Live a life in which you get to play this game!
Everyone know Squaresoft, mostly for their Final Fantasy
games. They also created other great RPGs in similar style ( Chrono
), several less successful action-RPGs, and experimental products like the SaGa
series. And they also made a game that is called "Live a Live".
What? "Live a Live"? Could you repeat it? What kind of a strange title is that? Indeed, chances are that you've never heard about this game, let alone played it. It was never published outside of Japan, and is known only to a small circle of console-RPG addicts and die-hard Squaresoft fans. Belonging to both those categories, I found this game after prolonged searching, and played it. I finished it yesterday evening. It didn't take me long to understand this was one of the most original and brilliant games ever made.
Already the concept of this game is unlike anything else we've ever seen - and definitely not within the limits of such a conservative and strict genre like console-style RPG. "Live a Live" lets you play seven different stories, each one set in a different time period - prehistoric age, feudal Japan, medieval China, Wild West, modern times, near future, and remote future. You can play those seemingly unrelated chapters in any order you wish, but you must complete them all to reveal the eighth and most important chapter, which is set in Europe in the Middle Ages. This chapter lets you play another story, but it also ties the other stories together and explains everything that was unclear before. After you complete this story, the final chapter comes, where your heroes meet each other and must face their ultimate adversary. You can also play this final chapter in a different way - from this adversary's point of view. Then you get a different ending. There are also several other endings in the "main" chapter, which depend on the decisions you take while playing it.
The actual story of "Live a Live" - the one that unites all the little stories - comes in the Medieval chapter. Until then, we can only witness the personal stories of the game's characters, without knowing about the connection between them. The whole point of the game becomes evident only in this chapter. It is much more than the usual "save the world" tale, and contains rather thought-provoking material and moral problems that are not very typical for Squaresoft. The majestic idea of uniting several historical periods in one game is much more than just a gimmick to attract the player. It is a necessary part of the game's philosophy.
The gameplay of "Live a Live" is almost as original as its concept. It is a console-style RPG, but it is so different from what we've seen before (or after). With the exception of the modern day chapter, all others have strong elements of adventure, and the science fiction chapter is based on it entirely. The game rarely guides you to the next task - you have to figure out yourself what to do. The great flexibility of the gameplay seems even more amazing if we realize the worlds of the game are in fact very small. There is no traveling here, and each chapter in set in a closed location. But even within the limits of those locations, there are plenty of secret areas, hidden items, traps, and optional bosses. The most stunning example of an open-ended world stuffed into a small location appears in the final chapter. Seven (!) hidden dungeons, each one complete with secret passages, boss battles, and rare items, are somehow squeezed into a location that contains nothing more but a castle, a village with two houses, a mountain path, and a grassy area between them. Pure magic courtesy of Squaresoft. Other chapters also reveal astonishing amount of optional areas, and most of them offer deliciously flexible gameplay. Often you'll have to take decisions during a chapter - for example, the Bakumatsu chapter is built entirely on your choice to be stealthy or to engage yourself in fights. The modern day chapter has only fights, while the science fiction one has no fights at all. You'll always feel refreshed when completing a chapter and starting a new one, because they have so much gameplay variety.
The battle system is quite original. All battles take place on a 7x7 field with grids - almost like in a chess game. You can move your characters through this field, coming close to the enemy or standing far away from him. Both you and your enemies have a huge variety of attacks, both melee and ranged ones, elemental and status-changing, magical and physical. Each attack has a certain range. For example, a melee attack can hit all the squares near you - if you are surrounded by enemies, this attack will spread the damage equally between them. Other, usually more powerful melee attacks can hit only four nearest diagonal grids. There are jump attacks that hit one remote square on the field, diagonal attacks that hit everything that stands diagonally to you, and area attacks that inflict damage on a large area or even the whole battle field. There are many elemental attack that will change the status on the field to water, poison, electricity, etc. Every enemy or ally who stands on an affected grid will suffer damage from it every turn - or heal himself, if he belongs to that particular element. The enemies are usually smart and often require unconventional solutions for victory. Different enemies are vulnerable to different techniques. Often one enemy controls a bunch of others, so if you destroy that enemy, the others will "break down" automatically. However, in this case you won't gain good items that such robotic enemies usually drop. Of course, the possibility to move around the field adds many strategies to the usual turn-based battle procedures. If you have a good speed, you can quickly run away from an enemy, heal, and then return to bash him with powerful melee attacks. You can cover your allies and protect weaker party members from strong enemy attacks. You have spells and items that will heal an area, so sometimes you have to keep your fighters close to each other. Many enemies perform different attacks depending on where you stand - for example, they will bite you if you stay close to their mouth, or hit you with a tail if you stay behind them.
The game's graphics are almost exactly the same as in Final Fantasy V
. The character sprites are quite small, but the backgrounds are wonderful - check out for example the Odeo temple in the near future chapter, or the detailed interiors of the Japanese castle. In battle, the character sprites become considerable larger and more detailed, and the enemies look absolutely cool. Some of the enemy graphics belong to the best Super Nintendo could offer. But even the small sprites reveal a lot of detail and emotion - especially in the prehistoric chapter. Just check out Gori's hilarious laughing, the kiss Beru gives to Pogo, or Ziku's ridiculous hair-combing gesture.
Each chapter has its own battle and background music, that is usually quite appropriate to the time period it accompanies. My favorite music was from the medieval chapter - a magnificent longing, romantic piece with great orchestration. The sounds effects are excellent and play quite an important role for the game's atmosphere.
Now for the chapters themselves:Prehistoric Chapter
. This must be the most hilariously original chapter ever created for an RPG. Humor was never a strong element of role-playing games, but Pogo chapter is funnier than many comedy adventures. Everything is funny in this chapter, from the graphical gestures to the salsa-like battle music. But despite all that fun, the plot of the chapter is a really sweet little love story, that also has its serious moments. The particular charm of this chapter is its total absence of dialogue. Humans have not yet invented language, so our prehistoric heroes have to talk in gestures and images. The gimmick of this chapter if Pogo's ability to sniff. At any point of the game, you can smell the air and determine the proximity of some important people or objects. This interesting feature has to be used in several parts to proceed in the game. In this chapter, you can also hunt animals and receive items like horns, fangs, bones, etc. Then you can bring those items to a fellow caveman, and he will make weapons and accessories from them. You can gain some powerful equipment through sheer experimenting..Bakumatsu Chapter
. This chapter is all about gameplay - you play a ninja who has to infiltrate the residence of an evil Japanese feudal lord. You can manage to perform the entire mission without killing people, or you can test your strength and engage yourself in combat with guards and other castle inhabitants. It is entirely up to you whether to spare the lives of the innocent or to slay them. The great flexibility of this chapter's gameplay is absolutely untypical for console-style RPGs, and the constant possibility of making a choice make it extremely addictive. You have the ability to hide in shadows, so that the people won't see you. The castle is full of secret areas, passages, and traps. Some trapped areas will send you directly into a prison, others contain valuable items that you can only get if you disable the traps. You can use ropes in order to make shortcuts through some trapped areas. There are two optional party members in this chapter, one of which is quite hard to find. Kung-Fu Chapter
. The Chinese chapter is considerably smaller than its Prehistoric or Japanese counterpart. But they managed to grace even this little chapter with a simple, yet touching and meaningful story. You are an old kung-fu master who has to find a worthy heir for his great techniques. You must find three pupils and train them, making them learn your techniques and become stronger, quicker, and more intelligent. In the end, only one pupil will inherit the master title - the one you chose to train most. You'll have to defeat an evil martial artist who believes in physical powers more than in powers of heart and mind. Very meaningful are the words of the chosen pupil in the end of the chapter: "One day I'll be as strong as you, master. But I will never be as kind as you". Wild West Chapter
. This chapter is also very small, but once again, the main characters and conflicts are presented with a typical Squaresoft quality - in a few words, they are able to picture the characters and the conflicts between them. The chapter contains everything we like from the setting: friends-rivals, duels on guns, a mysterious man, a small town that is attacked by bandits, a typical bar with musicians playing country music, and so on. The hero - a mysterious Sunset Kid - decides to protect the town and to defeat the Crazy Bunch gang. You can set traps in order to reduce the number of your enemies in the final showdown. The chapter captures perfectly the romantic spirit of loneliness that is so typical for this style. Modern Day Chapter
. There isn't anything else in this chapter but a series of fights, ending with quite a tricky boss fight. Even though this chapter is basically devoid of story (you are a young man who wants to become the strongest, and you challenge famous fighters to test your strength and to learn their techniques), it has a nice flavor of a fighting game, and is much cooler than any Mortal Kombat. Your enemies are very colorful, and the ability to learn their techniques leave some field for different strategies for the final battle.Near Future Chapter
. One of the more developed chapters of the game, the near future chapter tells the story of Akira, a young boy who has lost his father, the captain of riot police, in an accident with a street gang, and who has the unique ability to read other people's mind. The story takes place in post-modern Japan. You can stay in your house or wander around the town and visit the bar, the pier, a beautiful park, etc. The enemies are all visible on screen and respawn after you leave a location. You can upgrade your equipment by bringing it to a crazy antiques dealer. The gameplay often requires from you to use your mind-reading ability when a mere dialogue doesn't bring you further. There are a lot of cool stylish elements in the chapter: a political intrigue, an unexpected plot twist connected to your best friend, an ancient robot who can be controlled with psychic powers, experiments on humans, a factory guarded by "men in black", some "cute" parts (such as your sister and other children), etc. This chapter alone could have been a great animé movie. The few giant mech battles (near the end of the chapter) pave the way for Xenogears
.Science Fiction Chapter
This chapter is one of the most unique phenomenas in the history of console RPGs, and is absolutely remarkable even when compared to the other parts of "Live a Live". In the whole chapter, there is only one obligatory battle - the final showdown. It would have been an adventure if it had any puzzles - but it also has no puzzles (if we disregard such easy tasks as bringing a coffee to a crew member or using an instrument to open a door). The gameplay consists exclusively of wandering through the space ship and talking to people, thus becoming something like an interactive movie. This chapter resembles a movie more than any other. The story is also typical for a sci-fi movie: a series of strange accidents occur on a space ship, and your task is to find out who (or what) is behind them. There is a lot of suspense in this chapter, which is a great example of psychological horror: there are no horror scenes, but the tension alone is enough to scare the player. Once again, Squaresoft managed to present characters and their relationships in a very concise way and with utmost precision. Medieval Chapter
. Once you have completed other chapters, the medieval one opens - the most important chapter of the game, its very core, that explains everything, tells the actual story of the game, and contains its most important events. As much as the other chapters were great, the medieval chapter is the highest point of the game not only because of its position in it, but also because of the pure quality of its story and content. The chapter is one of the most deeply tragical stories that ever graced a video game. At first, it seems like your typical "save the princess" fairy tale. But soon you start noticing it develops to something totally different. The dark and desperate atmosphere of the chapter, that is accompanied by fantastic music, takes over until a series of absolutely unexpected plot twists occur and seal the story. Quite honestly, I was sitting with my mouth open when I realized the truth about the chapter's characters and the explanation for the stories of all other chapters. This chapter is not as brilliant and as interesting as the others in terms of setting or gameplay, but it doesn't need it - the sheer power of its story, content, and atmosphere is unparalleled. If in other chapters Squaresoft proved they could handle masterfully exotic settings and unusual, new gameplay styles, in this chapter they proved they could create a unique masterpiece within the limits of RPG tradition. Final Chapter
. In this chapter, your characters are united to fight your final adversary. Of course, you can play this chapter also from the point of view of this adversary - a great treat for fans of true RPGs. Imagine the possibility of fighting the final battle of Final Fantasy VII
controlling Sephiroth... In any case, the chapter is much longer and more rewarding if you decide to stay with your heroes. There isn't much story here, but so many optional battles, hidden locations, and other RPG goodness, that you'll probably spend quite some time with it. You can create any four-people party from your seven characters, and each of them has a personal secret dungeon only he can access. You can go directly and confront the final boss from the very beginning of the chapter, but there's hardly a chance to defeat him without some serious preparations. The final battle is challenging just like a true ultimate battle should be.
"Live a Live" has almost no flaws, and this is even more amazing if you realize what a gigantic structure this game has, and what a versatility of styles it offers. I can't imagine any other game that would handle this task as good as the creators of "Live a Live" did. My only personal desire would be to have some chapters a little bit longer. Particularly the kung-fu and the western chapters are too short, although they do manage to present excellent background stories in such a short time. But the modern day chapter is clearly behind the others - I would like to see some story development in it, instead of just fighting.
I find the title somewhat strange. I'm not even sure how to pronounce it. Shouldn't it be "Live a Life
"? On the title screen, the words "Live a Live" appear as if they were reflected in a mirror - that effect wouldn't be of course possible if the game was named "Live a Life". Still, this title is rather confusing.
This is perhaps an usual complaint, but all the eight heroes of the eight chapters are men (with the exception of kung-fu chapter, where the hero could also be a woman if you choose her to be the heir). I don't recall having any female characters in my party, except Lei from kung-fu chapter and Beru from the prehistoric one. It is very strange, since having many female characters in the party is a long console-style RPG tradition, and I don't quite understand this decision.
The actual problem with "Live a Live" has nothing to do with the game itself, but with its inexplicable lack of popularity. I don't understand, and never pretended to understand the complex mechanism of marketing. Perhaps there were some valid reasons for not publishing this game outside of Japan. But the result is an absolute disgrace to the industry. If any game deserved to be translated into English officially and published at least in the US, it should be "Live a Live".
The Bottom Line
Believe it or not, but this is one of the greatest games ever made. Since the moment I started playing it, I couldn't stop. It is brilliant, it is unique, it is rich and fascinating, and it is much more meaningful than it seems in the beginning. I admire the developers from Squaresoft even more now that I've played this masterpiece. That you probably never heard of it is a shame and a disgrace to the system that is based on successful marketing and not on pure quality of a product. But the Squaresoft developers proved they could be creative in a different way, and for that they deserve more credit than for all their mainstream games. Indeed, in what other game would you be able to: Infiltrate an ancient Japanese castle, using stealth or raw power at your wish?
Get your beloved one back from a guy who uses a lizard as an underwear, with the help of your monkey friend?
Protect a quiet western town from a vicious gang even the sheriff is afraid of?
Solve the mystery of the space ship and find out who is behind the strange events that cost the lives of the crew?
Prevent a terrible scientific experiment, while fighting street gangs and using psychic powers to control a robot?
... and much more than that. Eight fantastic games, each one with unique gameplay and story, are tied together in the final chapter, that unites them and explains everything. "Live a Live" is magnificent.