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Nelson Schneider's Video Game Reviews (326)

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Zero-K 2/5
Dragon Quest XI: Echoes... 4.5/5
AereA 1/5
Arcanum: of Steamworks ... 3/5
The Yawhg 3.5/5
Dungeon Defenders II 4/5
Spelunky 0.5/5
Hard Reset Redux 2.5/5
Girls and Dungeons 4/5
Time Tenshi 2 3.5/5
Time Tenshi 2.5/5
We Are the Dwarves 1/5
Shadow Warrior 3.5/5
Torment: Tides of Numen... 4.5/5
Hammerwatch 1.5/5
Metro Redux 4/5
Dragon Quest Monsters: ... 3/5
Diluvion 3/5
Seiken Densetsu 3 ( Sec... 2.5/5
Titanfall 2 2.5/5
Treasure Hunter G 3.5/5
The Legend of Zelda: Br... 4/5
Shadow Warrior 2 4.5/5
Treasure of the Rudras ... 2/5
Oceanhorn: Monster of U... 2.5/5

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Live A Live   Super Nintendo (SNES) 

Not Quite as Lively as Expected    3.5/5 stars

“Live A Live” is one of the many ‘90s-era Squaresoft RPGs that never made it out of Japan due to a combination of corporate stupidity and worries about censorship. Released in 1994, three years after “Final Fantasy 4” broke into the limelight and gave the SNES its killer genre, “Live A Live” was eventually translated into English by the ROM-hacking group, Aeon Genesis, led by one Gideon Zhi, in 2008. As a Squaresoft SNES game, “Live A Live” exudes an inexorably tantalizing draw that I found impossible to resist once I learned of the fanslation. And though what I found in “Live A Live” wasn’t quite as amazing as I was hoping, it’s still an interesting game that’s worthy of a playthrough.

Presentation
“Live A Live” owes its basic look, sound, and aesthetic to the designers at Squaresoft, for certain. However, the Aeon Genesis team that made the fanslation also took the liberty of doing some interesting things with the game’s fonts, which stood out to me as one of the more memorable things about its presentation. Specifically, each of the game’s episodes features a different, thematically-relevant font. At its heart, though, “Live A Live” is a “Final Fantasy 4”-era Squaresoft RPG, so that’s exactly what it looks and sounds like. The overworld/map sprites are small and less than impressive, but the in-battle sprites are large, detailed and acceptably animated (enemies, however, are still static images that either flash or wiggle to show that they are doing something).

The soundtrack isn’t from Squaresoft’s A-team of Uematsu or Mitsuda from back in the day, but even without the influence of those two talents, the game’s audio still feels genuinely like a ‘90s-era Squaresoft game, thanks to the excellent work of Yoko Shimomura. Both the soundtrack and the sound effects are as good as the SNES hardware was capable of producing, though I wish the former was a bit more iconic and memorable.

Story
“Live A Live” is rather unique in that it is a self-contained episodic game, with story vignettes that take place across wildly various historical time periods. From the start of a new game, the player has the option to choose between 7 different characters/time periods. As a first-time player, this vignette structure felt rather disjointed and vague. It wasn’t until completing all 7 starting episodes and discovering the 8th episode, which reveals the backstory of the ultimate villain, that the entire experience began to feel more cohesive as a brick-by-brick build-up to the 9th and final episode.

Genre, with a big ‘G,’ is something of a dirty word in snooty, uppity, literary circles (such as among my university English professors). It is typically considered to give away all of the tropes and themes one might expect to find within a story from the word Go, while leaning heavily on these same tropes as a narrative crutch. “Live A Live” doesn’t just embrace the concept of Genre fiction, but positively wallows in it. Each of the 8 episodes leading up to the dramatic finale takes place in an incredibly unoriginal Genre setting based not only on a specific time in human history (and even into the future), but seemingly heavily influenced by the Genre movies of earlier decades.

Here’s the breakdown:

Episode 1: Prehistoric
Length: ~3 hours
Clearly Inspired By: “One Million Years B.C.” with a touch of “The Flintstones,” “The Gods Must Be Crazy,” and “2001: A Space Odyssey”
Summary: Our hero, Pogo, is a caveman living in a village on a high plateau, alongside his best friend, Goro, a comically racist ape-man. Pogo’s and Goro’s idyllic life of hunting is interrupted when they discover a beautiful female refugee from another village hiding in their tribe’s pantry. Before long, the hotshot warchief of the other village shows up (wearing a live lizard as a penis sheath/codpiece) with his crew in tow to retrieve the girl, who is intended as a sacrifice for a horrible dinosaur that constantly threatens the other village. This episode seems to be the primary reason Squaresoft chose not to localize “Live A Live,” what with Goro only being a single step above Blackface, the barely-lizard-covered nudity, and two occasions of jiggly (ape) boobs. Regardless, I enjoyed this episode the most as a stand-alone experience. It’s also noteworthy that this episode, which takes place before the spoken/written word, has its story entirely conveyed via pantomime and emoji, which makes it incredibly entertaining to watch.

Episode 2: Ancient China
Length: ~3 hours
Clearly Inspired By: “Five Deadly Venoms”
Summary: Realizing that he is nearing death due to old age, the Master – and last remaining adherent – of an ancient Kung-Fu school seeks out apprentices, ultimately settling on three diamonds-in-the-rough. When an opposing Kung-Fu school destroys everything he holds dear, the Master sacrifices himself in a final act of vengeance. This episode can end in one of three ways, resulting in one of three different characters moving onto the final episode.

Episode 3: Feudal Japan
Length: ~4 hours
Clearly Inspired By: “Sanjuro,” “Ninja Scroll”
Summary: This is the first episode to feel really in-depth, and which includes a significant number of optional/missable things. Our hero is Oboro, a shinobi ninja who is tasked with the seemingly impossible feat of infiltrating the Shogun’s castle and rescuing a hostage. In the process he can be either stealthy or murderous, and the episode keeps a running tally of the 0-100 people slain by Oboro on his mission. Ultimately, this episode reminded me a lot of “Ninja Scroll” (which only preceded “Live A Live” by a year), as all of the baddies are under the influence of supernatural powers (or are undead, or are demons). I did not enjoy this episode, as it is a very ‘Guide, Dang It!’ experience and features some fairly huge difficulty spikes (compared to the rest of “Live A Live’s” rather flat difficulty).

Episode 4: Old West
Length: ~1 hour
Clearly Inspired By: “The Magnificent Seven” (and indirectly “The Seven Samurai”)
Summary: Our hero, the Sundown Kid, is a drifter with a price on his head and the fastest gun in the West. Constantly pursued by a bounty hunter named Mad Dog, the two find themselves forced to set aside their differences for a time in order to protect a small frontier town from the ravages of a gang of outlaws known as the Crazy Bunch. This episode is extremely short and simple, as it is entirely comprised of searching through buildings for items that can be used as booby traps (to whittle down the number of Crazy Bunch members Sundown and Mad Dog actually have to fight), then assigning the townsfolk to go out and set the traps before the (invisible) timer runs out. It’s a fairly trial-and-error episode, due to needing to figure out the most efficient rout through the town to pick up trap materials and the most efficient way to delegate traps to the slowest townspeople first, thus giving them more time.

Episode 5: Modern Era
Length: ~1 hour
Clearly Inspired By: ‘Street Fighter’ (the videogame series)
Summary: Our hero, Masaru, is a Japanese mixed martial artist whose one goal in life is to learn every hand-to-hand fighting technique and become the strongest fighter in the world. Oddly, this is the only episode that doesn’t smack strongly of an old movie, but instead is an almost direct rip-off of Capcom’s ‘Street Fighter’ videogame series, complete with cheap knock-off opponents who are kind of like ‘Street Fighter’ characters, but not quite. This episode is super short and super boring.

Episode 6: Near Future
Length: ~3 hours
Clearly Inspired By: “AKIRA,” ‘80s Mecha Anime
Summary: Our hero, Akira, is the son of a cop slain in a turf war between the police and a gang of kidnappers known as the Crusaders. He also has psychic powers. Akira’s more-or-less normal-ish life is turned upside down when the Crusaders burn down the orphanage where he lives. Seeking to put an end to the Crusaders once and for all, Akira and his biker buddy Matsu infiltrate the shady organization behind the Crusaders’ activities and discover a mad plot to create a literal god by infusing a specially constructed statue with ‘liquefied humans,’ that is to say, humans reduced to their essential chemicals. In order to defeat this new god, Akira must man the ancient Babylonian mecha that sleeps beneath the city. It blows my mind that some parts of this episode predicted “Neon Genesis Evangelion” the year before that show hit Japanese airwaves (liquefied humans = LCL), but in general, this episode feels a bit rushed and silly. There’s also a weird preoccupation with stealing the orphanage manager’s panties… and toilets.

Episode 7: Space Opera
Length: ~3 hours
Clearly Inspired By: “2001: A Space Odyssey,” “Alien”
Summary: In the distant future, humanity has encountered its first alien life form. This creature, a non-sentient quadruped dubbed ‘behemoth,’ is on route from its home planet back to Earth for study (and potential weaponization). The small crew of the ship carrying the behemoth includes an engineer named Kato, who creates our hero, a sentient Roomba vacuum named Cube. Bringing the crew out of cold sleep, Cube seems set to learn all about what it takes to become a real person. But then things begin to go horribly wrong, as parts of the ship’s communications array snap off, and a variety of malfunctions result in the death of most of the crew. It’s up to Cube and a robot-hating military commander to get to the root of the problem and salvage the ship, if not the mission.

Episode 8: Medieval
Length: ~3 hours
Clearly Inspired By: Ummm… “Faust,” maybe?
Summary: In the Kingdom of Lucretia, our hero, the knight Oersted, becomes champion of the realm, prevailing over the sorcerer, Straybow. As champion, Oersted is granted the hand of the princess in marriage, and is set to become the next King. Unfortunately for Oersted, Lucretia has a bit of a demon problem, and the Demon King, who had been defeated years prior by a hero named Hash and a monk named Uranus, returns with a vengeance, kidnapping the princess and ruining Oersted’s day. The King dubs Oersted the new Hero, and sends him and Straybow off to kill the Demon King… again. Recruiting the old heroic duo, Oersted seems to have an easy task in front of him, but the Demon King’s magic is far more insidious than anyone could have imagined, ultimately leading to the kingdom’s ruin. This episode is the first time “Live A Live” really starts to put 2 and 2 together. Throughout the earlier episodes, I astutely noticed that the final bosses always had similar-sounding names phonetically. This episode puts a face to that name in the form of the Demon King, and further establishing his menace by confirming that his power and influence stretches across vast gulfs of space and time.

Episode 9: Finale
The final episode doesn’t feel like a Genre knock-off or like it’s heavily inspired by an extant story. Indeed, this episode is where “Live A Live” redeems itself narratively and starts to show some originality. Bringing all of the characters from the previous chapters together in order to face the Demon King is an excellent payoff to the long, slow build-up of the other episodes… though the entire game’s pacing suffers by holding back all the ‘good stuff’ for until the end.

Ultimately, between the 8 build-up episodes mostly lasting 3 hours, combined with the final episode taking 2-3 times that long (depending on how many optional goodies the player wants to acquire, and whether or not they want the True Ending), “Live A Live” clocks in at roughly 30-35 hours, which is par for the course for a ‘90s-era Squaresoft RPG. The unfortunate thing is that the game wastes the vast majority of its play time with build-up and vaguery, and doesn’t really start to become intriguing from a story standpoint until it’s almost over. Yes, I like Genre fiction as much as the next nerd, but most of the Genre vignettes that comprise “Live A Live’s” discrete episodes are fairly dull and uninteresting. They cleave so closely to their Genre tropes that they lose their impact. The finale, though, which can be played through in multiple ways, resulting on one of four different endings (Bad, Sad, Meh, and True), does tie-up all of the loose ends nicely, and provides a pleasing conclusion.

Gameplay
Plenty of gaming websites tend to misclassify “Live A Live” as either a Tactical RPG or a turn-based Strategy game of some sort. It is neither of those. The confusion in the game’s subgenre results from the fact that “Live A Live,” much like the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 tragedy “Enchanted Arms,” features a small movement grid in its battle system.

Battles in “Live A Live” all play out on the same flat, square grid. Characters act not by their speed stat, but by party order, with up to four characters in the party at the same time (most episodes don’t have nearly this many). Turns are a team affair, with the player’s team and the enemy team taking alternating turns, cycling to the next party member each time. It is also possible to ‘pass’ a turn with a given character, allowing the next character in the party order to do something instead. Moving a single square or attacking is considered a turn, and the game often gives the illusion of real-time action when a player needs to move multiple squares in ‘one’ turn only to see enemies move around in response. In actuality, each square of movement is using a player turn, and the AI is moving enemies (or even attacking with them) seamlessly between player actions.

“Live A Live” is, therefore, a by-the-books turn-based RPG. However, it is also a fairly streamlined and simple turn-based RPG. Characters fully heal and revive after every battle, mitigating the need to haul around hundreds of consumables. There is also no MP or comparable resource, allowing characters to use whatever attack moves they wish without fear of running out of steam. Because of the grid-based battle system, each enemy and character attack skill has a different range and layout of grid squares it can affect. Some combat moves have charge times, which can allow an enemy to move out of range before the move triggers.

Characters can also equip a wide variety of gear, most of which is found in their own episode, then carried over into the final episode. Characters have gear slots for helmets, both hands, body, and feet, plus up to 5 different ‘accessory’ trinkets.

In general, “Live A Live’s” gameplay is fairly lacking. The battle system is really about all there is to it, except in certain episodes, like Oboro’s, where some strange, esoteric gimmick is included for the hell of it. While it is possible to replay episodes prior to unlocking the finale, these replays aren’t New Game+ style runs through old turf, but a complete blank slate replay (and I had to replay three episodes because I missed secrets that I read about in a FAQ after the fact). “Live A Live” also comes across as a bit unbalanced, as certain episodes have difficulty spikes, whereas the ultimate moves characters learn at level 16 in the finale episode make even the optional super-bosses trivial. Some characters just flat-out suck and can’t compete with the really good ones, plus the best ultimate moves will randomly fail, but not often enough to make spamming them an ineffective strategy.

Overall
“Live A Live” feels like a grand experiment in Genre exploration by Squaresoft during the company’s heyday. While some of the Genre-diverse episodes produced enjoyable results, far too much of the game’s runtime is wasted on boring and/or trope-riddled writing. While the story does save itself from itself in the end(s), and both the presentation and gameplay are solid enough, neither aspect of the game is amazing enough to elevate it to the heights 90s-era Squaresoft fans expect.

Presentation: 3.5/5
Story: 3.5/5
Gameplay: 3.5/5
Overall (not an average): 3.5/5

 

 


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