Review: Paradise Killer

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I really don’t like calling things pretentious. I avoid it if at all possible, because I think claiming something doesn’t have the depth or meaning it purports to requires a level of understanding that most people (myself included) don’t reach with their media. I’d rather not say a game fails to express its intended meaning unless it’s really, truly, painfully obvious that it missed the mark. I bring this up because I’ve heard Paradise Killer criticized for being pretentious, and I don’t think that could be any further from the truth. The characters and concepts are about as far out there as you can get without becoming wholly experimental, but the gonzo themes are only setting you up for the brilliant, poignant ending. You might not be expecting it, even when the game tells you exactly what it’s going to be.

Lady Love Dies is known as the “investigation freak”, or at least she was, until she was exiled from Paradise. Paradise is an island, managed by the all-powerful Council, that is unmade and remade over and over again in the hopes of forming a perfect society that will revive a host of ancient, alien gods. This reality manipulation can have nasty side effects, like demon infestations that have to be purged by remaking the island. However, the Council seems to have gotten it right with their next iteration of the island, which they’re in the process of relocating to when they are all quite suddenly murdered. This unthinkable event is enough to summon Lady Love Dies from her exile, and put her on the grisly case.

If you think that’s weird, it only gets weirder once you’re in the game. You’re going to interview suspects like the cyber-enhanced Doctor Doom Jazz and the goat-headed Crimson Acid. You’re going to learn about gods that whisper dead secrets into mortal ears. You’re going to buy sodas from Dead Nebula machines, and scour cabinets and trash cans for blood crystals. And you’re going to do all this in a wide-open city that looks like some kind of insane vaporwave FPS mod, meeting up with 2D characters that transition you to pre-rendered scenes from a Windows 95 screensaver to question them about an impossible murder. It’s a lot to take in, thematically and aesthetically, and honestly this might be what makes Paradise Killer work so well.

The moment you load into the game, you’re dropped into Lady Love Dies’ palace of exile, a white-marble affair accented with lush gardens and golden skulls. The plot is blasted at you by your talking computer, you’re taken down to the gates of the island on a road to nowhere, and then you’re given the full scope of your task from the Judge, a being of pure logic fused to the island through mechanical and spiritual means. Opening the game with the full gamut of the game’s weirdness honestly makes it a lot easier to accept as status quo, and helps put the player’s mind where it needs to be to comprehend the events that unfold. The plot is a complicated one, with dozens of players and elements to keep track of, and they cross in ways that would make no sense in our world, but perfect sense in the world of the Syndicate and Perfect 24.

At the heart of Paradise Killer is a murder mystery, and everything you do on the island is to the end of uncovering the facts of the case. But doing that requires running around the island, exploring the deserted neighborhoods, industrial centers, shrines, cliffs, and more. This is accomplished in first-person, and is honestly some of the most fun I’ve had scrambling about a location. The wild architecture is certainly a big plus, but there’s an element of first-person platforming to it that controls exceptionally well and makes finding secrets and collectibles that much more gratifying. Perfect 24 is just a fun place to hang out, and I never got tired making laps around the island to find new things or follow up on leads.

As for the mystery itself, there’s a ton to unravel and every character has something to contribute to the unraveling. You will indeed need to make several laps of the island, to ask about new evidence you uncover or refute a claim a character made earlier on. A few locations require some puzzling to get into, nothing overly complex but it does add to an overall sense of progression. There’s one revelation that came out of absolute nowhere for me, perhaps because of how I came across it, but that’s forgivable in part for the incredibly open nature of the game. Even with all the time I spent uncovering secrets and making connections, I’m still not sure I got the full picture, but fortunately that’s not necessary for the ending.

I do want to mention one thing about the ending, without getting into spoilers, because it’s perhaps the most brilliant part of the game and also the most misunderstood. Early on in the game, while you’re getting your bearings and coming to grips with the bizarre setting, the Judge explains your investigation in detail. They say something about how this will all wrap up that’s meant to be taken literally, and I get the feeling some folks didn’t pick up on that. Because of this, the conclusion you get once you close your case might not be the definitive answer to the mystery you’re looking for. All I can tell you is that that’s the point, and to heed the words of the Judge both at the beginning and the end of the game.

Even if the mystery angle doesn’t hit as hard for you as it did for me, Paradise Killer is absolutely a game worth experiencing. A lot of indie games go hard on unique aesthetics and themes, but this is one of the rare ones that really makes it work from start to finish. The vaporwave look, the wild architecture, the almost nonsensical characters, and the surprisingly deep lore all combine to make a world that’s utterly implausible and yet still feels real in its own way. I greatly enjoyed my time scouring the island and collecting clues, and I was incredibly impressed with how it all wrapped up. I hope it’s the same for you, because it can be one hell of a trip.

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