Live A Live seems like a collection of offhand ideas that various Square designers had brewing as concepts, but never could quite figure out how to expand into a full game. What to do with all these half-baked ideas from the brainstorming board? Toss 'em all into one cart, and season liberally with a demonic force that can reach through time and mess with people in different eras!
That, plus the Meh rating, probably makes me sound harder on the game than I actually am going to be. There is a lot to like in Live A Live, and a lot that works. However, all these things are points of curiosity for the hardcore oldschoolers, more or less - as a whole, cohesive game, it struggles with major jags in difficulty, and sequences that flip suddenly from cute and interesting to frustrating and tedious.
The concept of the game is that you play as seven characters, seemingly initially unrelated, in seven different time periods. Each one has their own self-contained "chapter", and you can play these in any order. You'll soon note that the main evil Foozles of each chapter have suspiciously similar names, however, and the game culminates with the heroes meeting in a final chapter to take on the source of all horror and nastiness once and for all.
The game runs on an oddly modified version of what appears to be the Final Fantasy 5 engine. The major difference is combat, which takes place on a grid unlike anything seen in any other Square game. It has more of a strategic element than the usual RPG - you can flip between characters at will, but after a certain amount of moves the enemies get a turn, and every attack in the game has a certain range of squares that it reaches, so most battles are about figuring out what the baddest attacks the enemies have are and then positioning so that you can hit them without retaliation. Some of your moves also have the side effect of turning the ground into an elemental field or making it poisonous, some moves knock an enemy backwards, and some allow you to hop backwards after striking so as to dart out of range, and many of them have the side effect of either decreasing the enemy's levels or boosting yours. In most cases, there isn't one "killer attack" that you just whale away with - each battle makes you think, at least a little bit, about how to most strategically approach the enemies.
So the battle system is pretty good. Though the art and music are consistent throughout the game, the chapters were mostly designed by different people, and they have markedly different tones and feel in most cases. Some also suck a lot more than others.
Though you can play them in any order, let's go chronologically, just for simplicity. The first chapter, then, would be the Prehistoric Era, where you control a caveman named Pogo and his farting gorilla buddy Gori as they go about their lives as part of a goofy caveman tribe. This chapter is a good introduction to the game - it has a comedic tone with a lot of physical humor that is actually funny, and since it takes place before language, everyone communicates with gestures and thought bubbles that contain images. Pogo has the ability to smell the air and see what direction enemies are in (and, in some cases, find hidden items). The whole thing is creative, it has a cute story, there are some hidden side items, and the difficulty balance is pretty good. It probably could have stood to be a bit longer, but this is still one of the better chapters.
The next chapter takes place in ancient China. The last remaining master of a powerful martial art realizes he is near death, and seeks students to pass the art on to before he goes. There's nothing particularly wrong with this chapter, but it is easy to screw up a character for the final chapter via improper training if you aren't aware of how it works before playing. As you can replay chapters as much as you want after completion, however, it isn't much of an issue, as the whole thing lasts only about 2 hours at most.
Next up is the Bakumatsu Era, which is one of the highlights of the game. Think Tenchu : Stealth Assassins condensed into pixelly RPG form, and you've got this one in a nutshell. A ninja named Oboro seeks to rescue a captured government official from an evil warlord by storming his castle. You have a cloak that makes you invisible while standing still, and you get a bonus if you either kill all 100 people present in the castle (not including the prisoner), or get through without killing anyone.
Though you can control the amount of fighting to some degree in the Bakumatsu chapter, there are still some fights against automatons and boss fights that are unskippable. The next chapter, the Old West, is the first really atypical chapter of the game. Aside from a couple token gimme fights to advance the plot, and the boss battle at the end, there is no battling in this one whatsoever. A Clint-alike named Sunset wanders into a small town that is about to be attacked by bandits in the morning, and has eight hours (not real-time, mercifully) to run about and gather materials to set traps to thin their numbers when they attack. How many you kill dictate how many you actually have to fight when the bandits show up; it is theoretically possible to kill everyone but the boss and take him on one-on-one.
The Modern Times chapter is also atypical, though it consists of nothing but fighting. Easily the skimpiest on plot and having the most shallow character, it is basically an odd Street Fighter clone/tribute/parody. You simply fight a series of six battles against other martial artists, culminating in a boss fight. Aside from winning each fight, you also need to get hit by the "special moves" of the enemies to learn them for future use. Now, when I said some chapters suck more than others, I was talking about this one. First of all, it is nearly impossible to learn some of the moves without getting yourself killed. You absolutely have to get many of them, however, or you will be too much of a weenie to take on the very buff final boss of the chapter. The whole thing ends up being very random, and dependent on the computer just deciding to be not too aggressive about killing you. This is also where emulator save states will be your best friend in the world, because if you lose at any point prior to the final boss, you have to start the whole chapter from the beginning again. This chapter is way too frustrating and tedious, so much so that I wouldn't be surprised if people quit the game and didn't come back to it just because of it.
The Near Future chapter is a blend of good and bad. It is a sort of parody of conventions of Japanese "giant robot" shows, so right off the bat, unless you are an "otaku" or Wapanese or whatever, much of the humor is lost. The structure of the chapter is also pretty horrendous, though - it has really frequent (and annoying) random fights, and makes you wander about a whole lot just randomly checking in on the same locations over and over to advance the plot without really telling you what you are supposed to be doing. The new Aeon Genesis translation makes things a bit more clear, but prior, man was this chapter a massive headache. It still isn't very good, but it does have one of the better stories and ensembles of characters.
You close out the original set of chapters with the Far Future, which is another atypical no-battler like Old West. This time, you are on an intergalactic freighter transporting some giant murderous beast back to Earth. You play as a sentient robot that the ship's mechanic has just created and activated. The crew slowly gets infested with the Space Madness, the Beast breaks out and starts rampaging around, generally all hell breaks loose, and it ends up being up to little robot buddy to set things straight. While the atmosphere is great and the story is kinda neat, the 12x16 "behemoth" just isn't as intimidating as it could be, and the whole thing is a bit slow-paced and has some boring stretches. It is also easily the least challenging of the chapters, making it mostly a "sit back and watch" sort of thing.
A final character-based chapter is unlocked after completing all of these, which offers up an unusually dark story twist for an SNES game, and then you are off to the final chapter in which all the player-characters converge to take on the final boss. The very last chapter is representative of all that is good and bad about the game. On the good side, it's challenging, has a number of creative dungeons, and wonderfully foreboding atmosphere. On the bad side, the random encounter rate is way too high, the gameplay area is too small and padded out by having you walk back and forth across the same areas looking for obscure hidden things over and over again, and it ends off with a final boss fight that is insanely difficult and requires epic amounts of grinding to even stand a chance at.
And that's Live A Live in a nutshell - fascinatingly dark as compared to what's around it, and showing flashes of brilliance at times, but making you slog through a lot of turgid and frustrating sequences to take it all in. Fans of old-school gaming will likely want to check it out as a curiosity piece, and if you like RPGs, there is enough here to keep you entertained. Yoko Shimomura also turns in what I think is the best of her soundtracks here - the dark source material seems to free her to be more inventive and varied, breaking completely from the usual insubstantial fluffy style you get from her with Kingdom Hearts and Super Mario RPG and all of that. Here it sounds more like Street Fighter 2 Shimomura crossed with symphonic Yuzo Koshiro, which works out just fine. It's a pretty rough game to stick with all the way through, though.
* Aeon Genesis v2.0 Translation Patch
* Gameplay Video