You may remember Lisa as that painful looking RPG on Kickstarter with cute graphics that are comparable to Earthbound. Having played both Earthbound and Lisa, I can safely say that this is a fair comparison. However, Earthbound, while undoubtedly cute, is subtle with its blemishes, as the Charlie Brown aesthetic thinly veils its horrific themes like police brutality; you could easily mistake it for a kids’ game. The same can’t be said for Lisa, however. Yes, the sprite art is ostensibly cute, but by the time I witnessed the scene in which a young Brad Armstrong gets hit in the head with a beer bottle by his alcoholic father, I knew that Lisa is not fucking around.
Welcome to the world of Olathe, where everything has gone to shit, and sprite art, no matter how cute it is, will not change that fact; instead, the visuals only highlight the violence. We’re never told how things went so wrong, but we do know what it currently is: a place full of dipshits, perverts, and danger. We also know that all of the women have died off during the cataclysm, which could explain the increase of debauchery and violence; that is, until a younger Brad Armstrong discovers the only remaining girl left alive, Buddy, and then loses her after a group of men raid his home while he’s away and getting high. As you can imagine, Brad embarks on a quest to save the girl and take vengeance upon the men who wrecked his home; but that’s the least interesting part of the story. No, I found myself drawn to the world of Lisa for two things: finding out what makes Brad tick, and observing the strange behavior of Olathe’s inhabitants.
It’s ironic that Austin Jorgensen, the game’s creator, chose to characterize Brad as an ex-martial arts teacher because he does not exhibit the confidence of a master who has achieved zen. If anything, he’s troubled, violent, and fears becoming the person whom he hates the most: his father. Brad suffers terrible hallucinations concerning his childhood memories, mostly ghostly visions of a young girl whom we can assume is his little sister. In order to stave off these visions, Brad indulges on a drug called Joy, and in doing so he neglects Buddy. Thankfully, he stops in order become a better man–albeit a bit too late–but he always knows where to find them, and, as long as he’s sober, he continues to suffer from the symptoms of withdrawal and terrible visions, each one more revealing than the last.
While the world is doomed from the start, I noticed that it isn’t necessarily full of gloom. Unlike most post-apocalyptic games, Lisa has an excellent–albeit it dark–sense of humor, and for every painful memory Brad remembers he’s likely to find two or more outlandish situations to counteract the depression. In one instance brad kills a boatman who brought him to an island, and in the next he’s somehow using his dead opponent as a boat. When Brad acquires a bike, he’ll find random characters who seem more than willing to let him use their heads as makeshift bridges. He can even solve platforming puzzles that inflict serious pain and suffering to others, albeit in the style of The Three Stooges.
However, there is a scene that I randomly came across that I feel best showcases Lisa’s sense of dark humor. Brad comes across a group of settlers and offers to help them out; however, he accidentally performs one of the most horrific acts to be seen in a video game–the details of which I will not spoil–and when the whole ordeal is finished the leader of the settlers claims it is the “second most tragic thing that’s happened in [his] life.” Not everyone will take to Lisa’s sense of humor; however, if you can tough it out, you’ll see some fucked up shit, for better or worse.
Exploration is Lisa’s strongest point, as it not only presents a unique style not often seen in RPG Maker games, but it also emphasizes the random dangers that Brad can encounter. Lisa has platforming elements that remind me of Super Mario Bros 2, and although Brad lacks the plumber’s jumping abilities, he can climb and fall to his heart’s content. I don’t recommend falling unless you absolutely have to, however, as doing so will hurt Brad and his party. Random holes in the side of cliffs can be found all across the land, leading to side quests that provide new items or visions that shed some light on Brad’s past. This means Lisa has a lot of content that will remain untouched during the first playthrough. For instance, a decision I made cost me the privilege of partaking in wrestling, and I still haven’t found the island based off The Dismal Jesters podcast. There might even be more scenes that flesh out Brad’s past that I remain unaware of.
What I am aware of, however, is to expect the unexpected. Enemies will ambush you at any turn, and sneaking past them requires quick reflexes and careful planning. In one instance, I was traveling along the road when all of a sudden a car crashed into me. If I had been on my bicycle at the time, I might have had just enough time to reach the ladder to safety. In another instance, I could see a lanky man in a luchador mask preparing to ambush me, but I was able maneuver out of the way, allowing me to continue safely on my journey without wasting precious resources on an otherwise meaningless fight. Some fights are unavoidable, however. For example, I encountered a man who seemed friendly enough until he stabbed me in the back as I was walking away from him. In case you haven’t noticed, it’s best to keep a low profile and not be too friendly; you’ll either be scammed or harmed if you are.
Some ambushes are overwhelming and require you to make difficult choices–they can either be part of the main campaign or an optional side quest. Near the beginning of the game, a gang ambushed me and my party, threatening to destroy the nearest village, which would have eliminated any possible party members for me to recruit, if I didn’t give them all of my magazines (the game’s currency). I chose to fight them instead, which was the only time in the game where it worked. Every other time I refused to comply, I would not only get my ass handed to me, but then I had to give up all of my possessions, the lives of my party members (permadeath), and possibly one of my limbs–the latter of which permanently affects Brad’s stats and how quickly he can climb ladders.
Concerning choices, Lisa makes it very clear which option it thinks you should choose should you want Brad to survive with all of his limbs in tact. Choosing the good options, like sacrificing your arm in exchange for the safety of your crew, makes the game more difficult while callously letting them die is often the better choice; you can simply replace him with any of the other 30 recruitable party members. Don’t think that Lisa has a moral choice system: there is no good or bad path, and the ending is the same regardless of your choices. This isn’t necessarily a flaw: Lisa is a game about hardships, where even taking a rest at the nearest camp fire has its risks, such as being robbed, kidnapped, or, if you’re lucky, farted on by some asshole passerby.
But no matter the choices you make, you’ll end up in some sort of Earthbound-style scrap. If you’ve played a turn-based JRPG, not just Earthbound, then you’ll know what to expect: choose your turns at the beginning of each round, and then watch your allies and enemies exchange blows. Lisa also allows you to implement button combinations for specific moves–perfect for a game in which the main character is an ex-martial arts instructor. You can also access these moves by selecting them under skills. You use the same SP whether you choose to input button combinations or select the skill from the menu; however, by inputting the button combinations you can do significantly more damage, creating a nice risk and reward system. The fights are complimented with some nice animations, making each battle feel lively.
While Lisa is designed to make you feel bad, it does have some issues of its own. First, Lisa comes with controller support; however, the menu for configuring your controller is somewhat confusing. From what I understand, this is mostly because of how RPG Maker is designed, and Jorgensen has done a good job updating players on Steam’s forums. For what it’s worth, I had no problem playing this game with a keyboard, although I used the z button instead of the space bar like the game instructed me to.
Secondly, the pacing for the difficulty is a little off. Some parts of the game are very difficult, although appropriately so if I’m being ambushed or stumble across an optional boss; however, there are certain instances in the main campaign where battled the same monster over and over again, and said monster could be killed with one character. Because of the inconsistent difficulty, I never quite felt worried about my safety, and that’s a problem considering how dangerous the world of Lisa is supposed to be.
The pacing also came to a screeching halt whenever I became lost. Although Lisa is not a linear game, its ambushes are fixed; you’ll never encounter the same ambush–except in a few caves–twice. That means if I became lost, I often had to backtrack across empty wastelands with nothing but the game’s eclectic soundtrack to keep me amused.
Finally, Lisa is glitchy, and it could have used more time to squash some bugs. Some are harmless but ever-present, such as when I could make Brad hover in the air on his bicycle, but I also came across instances in which he could suddenly crawl or walk at the speed of his bicycle. The font is also screwed up for certain menu items, making them aggravating to read. And in some rare cases, Brad would freeze, and I feared that I would have to restart the game; thankfully I never had to.
So Lisa has some technical blemishes that make the game slightly more painful than Jorgensen had intended. That said, he told us from the start that Lisa would be a feel bad game, and he succeeded in every sense; I even had to walk away from the computer once so I could consider the consequences behind an important choice, and I’ve never felt compelled to do so for another video game. Even though it has its hilarious moments, Lisa might make you feel so awful you’ll want to quit; however, if you can persevere then I promise you it’s worth it.
This review is based off the Kickstarter release of Lisa, which I personally backed.