LISA: The Hopeful

[cw: mentions of rape]

In a world where a great white flash ruined the ecosystem and seemingly disappeared all women, the men left on Earth are just left to screw around until humanity’s eventual end. That is until Buddy, Brad Armstrong’s secret adopted daughter, is discovered. With a world of dipshits looking for power and perverts wanting her, Brad sets out to recover Buddy in a goofy yet grim adventure.

But that is the story of Austin Jorgensen’s LISA: The Painful RPG. Instead, we look at LISA: The Hopeful, a fangame by Taco Salad that follows a gang of dipshits and perverts. Beltboy, Lanks and Cyclops, three guys that spent most of their lives together, work under their boss Rodriguez to search for the girl themselves. However, it’s a quest full of danger and is one they come to question.

You play as those three for much of the game. Beltboy is a guy that tries very hard to be cool, fashioning himself as a leather jacket punk while shooting tons of bullets – or doing Inuyashiki “bangs” with finger guns, whichever works. Lanks is a reserved guy that acts as a dedicated support with heals and buffs, though he can do decent damage with fire skills fueled by his suppressed feelings. Lastly, the gruff and easily aggravated Cyclops is an additional attacker relying on a TP charge system, though he also doubles as a tank with his high HP pool and taunt ability.

Together, the three set across the backwaters of Olathe in search for the girl, having run-ins with multiple gangs of weirdos. While the game is mainly linear, there are a few optional areas to poke into. As of the definitive update, there are also plot divergences depending on certain choices. If you’re playing on the harder, “can use save points only once” Pain Mode, you can even access a whole alternate story at the start of the game with Rodriguez if you do a convoluted fetch quest.

Gameplay wise, LISA: The Hopeful is pretty fair. While there isn’t a lot of room for grinding, the encounters still manage to be balanced in a way for that you never really have to do that. The game is also fairly generous with items, so if you’re not an item hoarder like me, you’ll have an okay time getting through with the resources you got. My only criticism regarding difficulty is a section where you play as Beltboy by himself, because it really felt like you had to be lucky with landing his stuns to get through.

A thing I appreciate is that the game works out alternative playstyles for the crew. The characters all have unique equipment that lets them change their roles, like making Beltboy a complete mage character specializing in finger gun spells, transforming Lanks into an additional attacker at the expense of locking his skills and making Cyclops go all in on tanking. While I didn’t really use the latter two, I think introducing these different playstyles is an interesting thing to have that makes the game feel less static, which is kinda admirable for a game as short as this.

In talking about the story and themes of LISA: The Hopeful, I want to take a look back at the original Painful RPG. Hopeful is an extension of LISA‘s world, where most men believe themselves to be doomed and has resorted to pointless violence, closing themselves off to do wacky antics or drugging themselves to numb the pain. With these elements, a lot of people view LISA: The Painful RPG to be a statement of toxic masculinity.

But, I legitimately think that’s a “death of the author” interpretation of LISA’s world. In multiple interviews, Jorgensen was upfront about not intending to put a message in LISA. Not intending any statements about masculinity or gender in a world with only one woman feels very much like Ubisoft claiming that they’re trying to be apolitical about their games steeped in politics.

And secondly, Jorgensen has pretty weird takes on his female characters. He considers Buddy – who was already considered a controversial character by fans for being a jerk, in spite of, well, most men wanting to rape her – to be his least favorite character. He also bizarrely declared Lisa to be the worst person? The character whose whole deal was being sexually abused by her father and committed suicide for it? Like, yeah, the series has a whole general angle about a cycle of abuse and she did do some questionable stuff, but the creator intending her to be the worst person instead of the worse abuser that made her that way is, well, an interesting take!

Basically, if LISA: The Painful RPG has messages about masculinity, it’s by complete accident. In contrast, The Hopeful is a game that tries to actually examine it.

While the gang fights multiple weirdos and scumbags, none match the depravity of the Lovelies. The Lovelies are the logical endpoint of the worst in LISA, being an open gang of violent rapists that wants the girl to themselves – and they aren’t opposed to taking any men on the way either. Such is the case when Beltboy and gang are captured after the Lovelies murder their former boss Rodriguez.

Beltboy is forced into a fight against an attempted rapist in what’s easily the most uncomfortable part of the game. Without his guns, he can only flail against his assaulter, whose moveset is mainly groping and licking him while tense music plays. While Beltboy emerges from the experience okay, Lanks does not. The implications of what happened to him is obvious, but because of a combination of the stereotypical guy thing of not wanting to talk about trauma and his, well, trauma, he refuses to ever talk about it.

This whole experience with the Lovelies acts as a jumping off point for Beltboy and Lanks to question what they’re doing. Even under the most generous reading of pursuing the girl for the sake of restoring humanity, are they functionally different from the Lovelies? Cyclops doesn’t really care and butts heads over their reluctance, basically calling Beltboy gay as an insult and establishing himself as the ultimate Straight Guy. Ultimately, Beltboy still continues the pursuit to get his friends to stop fighting, though with a different perspective on finding the girl.

For Beltboy, genuine friendship is the most important thing to him. Throughout the game he has flashbacks to his past relationship to a girl he was friends with, with the implications that his personal reasons for searching for the girl is to recreate that friendship. As the game progresses, Beltboy becomes more honest about his feelings and how he views his relationship to the others. Despite fashioning himself as an edgy badass type character, Beltboy is an honest guy whose worst quality is wanting to maintain his relationship with Cyclops despite him being a toxic figure.

It’s a far cry from Brad in the original RPG, who is completely closed off to almost every other party member and arguably views them as tools to accomplish his means. In a toxic world, Beltboy is a bright light. In fact, his attitude and sincere pursuit of companionship leads to his route having the closest thing to a happy ending, in spite of the pain it takes to get there.

So speaking of which, as I said way earlier, there are alternate routes for the last part of the game based on Joy intake and choices. For Lanks, he reconciles with his pent up emotions. And for Cyclops… well, he doesn’t get the positive influences he gets toward the end of Beltboy’s normal route. He sucks.

As for the Rodriguez route, if you do stuff right, Rodriguez avoids his canon fate of getting murdered and joins the crew. The story changes as a result, with gameplay rebalancing to factor for four characters and Rodriguez’s moveset. The route is like, 50% new game, which is a pretty neat replay incentive.

However, a consequence is that Beltboy never rethinks his quest, due to not having the same experiences he did in the normal game and having Rodriguez as an influence. Following in the footsteps of Rodriguez, he dreams of starting a family, which seems positive on the surface, but again, that would mean putting the girl into a role that she may not want, functionally making him not too different from the rest of the gangs gunning for her. In this timeline, he’s no different from Hart, leader of the Lovelies. Hart actually desires companionship as well, but unlike Beltboy on the normal route, he doesn’t care what his ideal companion actually wants.

Ultimately, LISA: The Hopeful makes for an interesting look into the original game’s world, which is something I like to see in fangames. It’s a nice companion to fellow fangame LISA: The Pointless, which examines the futility of living in a supposedly doomed world. Whether its characters question whether or not a “safe” place is possible or descend into nihilistic violence, that game took a more meaningful look at the original setting than Jorgensen actually did.

(Also, I retroactively apologize to Pointless, having only two player characters is actually a good thing if you want to establish an oppressive mood.)

Outside of all this seriousness, though, LISA: The Hopeful is still very goofy. From the Engine Enthusiasts’ bizarre tastes to Beltboy insensitively mocking the smell of someone’s burnt flesh, there’s still some weird laughs to be had. Like, even when he’s going through it, Beltboy still fights by trying to do COD skillshots and finger guns, so seeing him deploy those tactics against horribly mutated humans and depraved freaks lends a silly air to fights.

The art of the game is pretty alright, especially in comparison to the early versions that were more reliant on sprite edits and recolors from the original game. The music contributions to this game are also really good, with original music that feels in line with LISA: The Joyful‘s soundtrack style while having its own personality. In particular, I really like the themes for fighting the Lovelies because they feel really tense yet energetic, which is a perfect mood for wanting to beat down these creeps.

Really, while Taco Salad is the lead developer, it’s unfair to attribute LISA: The Hopeful solely to them. A lot of the updated art in the definitive edition are contributions from other LISA fans and most of the songs not made specifically for the Hopeful are still community made songs. It’s a fangame in the truest sense in that a wider community came together to help push out a thing based on their favorite work.

LISA: The Hopeful is a solid fangame that acts as a good alternative perspective into the LISA world. If you played LISA: The Painful RPG, I heartily recommend checking this out.

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