Live A Live review – a game’s worth of occasionally excellent, always intriguing JRPG side stories

The RPG is the genre in which side activities are always threatening to take centre stage. Many classic specimens are built around a more conscious antagonism between main and secondary content than you’ll find in, say, today’s open world games, where everything is available for consumption at any time. Think of how Tetra Master had you leaving the plot on hold for days in Final Fantasy VIII, or the dangerously more-ish Sokoban-style block puzzles in the older Wild Arms games. It’s in spaces like these that RPG designers sometimes conceal their best, or at least, strangest ideas, away from the stresses and constraints of the central production.

First released in 1994 and remastered using the same, sprites-meets-polygons visual style as Octopath Traveller, Live A Live is essentially Sidequest: The Game – as I probably should have realised before I compared it to a level-select cheat in Sonic. It’s a collection of loosely interwoven, 1-3 hour tales set in different historical and/or fantasy periods, each its own colourful interpretation of what an old-school Squaresoft role-playing game can be. Much as with sidequests in traditional single-narrative RPGs, some chapters are more successful than others, but all are engrossing experiments, and while it’s slightly thwarted by the stop-start anthology structure, the overarching, grid-based battle system is worth the 20 hours or so it’ll take you to reach the closing credits.

The game’s nine chapters (seven available to begin with) share levelling and equipment systems, but each is otherwise a distinct yarn with a separate protagonist – typically a bloke, it must be said, with women featuring largely as damsels in distress – and party members, a signature mechanic or two and a flavourful writing style. On the one hand, you’ve got distant prehistory, in which a shaggy Flintstoner and his simian pal stumble on a runaway girl while hurling poop at mammoths. This chapter is a bawdy comedy written in grunts, gestures and speech bubble emojis. On the other hand, you’ve got a Wild Western chapter starring a Man With No Name – well, a Man With A Customisable Name – who teams up with his nemesis to defend a frontier town against outlaws. This episode is feature-film length with a chewy, saloon-bar script, built around a single set piece puzzle: arm the townsfolk with traps to bump off as many desperadoes as possible before the final battle.

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