LISA: The Painful is newest addition to what I consider to be the “elite” class of games that I have played. As a critic, I have been known to go into meticulous detail about the games that I review AND to be very thorough in explaining why something in a game does or does not work. The reason for this is that I don’t view games as mere “products” like most do. I don’t think that creating an experience that aces the test of time can be propped up to doing the exact same shit as everything else but with better graphics.
My contempt for most professional game critics comes from the fact that they often claim that games are art, yet treat them like products. True works of art are those that break the mold and that put quality and artistic vision over profit. Contrary to popular belief, the game industry is not so stagnated that there are no games with new ideas; they just don’t sell well.
LISA: The Painful is similar to that of Euphoria in that it deals with such dark subject matter that there is little hope of any mainstream appeal. LISA is often compared to that of Undertale or Earthbound, but reducing LISA to being nothing more than something like those two games does it a great disservice. I’m currently undecided as to whether I like LISA or Undertale more, I will say that LISA is better at standing out as its own thing while it sometimes came across as if Undertale was TOO similar to Earthbound from a story standpoint.
While I don’t mind the similarities due to being an unrelenting Earthbound fangirl, it does demonstrate that LISA is far more daring in the story department. What I should note is that LISA: The Painful is a sequel to a free to play Yume Nikki clone called LISA: The First. I am uncertain as to whether I am going to review it as well given that I have played it but I also have a lot on my plate. The short version is that I actually like it more than I do Yume Nikki since LISA: The First has more consistent themes that can actually be perceived as opposed to Yume Nikki which is overly cryptic and incomprehensible. LISA: The First was also a game that really got under my skin and put me in the shoes of Lisa.
LISA: The First was about an abused girl named Lisa and is an exploration of her psyche as she fantasizes about escaping from her father Marty. There is an immense feeling of helplessness present and the game even ends with a message about how there’s no escape; that’s life and this is yours. It even has a game over screen instead of a credits sequence. What is even worse is that this was based on the memories that the developer’s ex GF had with her abusive father. I can also confirm that I have met others who lived through similar experiences.
LISA: The Painful is just as dark and deals with many similar themes, but it takes them in a different direction. As if to set the tone for the game, the title screen for LISA: The Painful is literally of Lisa hanging from a noose. The main character of LISA: The Painful is Brad Armstrong, a 40 year old martial artist who is also Lisa’s brother. Brad left his father’s household during the events of LISA: The First, which resulted in Lisa suffering the brunt of Marty’s abuse and eventually taking her own life.
The guilt over Lisa’s suicide and the trauma from his father’s abuse is a large part of what drive’s Brad’s motivations throughout the game as well as making Brad a multi layered character. The story itself takes place in a post apocalyptic setting where there are only men left and no women; aka Hell on earth. Society has completely destabilized and most men drop the pretense of being violent and perverted brutes, so when Brad stumbles across an infant female, he names her Buddy and decides that she has to be kept secret from the rest of the world.
Unfortunately she ends up being discovered and is taken away by the army of a warlord known as Rando and needs to rescue her, or at least that’s how it seems at first. I don’t want to spoil the future events of the plot but I will just say that LISA… is one of THOSE games. By that I mean it’s a game where the idea of having a heroic manly protagonist with strong morals saves the day by doing the right thing and teaching the kids eat their vegetables, be true to themselves, and be a real American isn’t good enough. It’s developer Austin Jorgensen even said he hated those types of narratives so we naturally got something edgy and depressing instead.
I said I would not spoil anything directly, but it is made plainly obvious that he’s not entirely fit to be a parent when he drops an infant Buddy on the ground when he first finds her. You also see plenty of dialogue from Brad implying that he may care more about Buddy because she’s his “second chance” after Lisa’s suicide yet you also plenty that suggests that he genuinely cares about her and is trying to do the right thing. They do say that the road to Hell with good intentions, and in that case LISA: The Painful is one hell of a game.
LISA: The Painful is similar to that of Euphoria, Spec Ops: The Line, and Undertale’s genocide path in that there are points where Brad does things that are genuinely uncomfortable to watch. Even though most games will encourage you to try and recruit as many party members as possible, I could not bring myself to recruit either of the two that required you to hold someone ransom. One of them had three options available when returning their friend. Those options were “”demand money,” “demand he join your party,” or “just give him back.” If you pick the third option, there is no reward.
LISA is a game that genuinely thinks ill of most video game players. If it wasn’t for the fact that you literally have a five minute climb at one point complete with suspenseful music that leads to a giant middle finger, then one will likely get that impression when you get told HARD whenever you try to take the easy way out. There will be multiple points in the game where you are given a sadistic choice along the lines of “I take all your items or kill this useless party member,” and if you pick the latter option he comes back later in the game as a difficult boss. The game intends for this party member to be weak and ineffective at the start, but he does get some very useful abilities later on in the game just to further rub salt in the wound.
Given that this is one of the first choices you get in the game, you can just reload your save file and wait until after that choice to pick up any items, but you won’t be able to do that shit later on so you are only setting yourself up to get knocked down. In most of these encounters there will be an option to fight whoever is threatening you, but unlike in most RPGs you can’t solve your problems with violence. If a party member is kidnapped by a group of thugs and is held for ransom, they will perma kill that party member if you try to fight them AND you will have a boss fight against them. In plot mandated instances, you will fight them only for them to wreck your party in one turn.
Then there is the subject of “pain mode.” I would describe pain mode as LISA’s “hard mode” but doing so would be glossing over the true intention of this setting. Pain mode doesn’t just make the game harder, it makes the game more frustrating, a lot less convenient, and less fun overall. Normally I would say something like this as a condemnation, and in a way I still kinda am, but I do think it was clever how this was integrated.
The key reason that pain mode is so frustrating is that every save point explodes after the first time you use it. This limits the amount of time you can save your game and means that you either need to spend a lot of unnecessary time wandering around to find a new save point or lose all the progress you made. It also means that dying makes you lose a lot more progress than if you are playing on normal mode. The benefit is that it gives your actions a lot more weight since you can’t always reload a save file before one of those critical decisions. After all, you are less likely to reload an old save file to save a character that was perma-killed if you have to redo the last two hours of gameplay to do so.
Unfortunately this does not change the fact that LISA is often designed like one of those troll games in the vein of I Wanna Be the Guy or Takeshi’s Challenge where the only way to counter things is to know what is coming before it happens. The entire point of a game like LISA is to make the player realize they will fuck up sometimes and that there is no reset button in real life but all that giving bosses cheap instant perma kill moves in a game with limited save points will do is convince players to look up a guide, and anything that claims to be a “guide” to life is probably a scam. I could just recommend that the player ignores pain mode but there are areas only accessible on this mode and an added ending so I can’t unless you are okay with looking it up on Youtube.
Gameplay wise, LISA sounds like an immensely difficult game and many would claim that it is. This is only the case if you are playing completely blind with no outside assistance. You can avoid perma kills completely because, also unlike most RPGs, bosses don’t have contractual immunity to status ailments. This means you can just berserk them and they will only use standard attacks. You can also poison them, make them bleed, and knock them over. Yes you can literally inflict status ailments on Satan himself without any blanket immunity (although he is just a trucker named Mike so he can’t be TOO OP).
Music wise the game also boasts a unique and eclectic soundtrack. The visuals are highly effective at expressing their intending meanings. The writing alternates between heartrending and hilarious (and even manages to do both simultaneously at some points). You should also get about maybe fifteen hours worth of content from this, likely add a few more to that if you count the DLC episode LISA: The Joyful. To quickly touch on The Joyful, it is a solid experience but shouldn’t be treated as a stand alone game. I don’t want to go any further into it since it involves spoilers.
In the end there were some aspects of LISA: The Painful that I’m not entirely certain on. My main criticism in regards to LISA is that it sometimes tries TOO hard to make the game feel “real” and makes the game less fun as a result. There is still more than enough in terms of gameplay mechanics that you can have fun playing it. On top of this, the story is amazing if kind of hard to watch at points and you should not make the mistake of dismissing this game because of the shaky direction of the gameplay. I initially did not like this game but It did grow to be one of my favorites the more I played it.
Games like LISA may not be perfect, but neither are games like Earthbound or Undertale. I have chosen to eschew review scores on this blog for precisely the reason that the complete absence of flaws does not inherently make a superior game. What matters in the end is the ability to create a lasting experience that will stick with the player for a long time, and LISA is a game that is unlikely to be forgotten by those who give it a chance. LISA may be a painful RPG, but holy Hell it hurts so good!
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