I’ve always described Lisa: The Painful and its DLC epilogue, Lisa: The Joyful, as amazing games I would never recommend to anyone ever. They’re fascinating explorations of the cycle of abuse and great instances of choices in the narrative directly affecting gameplay, but it takes a certain kind of mindset to play the game to completion. Lisa isn’t just hard, it’s intentionally torturous. You will be on your last legs, with a few party members left standing and one healing item, then the game will ask you to choose between their lives, your items, or your right arm. And don’t even try to get out of the decision, because then you’ll lose it all. Welcome to Olathe.
Lisa: The Painful is actually the sequel to an RPG Maker game called Lisa: The First. Inspired by Yume Nikki and EarthBound, it followed the titular character as she came to terms with, and attempted to escape from abuse at the hands of her father, Marty Armstrong. In the end, she fails – Lisa will never be able to escape what he did to her. The First ends with a simple Game Over screen, and you really only find out what happened to her on the title screen of The Painful.
Some time after the events of The First, the world ends in an event called The Flash. In a blink of light, all women disappeared from the world (the game doesn’t address trans or non-binary people). Naturally, society collapses, and the once green town of Olathe becomes a desert wasteland. Lisa’s elder brother, Brad, feels immense guilt over what happened to his sister and became a drug addict karate teacher after her passing. After the flash, a drug called Joy – which makes you feel nothing – began appearing. Take too much Joy and a person turns into a horrific mutant. It’s a dangerous and deadly world out there, with humanity crawling towards a slow, painful extinction. However, one day Brad stumbles upon a baby – a girl. He names her Buddy and raises her in seclusion alongside his childhood friends. When Buddy disappears, Brad will do anything to find her and bring her home, whether she wants to come or not.
The Painful really pushed RPG Maker to its limits. The game is presented from a 2D side scrolling perspective and, while you can’t jump, you can jump off of cliffs making for some fun traversal puzzles. Or not fun, because you do take fall damage. Early in the game, you find a child’s bicycle which you can ride at any time by pressing ZL or ZR. In addition to moving much faster, you can jump one tile when moving off of a cliff. Traversal isn’t very complicated, but it’s an interesting way to explore and spice up the turn-based combat.
Battles will be familiar to anyone who has played a turn-based RPG before, but The Painful has a few tricks up its sleeves. For example, your first party member is Terry Hintz, Lord of the Tutorial and your new best friend. Terry is by far the weakest character in the game, so his turn in battle is much better spent using items to heal or inflict status effects. Each character you can recruit has specific quirks to them, like focusing on status or raw AOE damage. Creating a party you like is a lot of fun, though you will always want to have some spare friends waiting in the wings.
You may rely on your party members to survive, but they’re also tragically disposable. At any time, either because of the story, a random encounter, or even after resting at a campfire, members of your party can be kidnapped, leave, or be straight up killed. You can even risk their lives intentionally in Russian Roulette for some extra cash in the form of porno mags. Sometimes you’ll be asked to choose between your limbs or your friends. Brad is by far the strongest party member, but losing even one arm will limit his strength and abilities considerably. You can even see this when attacking with Brad, as his moves require you to input commands using the face buttons; losing your first arm will completely remove the X button from that list.
These story choices affect the gameplay, but choices in gameplay will also affect the story, namely if you continue to take Joy or not. Consuming a single pill will not only fully heal a character, but give them a buff to every stat for a time as well. If you don’t take Joy, Brad will frequently suffer from withdrawals, reducing all his stats instead. Taking Joy will affect the game’s ending and dialogue throughout the game, so it’s really up to you if you want to try and be a better father to Buddy.
While the game seems all doom and gloom, it is absolutely hilarious too. Terry Hintz by himself is funny, with his weird and self centered tutorials all over the place, but you’ll find dark humor around every corner. One of my favorite bits is Nern, an early party member who never stops talking about his “6/10 wife, God rest her soul”, and how his neighbor Dale Spooner was just the worst. New to the Definitive Edition are campfire scenes, and in Nern’s he will talk about clipping coupons for five. Straight. Minutes. Keep in mind this game has no voice acting and I read very fast. It’s just so absurd, I can’t get enough of the humor.
The Painful is an incredible experience, made much more accessible through the new Painless Mode. Previously, players could only choose from Normal and Pain modes, both of which were incredibly difficult, but now you can use an item you receive from Terry early on to permanently activate an easier difficulty. I say easier, but I still struggled occasionally. However, I find this mode better prepares the player to play how the other difficulties require you to. I was able to breeze through a lot of the game simply by attacking, but later on I started relying on status effects to end battles as quickly as possible. It helped me get to grips with Lisa’s combat better than repeatedly throwing myself at Normal difficulty would have.
As such, I played The Joyful on Normal mode and it felt like it picked up right where The Painful left off in terms of difficulty curve. The Painful follows Buddy as she takes over Olathe by killing notable gang leaders, each of their names painted in blood on a monument called The List. For the first hour or so, she’s accompanied by Rando (who plays like Brad) as she levels up, but after a certain point she’s on her own.
Buddy fights ruthlessly, using every possible advantage she can get to defeat her enemies. Like a few party members in the base game, Buddy gains TP by attacking and can spend it on skills like special sword strikes, smoke bombs, or flashing the enemy to fluster them. Sword strikes will require you to press A when a circle overlaps with another to do the most damage. It keeps combat feeling engaging and deadly, especially since you only have one action per turn, whereas your enemies may have multiple.
While I enjoy battles in The Joyful more than The Painful, it’s a weaker game overall, mostly due to the story. The premise is incredibly cool, but doesn’t tie in at all to the themes of abuse and cycles with the game’s ending coming out of absolutely nowhere. It’s still good, with one incredible, story focused boss after completing The List, but this Definitive Edition would have been the perfect place to flesh everything out.
If you couldn’t tell by now, the single addition of an easy mode makes this an instantly recommended package from me, but what else does DE add? I’ve already mentioned the campfire scenes, but there’s also some delightful screen borders which change depending on where you are. New quests have been added, including a superboss in The Painful, and some aspects of the script have been changed such as removing a racist joke, changing the name of cigarettes to cigarette candy only in the PlayStation version, and on PC and current gen consoles the game can run at 120 fps. I already owned the game on PC, and I can also confirm the original versions of both games are still available there if you really want to go back to them. Still, they felt at home on the Switch, especially with the OLED display making the caves look even darker.
David is the kind of person to wear his heart on his sleeve. He can find positives in anything, like this is a person who loved Star Fox Zero to death. You’ll see him playing all kinds of games: AAAs, Indies, game jam games, games of all genres, and writing about them! Here. On this website. When not writing or playing games, you can find David making music, games, or enjoying a good book.
David’s favorite games include NieR: Automata, Mother 3, and Gravity Rush.
Lisa: The Joyful - Definitive Edition
Lisa: The Painful & Lisa: The Joyful are cult classics for a reason, with masterful merging of story and gameplay to create a harrowing and hilarious adventure. You’ll laugh, cry, and rage across this fascinating post-apocalypse with excellent new features and content, making it easier than ever to take in this touching tale.