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RPGs You Haven’t Played But Definitely Should: Part 1
Quick! Name three RPGs! What comes to mind first? Final Fantasy IV? Chrono Trigger? Super Mario RPG? Maybe if you have really played some RPGs, then you will name some more unique ones like Breath of Fire, Lost Odyssey, or Skies of Arcadia. Sadly, though, most peoples’ exposure is limited to the big box titles and a lot of great games have been completely forgotten. Well, if you are like me and truly love your RPGs, then let me let you in on some titles that have been lost in time. These are RPGs you can find really anywhere, and for a lot of them, it has only been in the emulation and ROM hacking community that most of these have been made available to Western gamers through some pretty great translations by some really dedicated players. Some have a pretty steep learning curve, and some definitely have some flaws, but overall many of these games were pretty innovative, with sweeping musical scores, fun battle systems, and even some brilliantly written stories. Today we are going to talk about one great forgotten RPG, a Japanese classic from Square during their halcyon days of RPG making…
Live a Live
The 90’s was a great time for Squaresoft. They had several huge hits in the U.S: Final Fantasy IV in 1991, Secret of Mana in 1993, Final Fantasy VI in 1994, and then Chrono Trigger in 1995; all games that are still remembered for their greatness and really set the bar for what RPGs should be. These games, as well, put Square on the map in the West as the premier developer of RPGs. Little do American audiences know, though, that Square had also developed a veritable library of other RPGs during these years, many of which never saw the shores of the U.S.
One of these games was Live a Live, a thoroughly unique game that came out in 1994 in Japan, only five months after Final Fantasy VI was released. This game, though, is much different than Final Fantasy VI, and it is a wonderful example of a game director deciding to cut loose and really experiment with storytelling and the RPG genre. The developer, in this case, was Takashi Tokita, the same man who was the lead designer for Final Fantasy IV, and a year later the Director of Chrono Trigger. The game actually has a pretty nice pedigree, as it also features the music of Yoko Shimomura, the female video game composer who drafted the score for Super Mario RPG, Parasite Eve, Kingdom Hearts, and Street Fighter II, as well as seven famous Manga artists who each designed the characters and their worlds for each of the seven unique scenarios within the game (one of whom was Yoshihide Fujiwara, the man who would later develop the Dragon Quest manga).
That’s right, this game has seven different stories (plus two that unlock later) that make up this epic quest, and it plays out almost like a video game version of The Cloud Atlas. Each of these seven stories tells the tale of a character from a particular era in history. For example, one story is that of a Caveman saving a Cavewoman from being sacrificed to a T-Rex, another of a Ninja in Feudal Japan who is tasked with defeating an evil warlord, and one other is of a present day Wrestler training with the greatest wrestling masters alive. The main delight in this game, though, is seeing how these seven stories are actually revealed to be related and how they are all tied together. Live a Live, unlike many other games at that time, is a game that focused mainly on one thing: telling a great story. And really, it truly is a great and interesting story, with a fantastic twist at the end and the ability to choose from several endings (if you play your cards right, you get to play as the main villain and kill each of the seven main characters!).
Each story has its own unique style and narrative (the developers actually hired seven different Manga artists to design each character and their worlds), as well as some unique variations on the general narrative in each story to keep the game interesting. For example, the Caveman story is told completely without dialogue, with the written word instead being replaced by emoticons; another story, set in a spaceship in the far future, is completely story driven without any battles except for the final boss of that chapter. Some of the chapters, as well, borrow some of the genre conventions of the period from which they are set in. For example, the Western themed chapter revolves around the player, a gunslinging desperado, preparing the little Western town for the final showdown with the bandits who are looking to ransack and kill everyone; the ninja chapter is actually driven by stealth, and the player can choose to engage and kill his enemies only if he wishes to do so. You can really sense that the developers wanted to make the very narrative of each chapter unique for the player, and it leads to a really engaging experience for the gamer, as he is never quite sure what to expect when he jumps from one story to another.
The battle system itself is a little strange but pretty simple to grasp overall. The battle system is based on a grid system: the battles take place on a 7 x 7 grid, and both players and enemies are allowed to move freely across the spaces. Each enemy has a turn right after each player character has a turn, and certain attacks have certain ranges, affect different parts of the grid, or can even shift parts of the grid to become “trap spaces” that can damage or inflict status effects on the enemy/player. Other than that, the same standard RPG fare applies, with leveling up, buying/looting equipment, and HP/MP.
One of my favorite parts of the game is its definite tongue-in-cheek humor. It’s a perfect balance of giving knowing nods to other genres of video games/pop culture with some heavy dramatic action. One of the segments I replayed in order to write this article was the “Science Fiction” segment (it should be noted that each segment has its own introduction and ending, complete with intro/outro credits, giving it a very vignette feel), and the game likes to play with your expectations as a gamer, especially when it comes to action and choice. The protagonist of the segment is a Robot named Cube, who works on a space-ship, and it deals with the mistrust humans have towards artificial intelligence, as the humans come to blame the robot for random disasters that happen on the ship. At one point, after a bit of a scuffle with the crew, you are given the choice to void one of the airlocks by pulling a switch…an airlock that happens to have the human crew in it. It ends the segment with them all floating in space and a quick Game Over screen. It’s pretty damn funny the first time that you do it. Aside from the humor, though, it’s a choice that speaks to the whole theme of the segment, as you later learn that the main villain of the segment is the ship’s computer, OD-10, who has been sabotaging the mission on purpose, and he tries to manipulate your feelings of isolation in order to turn you against the crew. In many ways, the choice of killing your crew is one way that this story could realistically play out.
In the end Live a Live is a nice 40 (+) hour RPG adventure that actually moves at quite a quick pace. It is not without its flaws, though, as some of the chapters are definitely weaker than others. The tendency to favor story over game-play definitely will isolate some players, as some chapters can be a little sparse on the action. But this is a game that looked to isolate and play with the conventions of the genre as a whole, and for that reason, it was going to be polarizing when it came to the players. For example, one of the last chapters is a Medieval Fantasy chapter, and is perhaps the most traditional in that it plays like a classic RPG. It is the only chapter that has random battles, a full party for you to run around with, and you play as the classic RPG knight/hero/champion of the realm. Yet, unlike a classic RPG, your party is killed one by one, your hero slays his king, and the chapter ends with him becoming the most hated figure in all the realm. In the end, your classic RPG hero transforms into the main villain for the rest of this very unconventional RPG adventure. If the player decides to use this character, the main villain, as their player through the final scenario, the game ends with them slaughtering the rest of the characters one at a time, and then living out the rest of eternity in a realm without any other life. Thus to be traditional, in this game, is to be evil. Live a Live, if nothing else, is very self-reflexive.
Overall, I would say it is a game worth playing. It is fun, has a definitely interesting sense of humor, and it is thoroughly engaging. If you are a fan of the RPG genre, do yourself a favor and check it out. Like the title of this article says, this is just part one of this little series I am writing. Next time, I will look at another unknown Squaresoft RPG, known as Treasure of the Rudras.