LISA: A quirky story about unconditional love that I wish I loved unconditionally

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I just wrapped up my playthrough of LISA: The Painful by Dingaling Productions, and I felt compelled to write about my feelings about it. I discovered LISA after a Giant Bomb Quick Look of it, and instantly fell in love with everything from the writing, to the art style, to the music and mechanics. However, if I was in love at first, I’d say that LISA and I are now in a comfortable, if awkward, friendship.

LISA is the story of Brad Armstrong, a drug-addicted karate master living a post-apocalyptic world in which everyone lacking a Y chromosome has died. Brad happens across a female baby, and decides to take it upon himself to raise her. She grows up, and then is promptly kidnapped, leading Brad into his adventure across the wasteland to find his adopted daughter.

I think the greatest achievement of LISA is its mastery of tone. Despite the grim description of the game above, LISA very easily switches from that dark hopelessness to a sort of dark hilarity on a dime, a feat LISA is a capable of due to the absurd nature which permeates every aspect of the game. Characters are drawn in weird proportions, the music is strangely distorted, and the backgrounds are drawn so abstractly that the game never feels grounded in any reality.

This image, from IndieGameReviewer, takes place one second before kicking this guy in the balls.
This image, from IndieGameReviewer, takes place one second before kicking this guy in the balls.

Despite this, LISA has some very dark moments. The narrative doesn’t shy away from the darker implications of having a single, young female in a lawless world of men, and the moments that touch on this are genuinely unsettling.

This female, named Buddy, is hardly a damsel in distress, however. She quickly evades capture, and spends most of the game comfortably able to manage herself in the wasteland, quickly becoming aware of her own importance.

Character design is another of LISA‘s strengths. Each of the game’s thirty (!) party members all feel unique, and play ever so slightly different in the game’s turn-based, JRPG-style combat. The magician is capable of randomly generating spells by pulling them out of a hat. The drunk must drink to obtain the energy he needs to perform special attacks, like drunkenly stumbling into a foe, or spitting flammable booze on them. Combine mechanical uniqueness with a distinct look for every character, thanks in part from the game’s liberal distortion of the human form, and all thirty of the party members feel unique.

Which, unfortunately, directly flows into one of the biggest reasons why I didn’t wholeheartedly love LISA: it’s hard. Not fair or fun hard either. To use a less-than-academic term, the difficulty in LISA can be bullshit. The game occasionally throws major decisions that require massive sacrifices, which is awesome, but it also occasionally just takes major resources, including party members, at a whim, specifically after resting, which is the #1 way to restore the party to full health.

Commonly after resting, a RNG-generated event will occur after you rest, and by commonly, I mean I can only remember three times where I rested and something DIDN’T happen. There are a few events that can happen, but by far the three most common that happened to me were my whole party getting poisoned, a party member getting kidnapped, or a party member straight up just irreversibly leaving. I ended up saving and reloading constantly just to fully restore my party, and even still losing some of my favorite party members, as well as party members I had literally just received.

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If there was a way to tell when a party member was about to desert, or perhaps only party members not currently in your main team were kidnapped, then maybe I wouldn’t mind this. However, I frequently had to deal with my party getting torn apart by RNG, followed by me having to scavenge up a new B-team of underdeveloped characters I had previously ignored. Combine this with the fact that there are only a few areas in the game with random encounters to grind this new team up, and the fact that these encounters are really boring, and eventually I considered losing one of my core party members reason enough to jump to a previous save I had made an hour ago, instead of dealing with having to level a new guy to take his place.

My other big gripe with LISA is with some of the story direction later on. This article will be spoiler-free, but I will say that there is a tension between two major characters that arises in the second act seemingly out of nowhere, that feels completely artificial for how crucial it becomes. On top of that, attempts to try and explain the apocalypse that befell the world feel weirdly out of place in a game where a character’s introductory cutscene is him trying to poop.

Even having said that, though, I still have to say that I really liked LISA. I would say, though, that LISA is full of fantastic moments, soured by patches of bad design, or just very uninteresting areas, that stop you from loving it the whole way through. An amazing sequence involving a divine McDonald’s is followed by an extremely boring romp through a short dungeon filled with spiders. And all of the spiders have Brad’s abusive dad’s face on them. Get it? Because he’s tormented by his past? Get it? Cuz…cuz he’s..he’s tormented.

I’d recommend LISA, especially for ten bucks, but I’d recommend it on that basis: as a collection of really good moments. Those moments are absolutely fantastic, including a scene in a bulldozer that ended with me crying with laughter, but there’s no payoff to any of them in a long term, either because of the story’s nonsensical turns, or your party’s unceremonious deaths, but the only reason those lackluster finales hurt so bad is because you love what comes before them so much.

LISA: The Painful is available on Steam, and also has a planned sequel entitled LISA: The Joyful in the works.

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