If LISA’s trying to say something bold, it’s not doing a very good job of doing so.
At the start, I was treated to a particularly heavy moment. Four friends were being pummeled by bullies on the playground. Bruised and bloodied, the gang’s leader Brad shuffled home, where he was mercilessly mocked by his deadbeat father. Despondent, Brad made his way to his room and sat down, crying.
Fast forward to a few years later, when the world has collapsed into an apocalypse. Brad discovers an infant baby girl he adopts as his own. Terrified that any harm might befall her, Brad locks her away, protecting her from the dangerous men in the outside world. Frustrated with her isolation, the girl grows to resent Brad as she grows up.
It all sounds very deep and hard-hitting, doesn’t it? To a degree, it is. Seeing Brad’s father treat him so badly was certainly a gut punch, and it’s understandable that his motivation would be to protect the infant he’s found. But every seemingly hard-hitting moment in LISA is undermined by jarring attempts at humor and quirk, and there’s a very thin amount of reasoning we’re given to sympathize with Brad in the first place.
On the spectrum, LISA lies in that squishy middle between action game and interactive narrative. It certainly has fail states, traversal can often be a puzzle, and a turn-based battle system – albeit a mediocre one at best – adds combat to LISA’s sprawling 2D world. Different attacks and enemy encounters don’t necessarily feel deep or particularly well-balanced, but they’re serviceable enough to not greatly detract from everything else.
The bulk of my issues with LISA lie with its narrative and tone.
Being that she’s seemingly one of the last women on Earth, the girl is constantly subjected to declarations about her looks or how badly other male characters want to ‘get with her.’ This mostly takes place without her being present, and an uncomfortable reliance on the threat of sexual violence is used to motivate Brad – and the player – to save her. Thus, she’s no longer a character, but a MacGuffin, an item that must be obtained and protected at all costs.
This decision robs a big chunk from the potential the narrative could have had. This is a story about Brad’s redemption, about his desire to set right the wrongs of his life. Not giving me reasons to care about any of the characters involved meant the girl could have just as easily been replaced with the last beer on Earth and still have had the same impact.
LISA seeks to strike a deep, somber tone from the start, but the heavy mood it initially establishes is quickly broken with haphazard and inorganic use of comedy and quirk. Violent depictions of a bloody, wasted world are quickly juxtaposed by the silly ramblings of characters. Harsh story beats are interrupted by inappropriately upbeat battle music. It’s very haphazard and sharp, pulling me out of the experience at virtually every turn.
There’s potential to be found in LISA, but so much of it feels like a rough first draft. Perhaps later games will strike the balance the developer wanted, but LISA is certainly not his magnum opus.