Lisa: The Painful RPG

I spotted Lisa randomly, the day it came out, and was intrigued enough to try it. I had never heard of it prior, or its Kickstarter, and a more thorough search has revealed little coverage or evidence it exists. I did not expect a quirky little RPG, inspired by the 1994 Japanese classic Earthbound, to be much more than a few laughs and some grinding. All the same, my curiosity was piqued by this strange game, and I purchased it. I’m very glad I did.

Lisa is set in a bizarre post-apocalyptic world, where reality has softened a bit, strange creatures roam the earth, drug addiction is rampant, and most bizarrely of all: there are no women. The sweat and testosterone soaked landscape is often played for laughs, with crews of grunting bodybuilders wearing spiked football pads, dirty magazines for currency, and mid-life crises, yet a great many of the surviving men are really just losers. Hilarious, sad, losers.

The game itself is often a question of learning to lose the right way. The party is constantly tricked, assaulted, poisoned, or just generally screwed over. Party members can (easily) die permanently, often leaving the group underpowered and underleveled, spending all your money on healing items that barely help. I suggest you remember to save. Lisa’s creator, a professional martial artist, called his game “The Painful RPG.” It is exactly that.

Its turn-based JRPG-style battles are classic and yet unconventional, with radically different party members and moves like “Puke” and “Drink,” and status conditions like “Depressed” and “Weird.” Most of its NPCs are bizarre, hilarious, and expendable, yet the core characters are fraught with emotion, perhaps none more so than the long-suffering, stoic protagonist, whose journey is hounded by enemies, monsters, and horrific hallucinations.

Lisa treads a very fine line between hilarity, horror, and sheer emotional pain. Let me ask you: is a giant mutant trapped inside a mascot costume, spewing blood and dancing around, hilarious or horrifying? Is a party member whose attacks consist of drunkenly falling over and crying hilarious, or sad? Is being a failure funny, or is it the most terrifying thing you can think of?

For all its butt jokes, flesh monsters, and silly companions, Lisa has a very real emotional impact to it, and as I went deeper into the game, I became progressively more uncomfortable, increasingly wishing I could stop playing so I wouldn’t have to see what happens next. I mean this, of course, in the best way possible. Lisa is an almost emotionally abusive game, forcing us to look and play a story unfolding that grows darker and more difficult with every step.

Although it came out at the very end of the year, Lisa is one my favorite games of 2014. It’s not very long, but it’s not very easy, either. It is a substantial and dark game, filled with laughter and sadness. I recommend it thoroughly to anyone who plays RPGs regularly, and recommend it cautiously to those who don’t, as it’s not an easy or painless experience. The pain and the humor are proof that it’s a real winner.