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LISA: THE PAINFUL RPG Review: On Perverts and Poignancy

The product of a successful Kickstarter campaignLisa: The Painful RPG is the first official Steam release brought to us by indie developer and karate enthusiast Austin Jorgensen whose only other title, Lisa “The First”, was featured on RPGMaker.net.

A two-dimensional top-down RPG centering around a pretty messed-up girl as we explored her disturbed sub-conscience, Lisa had some pretty big psycho-horror shoes to fill and, to be quite frank, the second iteration in the series more than fulfills that promise of “a life ruining gaming experience.” To be honest, I wasn’t expecting a game to punch me that hard in the gut.

With some pretty rock-solid mechanics and some of the most memorable tones that I’ve heard in a game backing it up, Lisa delivers a surreal narrative journey through the eyes of a miserable man living in a world devoid of women as he attempts to survive and find his lost adopted daughter.

Story: Oh My God…

Lisa follows through the eyes of Brad Armstrong, a drug addict and former karate instructor living in a world devoid of women who, while out one day chasing away the painful memories of his abusive father, inexplicably finds a child abandoned nearby. Amazingly enough, the child is identified as a female and Brad, being the disturbed and guilt-ridden man that he is, adopts this child as ‘Buddy’.

Events naturally coalesce to kidnapping and murder and Brad is left to search this broken world for his adopted daughter. However, throughout the travels of this broken man we, as the player, come to realize that Brad is much more of a nutcase than we had first glimpsed at. If I was pressed to describe the game’s narrative I would say that it mixes the apocalyptic anarchy of Mad Max with the general premise of Children of Men with an air of ethereal fear a la Earthbound permeating the mix.

Source: store.steampowered.com

Source: store.steampowered.com

Cosmic horror notwithstanding, there’s more to the tortured world of Lisa than just simple story than a jilted father looking for his lost adopted daughter on a planet. Though one could certainly do with playing straight through the main story without exploring, many questions would still remain unanswered: What is this drug ‘Joy’ that Brad is addicted to?Why are there twisted flesh monsters roaming this twisted shell of an earth? Why is that guy wearing a tiger head as a mask?

It’s a game that promotes exploration of the game world by organically mixing it with the narrative. Each new cave, each decrepit and dilapidated suburb, each and every one offers a hint at what was, on what had been. The lines between fantasy and reality often become blurred in this apocalyptic wasteland and motives are revealed in this white-hot crucible.

But on a less serious note, the game presented me with some of the most hilarious slap-stick comedy that I’ve ever seen in a game. Kind of out-of-place in this dystopian future. In fact, there are points throughout the game that straddle the line between though-provoking intensity and light-hearted gaming violence.

But hear me out for a bit, maybe this stark contrast is meant to highlight the disturbed nature of your character, sort of what Yager Development did with their character in Spec Ops: The Line (though not to that extent because I never saw myself seriously reconsidering my choice in gaming).

You might not be pleased with the choices you’ve made, the man that you’ve become. But in this wretched existence you are forced to face these consequences, alone…

You aren’t playing some grand hero on an epic journey to cleanse the wastes of evil and bring peace to the land, you are just one broken, lonely man on a miserable journey to redeem himself of his past. It is up to you to see where his road may lead. You won’t feel good playing this game, in fact there are moments where you might full well put the game down and reflect on how much of a monster you are. But yet you trudge on, ready to face whatever horrors this world has to offer.

Gameplay: Like Earthbound with Perverts

Remember when I mentioned that the developer was heavily inspired by the cult-gaming classic Earthbound back in the mechanics segment? Well it does that in more ways than one. As an avid fan of this aforementioned franchise, Jorgensen drew a lot of inspiration from this game that’s achieved cult appeal, namely turn-based combat with exploration-based environments accented by those hallmarks of the RPG franchise: EXP, items, and level-ups.

Uniquely enough, though, the combat system introduces something new to this tired land of turn-based mechanics: a combo system. Some characters that traverse this hostile world have the ability to perform a combo move after the prerequisite button prompts have been pressed, greatly increasing the damage capabilities of said party member.

Furthermore, some skills and combo moves are capable of inflicting secondary effects on their victim that can be utilized to your advantage. Say, you’ve got a guy that is able to spit flammable oil all over the enemy and let’s just say, hypothetically, the other members of your team have abilities that concern or, at the very least, mention fire. Doesn’t take a genius to figure out the combo that I’m thinking of here.

That’s another thing. It’s not that hard of a game to pick up.

Source: store.steampowered.com

Source: store.steampowered.com

Lisa’s combos can be integrated smoothly into the play-style, items and shopkeepers dot this broken world, and the plethora of party members to recruit and discover allow for a wide variety of techniques and strategies (kind of like Fallout: Tactics, or for that matter any of the original Fallout titles). Will you focus on sheer power and tailor your group to maximize your DPS or will you be a more clever leader, weakening your foes through a hale of debuffs, softening them up for the final blow?

But much like the narrative, the mechanics of Lisa are centered around offering a choice to the player that go beyond the simple decisions one would have when upgrading armor and weaponry.

Your choices will ultimately determine whether or not your survive in this horrible, horrible world. I’m not talking about those typical binary moral choices that you’d see in something like the original Bioshock, rather the game seems more geared towards offering more harrowing decisions.

Will you severely hinder you combo capabilities, strength, and defense in the form of a forced amputation in order to save the lives of your beloved party members? Ultimately that’s up for you to decide and they only get more and more difficult the further you get into this cruel world of Lisa.

The game is solid, the characters are likable, and many of the skills and abilities are cleverly designed to be useful at any point in the game. To be honest, there isn’t much else to say on this matter. It’s there to serve as the backdrop of the story, the book wherein this narrative is written, and in that regard the mechanics strike me as a finely bound leather tome fit for a first-edition masterpiece.

Music: Jarring Transitions

What is a good game without a good soundtrack to back it up – and, in that case, what out there ISN’T improved by some fitting music – and, in that regards, Lisa has some of the best music that I’ve ever seen put to a video game.

Typically, a good music selection is used to focus on the tone of a certain area or highlights the tense action of a close battle and this is something that the music of Lisa achieves, albeit at a jarring almost breakneck pace. One moment you might be enjoying the calm relaxing tones of a lone trumpet playing out in the distance only to be greeted by some intense electronica the very moment you enter into a nearby cave.

There doesn’t seem to be any gradual shift between atmospheres, the game just seems to automatically transition from one track to another with no regard for continuity or flow which initially struck me as lazy design. But as I delved deeper and deeper into the madness clouding the mind of Brad Armstrong, I began to realize that this design choice was one done deliberately and not of desperation or a lack of time.

Source: store.steampowered.com

Source: store.steampowered.com

Maybe the jarring tonal shift was to promote the very unstable nature of Lisa‘s main protagonist, after all, the environments tend to change almost at an instant to reveal a darker side of everyone’s favorite post-apocalyptic survivor. Maybe this is what the music was made to represent, how mentally broken the character you are playing is supposed to be.

It serves its purpose enmeshing us into the mindset of Brad. When the world around him crumbles away to reveal the twisted and contorted face of a former friend, at least we, the player, have a semblance of what level of crazy we’re operating on.

Story: 5/5

  • Exploration-based narrative.
  • Straddles the line between serious and funny.
  • Oh my God….
  • Severe guilt and regret…

Mechanics: 4.5/5

  • Player decisions can severely affect gameplay.
  • Easy to pick up combo system.
  • Heavy themes of exploration.
  • Very typical RPG.
  • Solid and fun.
  • Book cover analogy.

Music: 5/5

  • Fast and unpredictable transitions.
  • Varies widely in terms of intensity.
  • A poignant look into the mind of a broken man.
  • Seemingly disjointed, as if to reflect the mind’s unpredictable nature.

Overall

Though the game doesn’t necessarily excel in terms of gameplay – it doesn’t exactly push the bounds of the genre – but it makes use of what tools it has to deliver a gut-wrenching tale about a miserable guy on a journey to save his adopted daughter due to reasons that aren’t wholly aware to us as the audience. It’s a game that makes you reflect on a lot of things – namely the motives behind our leading man, Brad, and the story behind this broken world – but it is also one that has the player work for those little informative lore bits.

Even after 20 or so hours of playing this game I’m still discovering new sides to this broken world of Lisa, each offering some fragment of a hint as to what exactly had happened, and after all that time I still feel in the dark about a lot of things. What is clear, though, is this: We are all, each of us, capable of horrible, horrible things. When that thin veil of civility keeping us from revealing our baser natures is shattered what will happen? Will we remain dignified and resolute like the Brad I thought I was or will we be the selfish brute like the Brad that he really was…?

5 out of 5 stars

5 out of 5 stars 

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2 Comments on “LISA: THE PAINFUL RPG Review: On Perverts and Poignancy”

  1. NVChad2
    12/30/2014 at 3:44 PM #

    Awesome review, John. The game sounds absolutely intriguing and I’m going to have to check it out.

  2. 01/03/2015 at 7:31 PM #

    Certainly do. In essence, I and the many others who’ve played it would describe it as an Earthbound that’s more geared towards adults.

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