LISA is a game that you absolutely should play, but in all likelihood you won’t come out of it with a smile on your face. That’s not to say that the game is bad in any way, in fact it excels in almost every facet. The gameplay is simple but very solid and deeply enjoyable, the presentation is bizarre and surreal but appropriate and endearing, and the engaging story mixes comedy and tragedy with a master’s hand. LISA manages to be both raucously funny and soul-shatteringly depressing in equal measure, with those two warring emotions clashing together with such perfect balance that all that remains in the end is silence, peaceful but deeply disturbing silence.
Starting off with basic premise, LISA takes place in a post-apocalyptic wasteland where a vague disaster known only as “The Flash” has reduced the world to charred rubble and mud-hut villages. More importantly though this terrible event, or some consequence of it, has completely removed all women from the world, leaving a despondent male population to accept humanity’s now inevitable fate. You play as a man named Brad, a depressed substance abuser who lives on the outskirts of what remains of society along with a few of his friends. One day though Brad finds abandoned in the wastes an infant child, a girl no less, the implications of which of are immediately obvious to Brad and his compatriots. Despite the danger involved in hiding this child from the ruling government, a band of raiders known as ‘the Rando army’, Brad insists that they raise the child themselves in secret so as to protect her from the horrors of the world. Raising the child is a bit of a rough process at first but they all quickly come to love her as a daughter and that feeling causes Brad to give up his drug habit, specifically his reliance on a narcotic called “Joy“. Like many former users though, one day Brad falls off the wagon, and upon awaking from his stupor he finds that the secret is out and his adopted daughter has been kidnapped. It’s a really strong base premise, everyone has clear and understandable motivations and the underlying concept of the world itself is really quite interesting. While ‘Post-apocalypse’ has been done to death as a setting, having it be one specifically with no women allows the game to put a curious spin on many of the setting’s tropes. Seeing how a society of pure men acclimatize is really fascinating and it brings up a ton of interesting questions regarding things like masculinity, homo-sexuality, and the ultimate futility of a society that is all yang and no yin, so to speak.
What really impressed me about LISA’s writing though is the aforementioned balance it strikes between comedy and tragedy. While its core plot is rather dour, the characters Brad will meet and the laughably bizarre scenarios he’ll be led through are incredibly funny and serve to lighten the mood in a really refreshing way. That said, the humorous overtones are there in no way to remove or cover up the underlying tragic elements, but rather to enhance them. It creates the impression of a world where things are so far gone that the only suitable response is to crack a beer and watch it all collapse, happy to see it end but sad to see it go. Normally this is the point where I’d give you some examples and break down exactly how LISA does both comedy and tragedy so well, but honestly I feel like I’d be doing the game a disservice if I did that. This is a “devil is in the details” sort of situation and dissecting things so that I can blatantly expose the subtlety for you would diminish LISA’s overall impact. Call it a cop-out on my part if you want, but I really think this is one of those stories you just have to experience for yourself.
Moving onto something I can discuss without ruining the game at large, let’s talk about the gameplay. At its core it is your standard turn-based RPG, you’ll pick commands from a menu and then watch as they’re executed in sequence according to everyone’s speed, however there are a few twists thrown in for good measure. First off, there’s a lot of variety to characters and the way they work. The game has something of a Suikoden vibe to it, with there being 30+ characters to recruit, and each of them has a number of unique moves and systems that make them fell quite different from one another in combat. For example, martial arts based characters like Brad get to throw out combos with the WASD keys instead of just attacking and all of their special skills are activated by putting in specific combos. There are also two different kinds of ‘mana’ that characters will use, SP and TP; the former is persistent from battle and battle and depletes with use whereas the latter builds up each time a character attacks or is attacked. Each member of your team will use one type of resource or the other and assembling a party based on who uses what resource and what kinds abilities they’ll use it for lends the game a nice extra layer of strategy. Where LISA gets really unique in terms of gameplay though is outside of combat, because rather than taking place in a traditional top-down RPG world, everything is done side-scroller style. Surprisingly though, it still manages to be quite open and non-linear, with the game featuring lots of vertical movement and hub areas where things can spiderweb out.
Now I know I said I wasn’t going to talk about the story anymore, but I do want to quickly discuss how well they actually manage to integrate the story into the gameplay. The most obvious example is how the game handles Brad’s addiction to Joy, which instead of just being limited to dialogue sequences, is actually present in gameplay in a somewhat realistic manner. What will happen is that every now and again Brad will naturally take on a status effect called “Joy Withdrawal”, which halves all of his stats and makes his attacks do zero damage. As you can imagine that’s pretty debilitating and the fact that it can strike at anytime, both inside and outside of combat, makes it an ever-present worry. The only way to get rid of this status effect, aside from just taking more Joy, is to sweat it out and let the pangs fade away naturally over time, at least until they strike again, just like with real withdrawal. It makes for some interesting emergent moments where you have to decide whether a moral obligation to stop doing this destructive drug outweighs the physical and mechanical cost its absence causes you. Similarly, larger moral decisions can often end up changing the gameplay in some significant ways. Not to spoil anything, but at a certain point the game will give Brad the chance to lose an arm to protect something/someone important to him. If you choose to have him lose the arm then not only will Brad’s attack and defense stats sharply drop, but it will also hamper any skills he had that used that appendage as well as change up the button combos you input to use those skills. The fact that you need to re-familiarize yourself with everything and retrain your muscle memory after that loss is a very subversive way of simulating life with an amputation and as such it gives that decision a much greater lasting weight.
As for the presentation, it’s visually and aurally quite an interesting game, but this is one of the few parts of LISA with which I have some minor quibbles. Starting off with the graphics, it’s going for a very clear Earthbound aesthetic, especially with the character designs and the presentation of text. It allows them to keep things goofy and fun while also providing the right kind of wiggle room to make things deeply disturbing, which they do with aplomb. The mutant designs in this game are outright terrifying in spots, featuring horrific beasts sporting massive distended bellies and limbs that are either cracked and warped in all the wrong places or limp and unnatural like some sort of pseudo-tentacle. The worst part is that they’re almost always smiling, which makes the designs all the more unsettling. They’re so horrifying that they starkly contrast against the environments they’re placed in, which are sadly kind of boring. For the sake of the side-scrolling half of the gameplay, the world is made up almost entirely of stacked boxy layers with flat tops. While they’re embellished well enough with graffiti and stalagmites and what not, the base silhouette of the world is dreadfully dull. In terms of sound design, LISA is impressively well varied and evocative. The sound effects are all bizarre and feel like warped versions of what you’d hear out of a regular 16-bit RPG, which fits this game perfectly. As for the soundtrack, it is incredibly deep, offering up ninety different tracks spanning at least a dozen different genres. For most the part the OST works off of a few core melodies, but they redo those tunes in a bunch of different styles to evoke different emotions when needed, allowing the game to keep a consistent sound from moment to moment while still getting to subtly reinforce those all-important emotional undertones. The only issue I have with the soundtrack is that it can be a little overzealous at times and when the music is meant to be unsettling or annoying, it can often be a little too unsettling and annoying, to the point of making me feel physically uncomfortable.
Lastly let’s talk about a couple of small technical issues that plague LISA, they’re quite minor and the game can easily be enjoyed in spite of them, but for the sake of due diligence I do need to bring them up. The biggest issue is that of the game regularly stalling out when you’re exiting from the menu screen, the music will still play but the screen locks up for anywhere from 5-30 seconds. I didn’t notice this issue all that much during the early parts of LISA but as I got deeper and deeper into the game it became more of a regular occurrence and it would freeze up for longer periods of time. To be clear, it never fully locked up and the game would always eventually get moving again, but those unintended breaks certainly do kill the pace somewhat. The other issue I encountered is that of text getting cut off by the text box during dialogue; thankfully it happened very infrequently and the text that got cut off was still readable, but regardless it looks sloppy and does break the immersion somewhat. Once again, both of these are fairly minor issues that don’t really hinder the game too much and could (and I imagine most likely will) eventually be fixed with a patch.
It should go without saying at this point that LISA gets my full recommendation. The story is incredibly executed, the gameplay is solid and enjoyable, and the presentation is utterly unique and disturbing in all the right ways. While it’s obviously not going to be for everyone, what with how emotionally taxing it can be at times, those who really want to see what games can do as a medium should really play this game. It’s one best RPGs I’ve ever played and a masterful example of video game story telling and as such I’m giving LISA a 5 out of 5 stars.