The Steam page for LISA describes the game as a quirky side scrolling RPG. While that is technically correct, it’s technically correct in the same way that saying, “The sun is kind of warm” is true. LISA is not an easy game to describe. It’s a post-apocalyptic JRPG where you must search for a young female. Along the way, you encounter a wide variety of colorful, deranged, creepy, maniacal or just plain weird characters. And while that sounds like any old JRPG, this one is executed in such a way that it feels unique, captivating and repulsive all at the same time.
Olathe has seen better days. What was once a lush land filled with people is now a desert filled with no one but men. Some unknown event has caused every woman in the world to either disappear or die(it’s never made entirely clear which). The only law is the one the one made by peoples’ actions. Some men find solace in the lack of femininity, while others cross dress to try and fill that void. It’s filled with people to talk to, but most of them have already given up hope. One such person is the protagonist, Brad Armstrong. Before the apocalypse, Brad taught karate to young kids. Now, he’s a drug addict whose vice of choice is Joy, a drug that allows people to feel nothing. And there are a lot of people with horrible pasts that wish to forget. The catch is that prolonged exposure to Joy causes the user to mutate into a twisted monster prone to extreme violence. Brad is aimless until one day, he discovers something life changing: a baby. And not just that, but a baby girl. He starts to play with her and names her Buddy. But then he drops her. From there, an extremely effective opening shows the years go by as Brad raises Buddy along with a few of his friends from before the apocalypse. This completely dialogue free scene speaks volumes more than words ever could, and it makes it all the more devastating when Buddy is stolen by an unknown group of men. With one of his friends dead and the other ones missing, Brad sets out to find Buddy so he can protect her from the evils that dwell within all of the men living in Olathe.
To say much more would be to spoil the stellar writing in the game. It does an expert job at building its world and developing its characters through game play. Without giving anything away, there is a lot more to every single character than is revealed at first. Often times, their secrets are horrifying and sad. This includes Brad, who manages to remain compelling throughout the entire game because the writer manages to subtly hint at what’s going on in his head with only a few lines of dialogue at a time. That’s not to say that the game is all dour, though. It can be quite funny at times. In fact, humor and sadness walk together hand in hand in LISA, and unlike other games like Metal Gear Solid, where the tonal shifts often come across as out of place or forced, LISA manages to make every shift feel natural to the world. One moment, you may be witnessing something truly awful happening to someone, and the next you may encounter a man trying to go to the bathroom off the edge of a cliff who is also mortified because he sees a spider. The comedy is mostly there to offset the truly dark aspects of the game, and is also used to enhance it.
What I mean by that can be summarized by a small anecdote. At one point, I wandered into a random house. Inside the house was a dude with a fish bowl on his head busting a move to a really bizarre techno beat. When I first saw the sight, I chuckled. It was unexpected and random, but I thought, “Well, plenty of people are unhinged in this world. At least this guy isn’t murdering anyone. He’s just enjoying a tune through the use of dance.” Later, when I came back, I found the same strange song playing, but the man had hung himself while I was gone. All that was left to do was to steal his stash of porno mags (which function as currency in this game).
In other words, beneath every joke is something sad or just flat out disturbing. A story quest later in the game involving a fast food restaurant stands out in my mind because it starts off really surreal. You exit a cave and there are people kneeling in the sunlight, singing high praise to the service and food. You climb a few cliffs, encountering more people who are worshipping this mysterious fast food joint. Then you encounter a Grimace- type mascot. It’s crazy, it’s homicidal and you have to put it down. Okay, I thought. That was a little creepy. Then you stumble across the source of the food and it’s one of the most genuinely creepy and unnerving boss fights I’ve ever seen in a game.
The balancing act of all of these different tones is one of the game’s greatest strengths, but that’s not to say that other aspects are without merit. Take, for instance, the wildly unique sound track. There are some tunes that are relaxing, some that are hyper energetic, some that are sad and still others that are just plain old weird. Each track fits the mood of the area perfectly, though. One song, called Summer Lovin’, is one of my favorite JRPG town theme songs. It summons up images of relaxing days on the beach despite the setting. This might also be the first game that manages to use manly grunting as an instrument in a song that doesn’t suck.
While the music and story helps give the game a unique atmosphere, what does that exceptionally well is the gameplay. As described above, LISA is a side scrolling JRPG, complete with a turn based combat system. It’s pretty simple, but the game has a few features that give it some depth, one of which is the ability to recruit over 30 different characters to join Brad on his journey. Many JRPGs often have filler party members, as in they are difficult to use effectively in battle. The cast in this game is wildly varied and each one is a viable party member if they have the right kind of synergy with the rest of the party. Oftentimes, their personalities also tie into their abilities. For instance, one of the earliest party members you can get is a storyteller named Gern. He drones on and on about inane subjects no one cares about, and he also features an ability called “Bore” which can put enemies to sleep. Humorous little touches like this go a long way towards getting you attached to characters.
And like most other things in the game, LISA will use that attachment against you. The game is peppered with choices that are truly sickening and difficult. One of the earliest ones is when Brad and a man named Terry Hintz (who is the master of the tutorial) are cornered by one of the game’s antagonists, Buzzo. Buzzo gives Brad a choice: give up an arm, or give up Terry’s life. While it seems like an obvious choice since Terry is so weak, early actions can come back to haunt the player. That’s the first of many hyper difficult choices you’ll have to make throughout the game, and they only get worse and worse as it goes on.
Another interesting aspect is the use of Joy as a game mechanic. Since Brad is a drug addict, he will often suffer from withdrawal if he isn’t given Joy. It presents the player with a moral dilemma that affects how they play the game. When Brad is in withdrawal, his stats plummet, making him a huge liability in battle. If you give him Joy, he will hulk out, becoming a consistent critical hit machine that can rip through almost any enemy. But if you do that, Brad will need more Joy more often. You can try to sleep addiction off, but outside one or two places in the game, sleeping is a huge hazard. You can wake up to a present left by a mysterious cult of Joy worshipping maniacs, or you might have lost a party member. If you go to find said member, the local gang will extort you for a lot of money. You can always choose to fight them, but you’ll undoubtedly lose that party member for good if you do. After all, the guy with the gun is the one who gets to decide what happens, right?
Apart from that, the game uses hub based exploration to move the player along. There are a few different hubs in the game and there are a bunch of places in each one that have a piece of something that will allow you to move on to the next area. The areas are all pretty interesting, in part because of the rather rudimentary graphics. While other games might be hindered by basic 2D sprites, LISA uses them to great effect. Not only does it prevent the game from being gratuitous, but it offers a unique perspective on the action that allows it to experiment with presentation. For instance, you might enter a cave only to walk smack dab into a flash back.
While the game is pretty straightforward as far as objectives go, there are times where it can be a little bit too tough to figure out what to do. While this issue is usually remedied by checking out a place you haven’t been yet, there are still parts where a guide helps a lot. The only other true flaw I can find with the game is that the frame rate can be inconsistent. Usually the slowdown is manageable, but there are two areas near the game where it would freeze on an image. I could still move, but I would constantly have to pause and un pause to get an updated still image so I could figure out where I was. One other problem I can see is that some situations can feel unfair. While the tough decisions and dark situations add a lot to the atmosphere, there are situations where you can permanently lose party members based entirely on RNG. In the end it didn’t bother me personally, but I think that this aspect of the game can turn off a lot of people.
LISA is the very definition of an indie game. The fact that it’s so tonally weird, so dark and so different from everything else on the market means that there’s no way in hell a big corporation would ever take a chance on it. And I wouldn’t have it any other way. The game is the product of a single vision, and the fact that the developers at Dingaling didn’t have suits breathing down their neck means that they were able to realize their vision to its fullest extent. There are a lot of words that can describe LISA… weird, gross, depressing, hilarious, inventive, literary and more. While you might regret the feelings the game gives you, it’s a must play for fans of different kinds of RPGs. The gameplay foundation is rock solid, the story is literary in how well it’s written and the atmosphere is unique and filled with anarchic tonal shifts that work despite being so sudden. It’s a truly unforgettable, sad game that manages to reveal something about the human condition while also being highly entertaining. At least, that is until the ending, which is one of the most powerful but soul crushing finales I’ve ever witnessed.
If you can appreciate a story that is ultimately heart wrenching throughout, one that gives no easy answers, one that will make you examine your own humanity, LISA is for you. It is, without a doubt, one of the most inventive, creative and well written games ever made, and it deserves to be played by people who can appreciate how strange it is.
+ Incredibly well written story filled with interesting characters that draws you in from the opening minutes and is constantly subverting expectations
+ The graphics, sound and story development that happens through gameplay gives the game an atmosphere that feels unlike anything else on the market
+ Shifts tones constantly, but does it in a successful way, helping to prevent the game from feeling too sad
+ Exploration, hub based gameplay is simple but fun
+ Lots of party members to recruit that allow for flexible party combinations
+ Truly difficult decisions that have permanent effects on the rest of the game
+ One of the most powerful finales in any game ever
- The frame rate dips in a few areas and completely freezes up in two areas near the end of the game
- Certain situations can feel unfair at times
LISA: The Joyful mini review
Note: The Joyful is a continuation of the main storyline that picks up right at the ending of the main game. I am going to be vague as possible to prevent major spoilers, but I be giving a few details. Spoilers will be kept to a minimum, but if you don’t want anything whatsoever spoiled, skip this part of the review. The bottom line is The Joyful is a worthwhile expansion with a few more issues than the main game.
The Joyful, as stated above, is a direct continuation of the main game. Controlling a new character, the player finds a list of warlords that must be eliminated. Some new features include the ability to run and leap over gaps as well as air assassinations (as in, if you drop onto an enemy, they’ll instantly be killed instead of having to fight them). The ability to run gives the expansion a brisker pace. In fact, the entire thing is paced much more quickly than the main game. Whereas the main game is around fifteen hours long, it takes about three or four hours to see everything in The Joyful.
While that might seem disappointing, the game crams a lot into the short running time. Not only are most loose plot threads from the main game tied up, but character actions are revealed that paint the main game in a whole new light. The excellent writing of The Painful (the subtitle given to the main game) continues in this expansion, although there isn’t quite as much humor. It gives the story a much, much heavier tone, which is saying something considering how oppressive The Painful can be at times. And while the ending isn’t quite as powerful as the main game, it still manages to hit the player in the gut with how dark it gets. Additionally, depending on certain conditions being fulfilled, there are epilogues that shed some much needed light on some significant characters’ back stories, which is very welcome since it further fleshes out some key players.
Gameplay wise, there are a few changes as well. For one, the player character is only able to recruit one other party member who wasn’t available in the main game. This makes combat feel a little bit stale after a while, since there are very few options available as far as customization goes. Hell, you can’t even buy any new equipment or anything along those lines. Additionally, Joy can now be used without any effect on the outcome of the story, unlike in The Painful. This is good for later parts of the expansion pack where you’re often outnumbered and the odds are against you. One last thing it adds is a mask system. You can put on different masks found throughout the game and each one has a different effect (for instance, if you wear a mask in a certain area, characters who would otherwise attack you might leave you alone). It’s a neat idea in theory, but there are only three of them and only two have any real significance, which is a little bit disappointing.
So while the gameplay doesn’t quite shine like it does in The Painful, much of what makes the main game great carries over into The Joyful, mainly in the story telling and atmosphere. It doesn’t quite achieve the same level of quality, but the fact that it’s a continuation/ conclusion to the LISA story means it’s a must play for fans.
+ Shares many of the same qualities of The Painful
+ Delivers another well written story that fans must see through to the end since it shines light on different characters’ motivations and pasts
+ New mechanics like running and assassinations are welcome
- Lack of dark humor can be off putting
- Gameplay has less variety and can feel stale at times
- Mask mechanic feels underutilized