Live A Live is a short slice of the weird and wonderful world of the JRPG.
When it’s crazy, oh boy, it gets crazy. One of my favorite stories, set in the near future, is the best Power Rangers episode you’ve never seen. Spiky-haired protagonist Akira uses his psychic powers with the help of ‘local businessman’ Matsu, friend of his orphanage, to foil a biker gang’s plot. Along the way, use Akira’s psychic powers in combat to unleash powerful attacks such as “Mother’s Shame,” which confuses enemies with thoughts of their mothers, causing them to lose the will to fight. Oh, and there are giant kaiju-like mechs too, because why not?
Depending on which story you choose next, you could be dealing with deep introspection about what it means to be human in the distant future, or fart and sex jokes in the prehistoric era. Perhaps instead you want to be a penitent gunfighter in the wild west, train a martial artist apprentice in Imperial China, or infiltrate a camp as a ninja trainee in Edo Japan. While the different eras seem to take their inspiration from movies and TV more than anything else, it’s the way Live A Live separates the two tones found in many JRPGs and assigns one of them to each chapter that is one of the true highlights. of every story. to me. It’s one of the ways writers Takashi Tokita and Nobuyuki Inoue explore the ingredients of a traditional JRPG. Something they know all about, with both early Final Fantasy entries and Tokita set to write and direct Chrono Trigger, while Inoue eventually works on Legend of Mana.
JRPGs thrive, including “did they really just do that?” moments in almost equal measure as they thoughtfully examine the world around them. It’s what gives us the Honey Bee Inn segment between eco-terrorism in Final Fantasy VII, and befriending Nancy the crawfish is definitely as important as taking on the Seiryu Clan in Yakuza: Like a Dragon.
I don’t think Live A Live is a better game because it divides these two important parts into separate stories, nor do I think it completely separates its wacky choices from its more serious ones. You’re still using horse shit to trip up bandits in the wild west, and that deep introspection on humanity in the distant future is told from the perspective of a rotund rollerskating robot. No, what I like most about Live A Live is that it still manages to keep the spirit of the JRPG alive while breaking apart what the genre is.
Separating the weirdness of the weighty into different chapters is really just one way Live A Live telegraphs its dissection of the JRPG. I won’t spoil anything, but the last two chapters unlocked after completing the first seven are the most in-the-know about this. Why are you a hero? Why are you being rewarded? Why does everyone’s life revolve around you? It’s wonderfully melodramatic. Made all the more impressive by the fact that the original release in the 90s explored tropes of the genre, and is still relevant with its nice pixel remaster. Turn-based combat may not be as popular as it was thirty years ago, but having a ‘chosen one’ protagonist certainly fulfills our power fantasies.
It’s impressive, then, that despite half the usual running time and highlighting so many of the genre’s tropes, Live A Live still manages to be one of the best examples of the JRPG out there. Knowing you’re playing through story beats that have been covered many times before doesn’t make the chapters any less enthralling. Live A Live is still committed to the JRPG bit, even if it knows it’s exposing the makings of one for all.