LISA - The Painful RPG Review: An Experience to Remember
I'm sitting here wondering how to approach reviewing LISA - The Painful RPG. I've been sitting here for a while trying to figure it out because there's so much to touch on with this game, but very little I want to spill the beans about in a review.
It's a tough one to tackle, but there are a few things I can mention without feeling bad about potentially hindering someone else's experience. This game, after all, is all about the experience.
LISA is a sidescrolling turn-based RPG that puts you in the shoes a lone man of many stuck in the post-apocalyptic wasteland of Olathe, which is woefully devoid of women. This man is Brad Armstrong, ex-Karate instructor, longtime drug addict, and finder of what may be the only baby girl left in the world.
After at least a decade of raising this girl and keeping her safe, Brad comes home to find her missing. He sets out to find the last female in a land filled with violence, drugs, mutants, and sex-starved men (along with men who have simply accepted things as they are).
Olathe is not kind, nor are its inhabitants.
Joy in Olathe
Brad's drug of choice, aptly named Joy, is worth noting early on in this review because it is a prime component of both the plot and the gameplay.
Brad's constant struggle with Joy addiction affects the player at almost all times. He goes through withdrawals, which puts a serious damper on his damage; he doles out nothing but critical hits when "Joyed"; and he sometimes stabilizes.. but it's up to the player whether to give him Joy or not.
It's tough to make the decision whether to drug Brad up or not. Throughout the game, you can see how painkillers (and later Joy) have negatively affected his life, but Brad is incapable of dealing with the old mental scars and turned him to drugs in the first place.
As someone who has struggled with substance abuse in the past, the handling of Joy within the LISA's story really struck home with me. The drug's effect on how Brad plays was a great touch for immersion, but his internal struggle was relatable. He wants to stop but is tormented by hallucinations, withdrawals, and buried memories. Brad cannot escape.
For an RPG, LISA was short -- but Brad is one of the most relatable characters to come from a game in recent memory. But how much can you trust an addict's perception of things, really? And can you really trust them to do the right thing?
Immersion in a 2D world
This is something that some readers might scoff at, but a well-crafted 2D game can be just as immersive as more realistic 3D titles, sometimes even more so. LISA is a prime example of just that.
Olathe isn't a world you want to be in. Brad isn't a person you want to be. But you progress in this world, which is even more fascinating than what's going on with Brad and his search for his adoptive daughter Buddy.
You push through the game and find all sorts of bizarre people, many of which are murderous lunatics. Others just want to live their lives in peace. All the while you are met with a variety of bizarre landscapes and a constantly changing soundtrack. The soundtrack is a constant high point in the game and itself is full of surprises.
Exploration is a constant source of wonder in LISA, even if the things you find are unpleasant. There's not only hidden loot to be found, but hidden characters and whole areas to wander into. You want to explore and see all there is to see and hear all there is to hear. You want to find out what's going on, and how you're going to stop it.
It's also worth noting that almost every character has its own unique sprite. While there are a few recolors here and there, most are unique and stand out from the others in Olathe in some way. Everyone is unique, for better or for worse.
Tied with how entrancing Olathe is overall is the blast of a battle system, which can be either more or less difficult based on your decisions in-game.
There are 30+ characters to be found in LISA, and each of them has a unique move set perfectly fitting their character. What you get is a lot of variation when you lose (or swap out) a party member that keeps things fresh -- and don't worry: If you can't keep things fresh, the game probably will do it for you.
My first playthrough was significantly more difficult than my second one on Pain Mode simply because I made what I felt were the right decisions. My second playthrough was much easier despite the harder difficulty because I made different decisions and took the time to learn the characters. Neither playthrough was the same from a combat perspective.
Some characters use a system like the one seen in PSX classic Legend of Legaia, where you input a number of smaller moves to pull off a larger one. Some have special abilities (like getting drunk) instead of basic attacks. There's a ton of variation in what characters specialize in and how they pull it off, which is a much-welcome addition to the game.
Combat itself is a very much status effect based, and there are plenty of them to work (and get inflicted) with. I spent much of my time in large fights trying to keep status effects on enemies instead of pumping out immediate damage because of how much more damage they can potentially put out.
Many enemies know how to bring the pain, and some even pack lethal bites that permanently kill your party members. This, along with the other horrors of Olathe, are just one of the many things you will have to learn to live with.
Learning to be Brad
I had heard LISA - The Painful RPG was a great game from a friend, but I was not prepared for the experience. There's a lot to be seen in this game, and a good portion of it will stay with me for a long time.
The trippy visuals and music are one thing to remember, but the characters and how Brad deals with the situation are something I don't think I will be able to forget. The first time I finished the game, I wondered whether I really did do the right thing. The second time, well.. No comment.
LISA ultimately poses more questions than it answers, and it positions them right in your face and goes, "DON'T YOU WANT TO KNOW?" I do want to know. I want to know very badly.
I'd like to say this is a game only the seriously damaged can enjoy, but that's not the case. Anyone can enjoy this game -- or more accurately, anyone can experience this game.
Much of LISA is not pleasant, and even for someone on the other side of the screen, some of its themes are tough to cope with. Exploring and seeing all Olathe has on display is pretty amazing, but experiencing Brad's journey is heavy on the heart. My only complaint is that it's not long enough, and I just can't stop myself from playing it again.
I think it's a shame a game like this has been mostly overlooked since its release a month and a half ago. It ties its story, gameplay, and overall themes together so well it's a surprise this little gem has flown under the radar. LISA - The Painful RPG is an experience to remember.
If you wanna give this baby a go, you can find it on Steam for $9.99. If you've got a taste for the bizarre, it is well worth it.