It's the closest thing I can think of to post-apocalyptic perfection. LISA: The Painful takes the traditional elements of a post-apocalypse (mutants, raiders, drugs) then wraps it in a bundle of human suffering and ties it off with a ribbon of offbeat humor. It seamlessly merges combat and story, intertwining them and even fusing them together. Moreover, LISA: The Painful has some of the most emotionally impactful moments I've experienced in an RPG. Even after playing through several times, I still get goosebumps at the best moments. It's hard to believe one person could be responsible for so much content, quality writing, sprites, and a 90-track OST.
You play Brad Armstrong, a miserable man damaged by an abusive father, broken by those he couldn’t protect, and numbed by Joy, a wonder drug. In the aftermath of an unspecified apocalypse, all women have disappeared from the earth. One day, Brad finds a baby girl while numbing himself in the desert wasteland. As years pass, Brad hordes his adoptive daughter, hiding her from the outside and a world of post-apocalyptic perverts. When raiders kidnap the girl and bring her to the greatest warlord in the wasteland, Brad gathers an army and starts killing everyone in his way.
LISA: The Painful plays similarly to Earthbound. You explore the world through side-scrolling platforming, finding allies, looting objects, and coming upon enemies. Combat occurs in a separate turn-based void. Every element of exploration ultimately contributes to combat. You collect allies to increase your DPS. You collect loot and power-ups to turn the tide of battle. The turn-based combat is visually stale with slight variations of a few base attacks, but the combo dial, move sets, and sound design are truly something to behold.
Almost every human character in LISA: The Painful has a name and a unique move set. It gives you the impression that these aren’t nameless, infinitely respawning “raiders,” these are people. Once they're dead, the world is a little quieter. Your allies are unique as well. Most party members are themed around their combat mechanic. Take Birdie Hall, a drunk who can spritz flammable alcohol on your enemies. The “combo dial" further reinforces these concepts. Most of Brad's attacks have an optional WASD combo. If you remember the combo, you can score tons of extra damage and even a few critical hits. The crunching sound of a critical hit is super satisfying.
The soundtrack is intense. Every combat encounter has its own theme. LISA: The Painful proudly shows how music can change the tone of visually uninteresting combat. The soundtrack has a distinctly 80s synth-pop vibe with a dash of 90s rave, but there are also some great songs for desert wandering and the climactic story moments in between. Looking at OST, it’s honestly incredible not just how many songs there are (90 in total), but how they all manage to sound unique. I can play a random song from the album and say, “yeah, it’s that fight against Crack Ripper’s gang.”
All of these elements would make for a fantastic RPG, but LISA: The Painful elevates these concepts to another level. Not only does every character have their own move set, but some attacks inform you about the character's emotional state. During a particularly climactic battle scene, Brad gained two new attacks, “cry” and “scream.” Likewise, as you grow in power, some enemies will simply give up, cowering and crying at their inevitable doom.
It is rare to see any game where the combat options inform you about the character’s state of mind. It ties back into the power of LISA: The Painful’s storytelling. All of this combat and exploration is contributing to the stakes and emotional weight of the story. Combat gets the most screen time, but it’s only the supporting role. The story is the real star, quietly gaining background presence until it crushes you in the third act.
While gameplay informs the story, the story also impacts gameplay. LISA: The Painful presents a handful of serious, difficult choices. Which of your party members do you put in a game of forced Russian Roulette? Are you willing to lose your arm, reducing your combat effectiveness, to save another? Can you beat Brad’s drug addiction, even if it means weakening yourself further and living in excruciating pain? Every decision is permanent as checkpoints explode after saving.
LISA: The Painful is a true diamond in the rough. It is one of the most entertaining and exciting experiences I’ve had with a turn-based RPG. Intricately designed combat, excellent character writing, and strong pacing combine to form a powerful narrative. If you need a post-apocalyptic adventure to wash away the acrid taste of Fallout 76, LISA: The Painful will not disappoint.
TechRaptor covered LISA: The Painful RPG on PC via Steam with a copy purchased by the reviewer.