If there is one thing indie game devs are reliable for, it would be making Earthbound clones with RPGMaker. It has almost become a tired cliche at this point and a lot of it has to do with the popularity of Yume Nikki and Undertale‘s success.
There is a low bar to entry when making these kinds of games. Most gamers won’t judge the graphics or gameplay and most of the time people come in expecting an interesting story. In 2012, there was LISA: The Firsta typical Yume Nikki clone but a clone that stood out due to its deft at handling troubling subject matter.
In 2014, Dingaling Productions would vastly expand on the humble story into a post-apocalyptic, mind-altering descent into the depths of human suffering and despair, guided by the ever-questionable moral compass of a tormented protagonist.
With a “Definitive Edition”, Serenity Forge and Dingaling Productions have bundled LISA: The Painful and its 2015 DLC sequel, The Joyful together. What can gamers expect from this psychedelic nightmare of bizarre characters and twisted landscapes, where the boundaries of sanity dissolve like a hallucinatory mirage? Find out in LISA: Definitive Edition review!
LISA: Definitive Edition
Developer: Dingaling Productions, Serenity Forge
Platforms: Windows PC, Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Nintendo Switch (reviewed)
Release Date: July 18, 2023
LISA: Definitive Edition bundle contains The Painful and The Joyful, which are LISA parts two and three respectively. Unfortunately, LISA: The First is not part of this bundle and is unavailable anywhere except RPGmaker.net.
The First followed the story of a girl named Lisa and it played like Yume Nikki. Gamers would explore abstract representations of her traumatic molestation at the hands of her father. LISA: The Painful follows up on this story where players assume the role of her brother Brad and how he was no better off… in fact, he would lead a far worse and agonizing life in a post-apocalyptic wasteland.
All women vanished in an event called “the flash” and Brad and the rest of the men in Olathe have become the last vestige of humanity. It’s a place where hope has withered, and the lingering remnants of humanity cling desperately to their fragile existence. While carrying on a hopeless addiction to alcohol and drugs that make him feel nothing, he discovers Buddy, a baby girl.
Buddy could be the last female in existence and because of the trauma Brad witnessed upon Lisa, he will do anything he can to protect her from the savagery of Olathe. The game begins when she goes missing and the player is set loose in an untamed and quirky world where violence is the final decider.
In this maddeningly twisted landscape, Brad’s quest to find his lost adopted daughter becomes a soul-crushing odyssey through a world torn asunder. Dingaling Productions has crafted a hallucinatory nightmare, where the remnants of society wrestle with addiction, violence, and the specter of their deranged psyche. Sometimes it’s funny too.
Brad’s choices have consequences. The ramifications of the player’s actions reverberate through the narrative, shaping the destiny of Brad and his companions. It’s a twisted dance with morality and self-preservation, a tightrope walk over a bottomless pit of madness. Expect to make cruel choices that have damaging pay-offs no matter what you do.
In many ways, it is a “thinking man’s”, The Last of Us. Brad is a figure very similar to Joel, but The Painful manages to convey his story and themes with diabolical wit. The sardonic writing and absurdity do help LISA: Definitive Edition from feeling pretentious, as it always feels like it is deconstructing and mocking the themes that Naughty Dog has been leaning on for a decade.
The Joyful is the final chapter in the LISA: Definitive Edition. In this mind-bending sequel, Buddy goes on a manic voyage through a world that has embraced the deranged and forsaken all semblance of reason. It’s an emotional rollercoaster of bizarre characters, where the boundaries of sanity dissolve like a nightmare you can’t shake the sweat from.
After the events of The Painful, Buddy is left horribly disfigured and mentally scarred. She never knew life before the flash and the cruelty of the wasteland is all she knows.
Her journey is a conquest of the most powerful warlords in Olathe and she will alienate everyone closest to her to achieve her goal. Along the way, she will even alienate the player.
The Joyful was ahead of its time and follows a very similar theme to The Last of Us Part II. Revenge is ultimately empty, but LISA: Definitive Edition handles it in a far more biting and clever way.
The downside to this sequel is that it demystifies a lot of what made The Painful so interesting. Various explanations are given and they don’t measure up to the enigmatic vagueness that made them compelling.
The Joyful is a much shorter module than The Painfulwith the former being under 10 hours and the latter lasting over 20. The Painful may be an ugly-looking side-scrolling RPG, but it feels like a real RPG with over 30 party members, and side objectives and is open-ended enough to not feel claustrophobic.
Buddy’s game is more focused on telling a story than Brad’s scenario. The Joyful only gets one party member that isn’t permanent and there are lots of mechanics that are no longer a factor. Things like the status effects and perma death were a crucial pillar in the experience and they are played down or gone in the finale.
The graphics are a savage slap to the senses. They homage to Earthbound, but they don’t have the finesse of the Super Nintendo cult classic. Pixel art is very plain and not well-drawn; often verging on being amateurish. Animation is also stiff with only a few frames per character.
It’s as if the canvas has been injected with the blood and tears of the damned. The hand-drawn grotesquery of the characters perfectly mirrors the decay and madness that permeate every corner of this forsaken land.
The turn-based combat system is a brutal symphony of pain and strategy. Each decision, each attack or defense, carries weight and consequences. The scarcity of resources is an ever-present specter, lurking behind every corner, ensuring that your descent into the abyss is paved with desperation and sacrifice.
Button inputs are done like in a fighting game for special attacks in LISA: Definitive Edition, but not for every character. Only certain character classes get extensive flexibility and sadly, this does not factor much into the barrenness of The Joyful.
The gameplay of LISA: Definitive Edition is a competent RPG maker Earthbound-clone… at least it is for The Painful. The Joyful has its moments but is skippable unless you want more of sweet nihilistic mayhem. What makes Lisa worthwhile is its deranged energy and biting satire. The visuals and gameplay are its least interesting aspects.
LISA: Definitive Edition is a harrowing odyssey that plunges you headfirst into the fevered mind of Brad, as he battles inner demons and outer monstrosities with equal ferocity. While Buddy’s story is unnecessary, it is fascinating to witness a more profound execution of the themes explored in The Last of Us Part II.
LISA: Definitive Edition was reviewed on Nintendo Switch using a code provided by Serenity Forge. Additional information about Niche Gamer’s review/ethics policy can be found here. LISA: Definitive Edition is now available for Windows PC (via Steam), Xbox One Xbox Series X|S, Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, and PlayStation 5.