I am a massive fan of Ape Inc and HAL Laboratories’ 1995 cult classic Earthbound. It introduced the idea that Role-Playing Games can be odd, parody-driven experiences and still have so much love in them that they stick with players for years to come.
There have been a few RPGs that have attempted to tackle the styling of Earthbound to varying success. But when I tell you LISA: Definitive Edition not only lives up to its inspiration but sets itself apart by ratcheting up the oddity, all while telling an incredibly touching story of found-family and second chances, it’s heartwarming really. As much as I am a ‘play once and put it down’ type of player, save for a few games, when I rolled credits on The Joyful, I started The Painful again—anything to spend more time in this hilarious, incredibly dark, and odd world of LISA: Definitive Edition.
I wanted to put a trigger warning. Because of how integral and frequent some things happen, it’s impossible to talk about the game without mentioning the dark themes and subject matter present in LISA. So, this is a trigger warning in LISA: Definitive Edition, and there are frequent mentions and actions of kidnapping, physical and mental torture, suicide, abuse, and rape.
LISA: Definitive Edition is split between two games, The Painful and The Joyful. The Painful follows Brad, a survivor of parental abuse. After the world experiences a phenomenon simply known as the “Flash,” all women in the world have disappeared and died. Leaving only the men alive to find their way through life and surprising no one, it very quickly turns to the worst possible scenario.
“…LISA: Definitive Edition not only lives up to its inspiration but sets itself apart by ratcheting up the oddity…”
One day, Brad comes upon a baby in the wild. Unable to see the mother, Brad decides to take the baby, who happens to be a girl, under his wing. Being the only female left on the planet, Brad keeps Buddy a secret. Only a select few from his friend group know she exists. As a few years pass, Brad goes out hunting one day to return to a bunch of blood and viscera at his home, and local gang leader Buzzo kidnaps Buddy.
What follows is an incredibly dark but heartwarming story about found-family and trying to move past and grow from toxicity. With an incredible twist at the end that changes the entire theme of LISA: Definitive Edition. It was heartbreaking and powerful in a way I did not expect, and one of my favourite stories I’ve experienced this year. Believe me when I tell you, it doesn’t end how you would expect.
The Painful takes place immediately after the end of The Joyful, so it’s a little more challenging to talk about without spoiling anything. But the overall story follows Buddy and her journey to belong in the world and make a name for herself. It adds so much to the overall story of LISA and again brings us through so much turmoil and believing in ourselves.
“LISA: Definitive Edition is an amazingly crafted role-playing experience with incredibly mature subject matter and an addictive combat system.”
What really sets LISA: Definitive Edition apart is the sheer amount of oddity and terror. It’s incredible how hard it leans into its post-apocalyptic world. There are signs of abuse and harm strewn throughout every screen. Mix this with its weirdly amazing sense of humour, and it makes LISA unforgettable.
While the combat is very much inspired by Earthbound, it evolves the style of play in exciting ways. It is turn-based in its combat, with each member having incredibly unique skills. These run the gamut of our hero Brad being able to input fighting combos, with specific combos ending in a special ability like a fire blast or knocking an enemy over and making them lose their turn, all the way to one companion’s specialty is soothsaying teammates, so they gain HP back or buff the team in other ways. It helps that there are so many party members that come and go. You can really find any party makeup to work for your playstyle.
There is a flip side to getting too attached to some characters, though, as when you rest, you can be raided and wake up with a party member captured. Let’s hope you find them and pay the people what they ask for, or you will lose them permanently. What makes this harder to stomach is when you rest, there are these scenes at the campfire where you can learn more about your team. Each of them has these scenes, and while brief, they really help flesh them out and make them feel like they have lived in the world.
“What really sets LISA: Definitive Edition apart is the sheer amount of oddity and terror.”
There are actually a few attacks in combat as well that can kill your teammates permanently as well. This risk of the unknown of what is about to happen keeps things fresh and exciting throughout the game. For example, I was travelling through a cave, and as I exited, bandits took one of my party members. They proceeded to demand either all the items in my inventory or they would kill my party member. Things I’ve never seen in an RPG, and it’s all a delight.
Then there is the music. The masterpiece soundtrack is an absolute hit. Thankfully, a music player from each game’s main menu lets you cycle through and listen to each track. It’s been a long time since I’ve had a tracklist hit so hard and so frequently.
Without spoiling too much, The Joyful is almost strictly played as Buddy with a more time-based attack than Brad’s combo battling. It has changed in terms of traversal and is more severe in terms of themes as well. I can’t stress enough that the story in LISA: Definitive Edition is not for the faint of heart. But it earns the messed up places it goes.
Overall, LISA: Definitive Edition is an amazingly crafted role-playing experience with incredibly mature subject matter and an addictive combat system. After playing through both parts of the definitive edition and part way through a second playthrough, I can’t wait for what developer Dingaling Productions has in store for us next. While the themes it touches on may be too dark for some, it was perfectly depressing for me and had me questioning everything I knew about the world of LISA with the ending of The Painful.