Review – LISA: The Joyful (Definitive Edition)
After I finished my time with LISA: The Painful, I was enthralled by the world created by Dingaling and the denizens of Olathe. The storyline, the difficult decisions, and the combat system, were all something that stuck with me. I couldn’t wait to dive into the sequel, which was simultaneously released on the Nintendo Switch. As much as I wanted to simply tear into the game and call it a day, I had a long trip that coincided with the release dates, and, as such, I was able to take a bit more time with LISA: The Joyful – Definitive Edition. That extra time changed my perspective in a big way for how to digest this game, its concepts, and its overarching themes.
Right up front, I want to warn anyone and everyone that this review of LISA: The Joyful is rife with spoilers, many of which center around the continuation of the storyline from LISA: The Painful. If you haven’t finished Painful or even started it, please be advised that the plots are deeply intertwined, and elements of the first game affected my take and score for the sequel.
Picking up right at the end of LISA: The Painful, LISA: The Joyful puts you in the role of Buddy; the baby turned young woman, who was the central point of the first game. Now, Brad, her father figure, has fully devolved into a Mutant due to his Joy addiction. Buddy is, ostensibly, on her own. She quickly teams up with Rando (one of the main antagonists from the previous game) for protection, but just as quickly shows that she doesn’t need it.
Buddy is, for lack of a better phrase, in hate with the world. She hates everything about Olathe and how it exists, and decides she needs to do something about it. She finds a list of the Warlords of Olathe and, wanting to be the change she wants to see, sets off to assassinate them all. This journey feels exceedingly Kill Bill, but is inexplicably darker and more violent.
The core ideas of LISA: The Joyful are the same as the first LISA title, so players shouldn’t be too confused as to what to do. In fact, Joyful is significantly more straightforward, and even linear at times, as you have a more direct view of what needs to happen for other things to happen. For example, an early area has a locked door that cannot be opened until you go to one Warlord’s area and, on the way, pick up the dynamite to explode the way forward. There aren’t party members to agonize over in choosing, just Buddy and Rando and, very soon, only Buddy. While there are a couple different endings, you can do a little save scumming and get the whole story without too much effort. Plus, gone is Painful mode, so, while the game is still harsh, there’s no reason to panic every time you save.
The combat, turn based JRPG inspired, is further tweaked with many of Buddy’s attacks incorporating QTE for maximum damage. On the one hand, this is a definite shift from the button mashing that made up most of Brad’s fighting style, so it’s cool to see something new come out of the works. On the other, it also creates moments of learning curve stress as you move forward in the game. Buddy’s further attacks are more deadly but also have an even tighter window of success, which can result in losses after gaining a new skill and experiencing growing pains. Still, there’s a reason Buddy travels alone: she’s got this whole thing handled.
As a smaller game, the world of LISA: The Joyful is also more contained, keeping everything a bit compartmentalized, and still allowing players to use fast travel (once you unlock it) to navigate between the areas. Buddy, unlike Brad, is more nimble, so she can jump to places that Brad physically could not, allowing faster traversal even in new locales. Less exploration and backtracking means less gameplay, and that also means less to fully appreciate the design of the broken land of Olathe.
In comparison to Painful, I feel like you only get glimpses of how the world has changed and regressed in multiple communities, and it sometimes feels like missed opportunities. Then again, Buddy isn’t here to sightsee: she’s a vessel of vengeance, and that’s where the target lies throughout.
There’s two ways to look at LISA: The Joyful: as a standalone title and as a continuum of the previous storyline. I’m certain that, for many fans, it’s important to combine the two in order to get the full experience. After all, the main purpose of Joyful is to wrap things up after a pretty distinctive cliffhanger ending in Painful, and it certainly accomplishes that over several hours. There are times where you might recommend the sequel over the original (no one’s going to demand you find the first Street Fighter before playing Street Fighter II), but I simply don’t think you can play this title without finishing Painful first. In fact, I would argue that Joyful could have been a post game addition to simply wrap things up.
My reasoning is entirely based around the storyline and the presentation of what’s happened to Buddy, Brad, Rando, and several other characters, including the titular Lisa. With LISA: The Painful, it’s a story of a destroyed world and the future of everything seeming to weigh on the shoulders of one very sad, very broken person. Brad does his best, through his own eyes, to make the right decisions to create a safe world for the one and only girl left, and he does so out of haunting obligation to his dead sister. Throughout the course of the game, we see Brad make harder and more chilling decisions, always under the perception that he’s doing right by Buddy. It’s only at the end that Brad can get the scope of what he’s done and how what’s actually affected Buddy’s life.
LISA: The Joyful shows the aftermath of a young woman who despises how things are and resents her upbringing of fear and violence. She has understandable but inexhaustible anger and wants the one thing she never had: control. Her streak of murder and carnage is both her choice and something inflicted upon her, and it perpetuates even as she learns more about the reason for her world to be so dismal, why drug addiction permeates the culture, and even how she came to be in a world where birth seemed impossible. Without context, it’s just a sudden, seemingly baseless quest of homicide with players trying to catch up from bread crumbs that get dropped.
Playing both is important to help prevent the demonization of anyone within the story. Brad is truly disturbed, but you won’t understand how those events caused him to act unless you play Painful, and you won’t know the depths of that foundation unless you play Joyful. Buddy’s rage is justified when you put together her imprisoned upbringing and then see how much she is objectified even while she’s still young. The gaming mechanic of LISA: The Joyful where you can switch masks to trigger different dialogue really shines a light on this: sure, the masks are necessary to access different areas, but it’s also great to remove the mask and hear how blunt and disgusting the men are to this young girl’s face.
So much of LISA: The Joyful is an improvement over Painful, with sharper combat, cleaner area designs, more eclectic soundtrack and even stronger reveals in terms of story and background. Yet I simply cannot recommend playing it alone, because it’s just nonsensical violence, and snapshots into abuse and torture that has almost no context. Players who enjoyed LISA: The Painful should absolutely play this, and be ready for everything that gets thrown at you, but newcomers should pause and backup. Before you can experience Joy, you really must go through Pain.
A further exploration into making upsetting character models and sad worlds, Dingaling knocked it out of the park by having this title feel like a straight continuation from the first, and the visuals are spot on.
Smaller area to explore, more straightforward choices and paths. Plus, more exposition that requires you to sit and read, instead of finding things for yourself. Important, but, as a result, less engaging.
The combination of empty silence, foreboding ambience and then sudden, wild musical swings kept me aurally on my toes throughout, I cannot get enough of the soundtrack choices.
Because I was dealing with the aftermath, and all the pain and rage contained in Buddy, you feel a sense of uneasiness and guilt for Brad’s role in the first game. It’s such a good story, but it’s certainly not a fun one.
Final Verdict: 7.5
LISA: The Joyful (Definitive Edition) is available now on PC, PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S, and Nintendo Switch.
Reviewed on Nintendo Switch.
A copy of LISA: The Joyful (Definitive Edition) was provided by the publisher.