions: A slow anthology of human history limited by a poor combat system
We've checked out a few of the different tales in Square Enix's RPG and have failed to be blown away, even if there are some highlights.
You may be familiar with Live A Live, but if not, there's a perfectly good reason why. This title originally came out in 1994 for the SNES, but was only available in Japan, as it never got a western release. However, that is all changing later this month, when this very game launches on the Nintendo Switch as a remade experience that is being served up with modernised HD-2D visuals. The core game is still the same, meaning you get to experience the eight unique stories crafted by Takashi Tokita that take place at various intervals in human history, but there are a range of new improvements, including that of the soundtrack, localised text and voiced characters, and of course the aforementioned visuals. To see how this title shapes up almost 30 years after its original release, I've been able to play through a few of the different storylines.
For starters and for those wondering, Live A Live doesn't have linear narrative structure. Rather you can choose to play whichever story when you so please, meaning you could start in the Wild West as the Sundown Kid, then head back to Imperial China to play as the Earthen Heart Shifu, before taking a trip to the Distant Future to play as the adorable Cube. You can even pause each story when you like to head to a different one - there's not really much of a limit to how you tackle the narrative. But, it must be said that while each story is drastically unique, and often brings unique mechanics to the table, they are all connected in some way, and you have to piece together how by experiencing each tale. From my experience so far, this is way more complex than it may seem, as each story really does feel significantly different to one another. In fact, I'd argue it's better to treat Live A Live as an anthology of human history, and to just appreciate each tale for what it is.
To this extent, each story is mostly interesting. Whether you're defending a western town from a group of bandits as the Sundown Kid, or training prospective students to carry on your way of kung fu as the Earthen Heart Shifu, each tale will draw you in and make you interested to see how it ends. While each story is generally rather linear and has a core path that you follow, the decisions you make impact the outcome of the story. This could simply be choosing which student you want to focus your training efforts on as the Shifu, or could be more impactful to the way you play, such as in the Twilight of Edo Japan story, where you have to decide whether you want to sneak through the level, or rather eliminate any threat that stands in your way. The one factor that rings true through them all however, is the slow pace, as Live A Live is a game that really has no intention of doing anything, or getting anywhere quickly. For better or worse at times.
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Still, from what I've seen so far, the narrative is the strongest point of the game, but I can't say the same for the combat scenarios. This is turn-based and features a strengths and weaknesses system where you have to hit opponents on a grid with moves that will affect them in certain ways. For example, certain enemies may be susceptible to fire damage meaning fire attacks will do extra damage to them, whereas other enemies might resist water damage, so using water attacks will result in weaker assaults. The issue is that even with this design, the combat never feels very strategic, and for the most part, you'll be able to easily breeze through a story by just using the same one or two moves when in battle. The only time I've faced any adversity is when taking on foes as a lower-level character, as is the case in the Japan tale, but an easy resolution is just to face some weaker foes, earn some experience and rank up for better stats, and then crush the harder foes. Essentially, you'll either never be challenged, or won't stand a chance in a fight - there's never really any balanced, competitive moments.
It should be said as well that the progression systems feel kind of pointless, especially considering each of the tales are short and that the progression doesn't carry between each story. Sure, the ability to rank up is nice, and being able to find new gear to change the statistics of each character is a handy touch, but aside from making it a bit more manageable to tackle tougher opponents and bosses, and giving players a little bit of a personal touch, it is by no means a crucial aspect to the gameplay and likewise it doesn't feel like it has much of an impact on gameplay at all.
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Even though the combat has left me disappointed so far, there's no denying that the visuals of Live A Live are one of its best qualities. This is an incredibly pretty game, one that really shows off the brilliance of the HD-2D art style. It doesn't matter which part of time you're experiencing, this is a game that truly doesn't slack on its appearance. And this stretches to the soundtrack, which is also fantastic and hits all the right beats to elevate the narrative of each tale.
While I'm not quite blown away by what I've seen so far with Live A Live, I'm still entertained and interested to see how everything connects with its story. I've yet to check out the Prehistory arc, nor the Present Day, the Near Future, or the Middle Ages tales, so I'm yet to really know how these stories will expand the gameplay and develop the grander narrative, but I am intrigued nonetheless. Still, is this a knockout of a remake so far, I wouldn't say so.