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SummaryFrom prehistoric lizard underwear to robotic space investigations
The GoodLive a Live is one of the lesser-known games made by popular developers at the peak of their creative power. Truly one of the oddest, most original Japanese RPGs ever created, Live a Live is more satisfying as a weird experiment we curiously follow to the end than a coherently designed game with a full-fledged concept.
The game's unusual structure becomes evident from the moment you open its main menu: it lets you play seven different stories, each set in a different time period - prehistoric age, old China, feudal Japan, 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 medieval Europe. That chapter lets you play another story, but it also ties the other stories together and explains everything that was unclear before. After you complete it, the final chapter comes, where your heroes finally meet each other and must face their ultimate adversary.
The inventiveness and the variety of Live a Live is truly something to behold. Indeed, what other game allows you infiltrate an ancient Japanese castle using stealth or raw power at your wish; save your stone-age girlfriend back with the help of an ape and sign language; solve the mystery of a deserted spaceship and find out who is behind the strange events that took the lives of the crew; or prevent a terrible scientific experiment while fighting street punks, using psychic powers to control a robot, and reading people's minds?
The good thing is that while none of those individual chapters, understandably, can hold its ground against larger and deeper games, there is enough gameplay diversity even within the small borders of those mini-RPGs. Each vignette has its own playing style that feels fresh and different, ensuring that the motley scenarios aren't there just for cosmetic purposes and that we'll never be subjected to the exact same activities in the next chapter we choose.
One feature common to all chapters is the combat system, which is quite interesting. All battles take place on a 7x7 grid where characters can move around in a turn-based fashion. There is a considerable variety of available attacks and techniques, with targeting and positioning often playing a crucial role, thus greatly contributing to the game's tactical element and increasing the challenge by making you think and plan rather than grind for levels. There are all sorts of cool details such as jumps that hit one remote square on the field, diagonal and area attacks, elemental spells that change the status of a particular field (which may damage or heal a character standing on it depending on his resistances), and so on. You can cover your allies and protect weaker party members, cast area-healing spells, circumvent enemies to avoid attacks, use speed to your advantage, etc., making battles dynamic and dramatic.
Most chapters would also present their own gameplay elements not encountered elsewhere. The prehistoric chapter allows you to craft accessories from bones and sticks, taking you through a humorous story without a single line of dialogue; as a ninja in feudal Japan, you can opt to sneak past most enemies, use ropes for shortcuts, and discover alternate paths through a castle; while preparing for the inevitable confrontation in the Old West you can lay traps to reduce the number of your enemies; you can read the mind of any NPC you meet in the city of the near future.
The real "meat" of the game, however, is in the final chapter, which is larger and probably more time-consuming than all the others taken together. Despite its small playing area, it is surprisingly open-ended and full of optional battles, hidden locations, item-collection and other RPG goodies. 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. In a particularly original twist, you can also opt to play through the chapter controlling the final boss against the party of heroes.
You'd think that Live a Live, being composed out of separate mini-stories that seem to have nothing in common at first sight, would offer little in terms of narrative. But wait till you unlock the medieval chapter, which has, in my opinion, one of the best plots ever written for a video game. Its darkly passionate tale is almost Shakespearean in concept and presentation, and its series of dazzling twists casts bright light over the stories of the previous chapters in quite an unexpected way. The story is emotionally powerful, uniquely intense and admirably concise, which is particularly remarkable considering the excessive verbosity and melodramatic lengths of standard Japanese RPG storytelling. The final chapter continues that scenario and brings the story to a moving and monumental conclusion.
The BadNot all the chapters of Live a Live are equally good. It seems to me that, while certain episodes were given full attention and offered as much gameplay value as they only could considering their short length and limited size, others were treated with puzzling negligence. The most striking example of the latter is the modern-day chapter, which is literally a selection of battles without the slightest bit of exploration available. The sci-fi chapter, with all its captivating atmosphere, lacks any sort of challenge and falls back to Japanese adventure cliches, forcing you to run back and forth to trigger events.
In general, I felt that even the more expansive chapters (e.g. the prehistoric one) could have been longer. There is next to no sense of character development when you know that your characters are going to be taken away from you very soon and you'll have to start over with somebody completely different. The developers realized that and wisely provided opportunities for player-controlled character growth in the last chapter; but that was perhaps a bit too little and too late.
Thus, Live a Live can be evaluated as a fascinating experience, but not what most people would consider a satisfying RPG. The last chapter, though being significantly more generous in that respect, is still too limited to truly let us spread our role-playing wings. The playing area is quite small even in that chapter, with one town and a bit of interconnected wilderness. There is very little sense of traveling throughout the game, and the short duration of individual chapters make any kind of long-term planning almost non-existent.