“Close the door I’ll stay forever, here in Paradise.”
This is the most difficult review I’ve done in a while.
Paradise Killer is, above all, an experience. Of course it’s a murder mystery investigation game and that comes with certain genre expectations, but that’s not all it has going on. It’s a game of feelings, emotions, and vibes more than anything else and is therefore difficult to express in text. No spoilers naturally, though good lord this is a difficult game to explain without actually explaining it.
Your protagonist, Lady Love Dies (or LD to her friends), has been in exile for just over three million days when the game starts. She returns to the island below, the 24th iteration of Paradise (because it keeps failing catastrophically for Reasons), due to a locked room serial murder of the entire council that runs the place. Per her reputation as the famed “Investigation Freak” LD is tasked with figuring out what the hell happened, bringing the suspects to trial, and executing the offender. The citizens are mostly gone (again, Reasons) so the remaining folks on the island are all members of the Syndicate, essentially the second tier of Paradise management that LD also belongs to. These people also happen to consist of folks that go way back with LD, which complicates the proceedings further. Also, the island is dying? And the gods are angry? And ghosts? And a rectangular-headed 4-armed exploding fox demon who thinks this is all really funny? Look, there’s a LOT.
Dumping the player into a completely alien situation is typical video game territory, but PK gleefully chucks you into the deep end of the pool with an un-inflated inner tube and tells you to cook it breakfast. It’s absurd, intentionally so, and it’s through total immersion in that relentless absurdity that its world grabs you and never lets go. You’ll want to explore every cranny and exhaust every dialog option just to try to understand a little bit more. And yes, eventually you will make sense of just what Paradise is and what kind of people it takes to keep it running. The world has rules and internal logic that absolutely make sense, they just happen to be bizarre to a fault.
Before I even touch how the game plays I need to talk about its presentation, because it’s incredible. The island is gorgeous from top to bottom; you’d be hard pressed to take a screenshot that isn’t wallpaper-worthy. The character art is striking and evokes a ton of personality. And the soundtrack, my god the soundtrack. I played PK with headphones on the entire time and it’s one of the best decisions I’ve made all year. This game’s city pop and jazz infused soundtrack is one of the absolute best I have ever heard, in any game, full stop. I ended up purchasing it on Steam after completing the game because I couldn’t bear not hearing it even after an entire playthrough and I still get goosebumps every time I hear the opening on End of the World. Barry “Epoch” Topping is credited as the creator of pretty much all of it and it absolutely blows my mind. All of this combines into a special kind of sensory experience that’s immersive beyond belief. This game is unrivaled in terms of style. Nothing else has done it like Paradise Killer does it.
Investigation games tend to have a problem with information overload. PK has you following dozens of leads in various states of completion at the same time, but thanks to an ultra-thorough automated note system accessed via your laptop and a HUD that lets you know whenever you have new questions to ask NPCs, progress is always within reach. That isn’t to say that you won’t have to do your fair share of CSI work, and some of those clues can be tricky to find, but being able to just look at your heap of objectives in one place and actually plan is fantastic. It made what would otherwise be unapproachable manageable and did so seemingly effortlessly. The way this game juggles your leads and evidence while also allowing players to approach an investigation non-linearly is nothing short of flawless and should be the benchmark of the genre going forward.
The two things you’ll spend the most time doing in PK are walking and reading, so let’s address both. Getting around the island is mostly done on foot and the island is absolutely littered with collectables, most of which are Blood Crystals, the game’s currency. Picking these up as you get your bearings will seem overwhelming initially, but like everything else in PK it’ll eventually become second nature. Traversal upgrades are unlocked by visiting the footbaths throughout the island and should be purchased on sight. They make the map far easier to traverse, the collectables much easier to get, and the exploration considerably more enjoyable as a result. Despite the game having a finite amount of money you’ll eventually find yourself flush with cash even while buying everything you can, so don’t be afraid to spend money even if you just don’t feel like crossing the bridge to the prison island to get yelled at by Akiko again. By the end of the game I was using Lydia as my personal chauffeur practically everywhere and I still finished with a rainy day fund.
This touches on one of my main complaints: the reward system is wonky. Sidequests and tasks you complete often award crystals, but typically average fewer than there were steps to complete, making them worse than if you’d just picked up random crystals at each stop and not had a side quest or scavenger hunt at all. An example: early on in the game I found some red widgets that I inserted into a mural, then learned that there were 10 slots for widgets. By mid-game I’d finally found them all. The prize for this hunt? A whole 5 crystals. The effort:reward ratio is so out of whack it started reminding me of Super Mario Odyssey moons; stuff just being doled out with seemingly no regard for the difficulty of any given task. It’s an especially odd flaw for a game where the economy isn’t particularly restrictive and makes some of the collectathon feel more like a chore than exploration. I’d have been perfectly happy with eschewing money entirely in favor of just hunting down items and lore drops so that I wouldn’t have to stop constantly just to add another crystal to my ever growing hoard.
Unsurprisingly for a game with this much writing there are some occasional wonky bits, some of which affect the investigating. Things like LD saying she won’t disclose vital information in the interest of secrecy but letting it slip depending on the order you speak to people, investigation lines for pieces of evidence that can be fully resolved yet never matter, and loads of questions for NPCs that are answered with an understandable yet frustrating, “I dunno, ask someone else.” That said I found these to be minor issues in an overall well written game. Characters very much have their own voice to the point where you could identify who’s speaking without even seeing their portrait. Player favorites will obviously vary, but I guarantee you’ll feel very strongly about everyone you meet one way or another. They also behave like humans, albeit weirdos, that are potential suspects in a murder case. The characters display every imaginable emotional state, are varying degrees of cooperative, and in many cases will straight up lie to you intentionally or otherwise. It’s up to you to compile everything you’re given in order to construct a truth.
I should address the truth VS facts conundrum, and with it my big problem with PK. For as amazing as its presentation is, for all its quality writing, for all the brilliant tweaks to the investigative genre that it makes, all roads lead to the trial. Every character is understandably obsessed with the trial. The trial is quite literally why the game is happening at all. The trial is what this entire game is about. Perhaps it was impossible to clear the bar that the story sets for itself, or maybe I allowed my expectations to rise too high, but the trial completely fails to deliver a conclusion worthy of the game that comes before it. It doesn’t just barely miss sticking the landing, it lands so hard and so awkwardly that the hypothetical safety team in this gymnastics metaphor would rush to see if it got a concussion.
Series like Ace Attorney and Danganronpa make a point of ratcheting up tension and stakes over the course of each investigation, culminating with a trial that does the same before delivering the payoff. You learn things mid-trail through cross examination that weren’t gained from investigation alone, make deductions, and eventually overcome the true foe. Paradise Killer doesn’t do this. It makes no effort to do this. In fact, it goes so far as to steer completely in the opposite direction. By the time you start the trial you already know everything worth knowing short of hearing the guilty parties admit it themselves. You simply dump your evidence all over the floor and let Judge ascertain whether or not it’s sufficient, and it isn’t a spoiler to tell you that Judge isn’t particularly hard to please.
By creating a framework where facts and truth are not the same the game omits the high note when the player has cracked the case and booked the baddies, even if that’s exactly what they’ve managed to do. The game has a solid unshakable plot, but you and your character are never given the satisfaction of a job well done even when your case is airtight. The game ends when you choose to end it, credits roll, and that’s it. I’ve tested multiple variations, some of which were straight up wrong on purpose, and the outcomes were the same. If there is a more perfect ending no one online has found it, and I don’t suspect they will considering that’d clash with one of the team’s goals as stated on Kaizen’s website: “The game does not judge or ask the player to retry to get a ‘correct’ answer.” The game ends however it ends, and despite it working exactly as intended I still missed the catharsis.
That said, I’m increasingly convinced this is a me problem. I don’t really know if the game could have ended in a way I was happy with when I didn’t want it to end in the first place. Here’s the dilemma I’m having: I loved the majority of my time with this game so goddamn much that it hurts to criticize it. I think it’s very much worth playing despite its issues and I want the game to sell so Kaizen continues to make more games if this is indicative of their design ethos. There are precious few studios out there taking risks on something this audacious and actually pulling off anywhere close to this level of success. That deserves to be celebrated and supported. It’s my hope that by pointing out its failings I’m providing useful feedback to both them and prospective players, not merely coming up with problems like a bootleg game-focused Cinema Sins. Despite everything I said above I think the game succeeds at almost everything it tries, and that’s a hell of a feat.
More than anything else Paradise Killer is a game about a world. One of Egyptian demonology, blood sacrifices, class warfare, and esoteric cosmic horror, served with a heavy vaporwave coating to help wash it down. It felt like playing a Suda 51 game from when he was at the height of his powers, back when The Silver Case and Killer 7 were confounding and delighting players in equal measure. If you like walking and reading I strongly recommend playing this for yourself. It’s a beguiling, bizarre, and beautiful experience from start to almost-finish despite, or perhaps because of, its flaws.
Reviewed on Steam.