The main menu for PARADISE KILLER, the new game from developer Kaizen Game Works, presents you with a seemingly simple task: “Explore paradise in your own way and find the truth.”
Thus begins your journey as Lady Love Dies, an investigator who has been in exile for centuries, to solve a crime that has taken place on Paradise Island – a synthetic rock that exists in a different reality. Created by the Syndicate, immortal beings who wish to resurrect the dead alien gods they worship, Paradise Island fails time and again. When an island fails, a new one is created. The story of PARADISE KILLER takes place during the 24th Island sequence, when the Syndicate’s council is murdered.
PARADISE KILLER is a weird game. Structured as a free roam, open world first person detective game, it’s the answer to a question that we’ve all asked at least once: “what would it be like if David Lynch and Suda51 teamed up and made a vaporwave murder mystery?”
At the center of this investigation is a memorably eclectic cast of characters. Henry Division is the prime suspect – a young man who was possessed by a demon years ago and was found at the scene of the crime with blood on his hands. It may seem like an open and shut case, but being an Investigator, you have to explore this island from top to bottom and interrogate every potential suspect, each sporting a wonderfully bizarre name such as “Doctor Doom Jazz” or “Crimson Acid”. These characters have histories that span for thousands of years and peeling away at their personalities exposes new levels of depth to both the case and the world that Paradise Island inhabits. It may not be a well-populated island (for reasons I won’t spoil), but there are other characters you may encounter beyond your suspects who will ask for favors from you in the form of side quests.
PARADISE KILLER’s open world design is excellent both in terms of presentation and how it complements its gameplay mechanics. Though I encountered graphical hiccups like texture pop-ins, the highly stylized art design gives the game a distinct personality. The island’s brutalist architecture is balanced with an 80’s retro aesthetic that’s colorful and welcoming. The soundtrack is incredible – almost certainly my favorite from this year. Though it mainly consists of catchy, summery tunes, there are these gorgeous Badalamenti-esque jazz pieces that capture the stakes of this feverish noir. There are also tracks that can be unlocked as you move around the island and you can even change songs on the fly like a radio station.
While the island may not be the largest environment to explore, the sheer detail packed into it is astonishing. I can’t count the number of times where I was certain I had fully explored a section of the island, only to return and realize that one of my newfound abilities or recent investigative findings allowed me to access a massive space that I had either forgotten about or didn’t realize was there.
This sense of discovery is accomplished through the non-linear structure of the game. From the get-go, players are encouraged to explore the island at their own pace in whichever way they please, reminiscent of titles like The Witness or even Breath of the Wild. See a building in the distance? Go check it out. If you can’t get inside, then look around or try talking to people to see what information you can get out of them. You can always come back to it later. With the help of Starlight, your computer companion, you can unlock new areas and secrets. As you explore the island, you’ll find Blood Crystals, the game’s currency, which can be used to unlock a whole bunch of stuff such as fast travel points around the island, drinks from vending machines, information, and abilities. Relics are also scattered about for those who love to collect and wish to learn more about lore.
It’s a game that doesn’t hold your hand, but also has no desire to punish you. It’s simply presenting you with a world that functions in a very unique way and wants you to learn about how everything works. Not only is this a level of exploration and discovery that is rarely seen in detective/investigation games, it’s been quite some time since any game has encouraged me to immerse myself in its world quite like this.
Chatting with the game’s cast of characters plays out like a visual novel. There’s some light voice acting that accompanies each character. It’s nothing special, but also didn’t feel particularly out of the ordinary compared to other visual novels. You have dialogue options to choose from and you can even form intimate relationships with some of the characters. The writing here is mostly terrific and I love how weird the game can get in terms of world building and dialogue. There are unfortunately quite a few grammatical errors I encountered, which can be distracting in a game where reading makes up quite a bit of the gameplay.
You can end the game whenever you wish. The amount of work you put into the investigation is up to you. Once you feel confident you have uncovered the truth, you can return to the Court House and begin the trials, where you will have to decide who will be punished for these crimes. Despite my thoroughness in investigating the island, I still felt a genuine sense of anxiety when the trials began. I had gotten to know this cast of characters and even felt connected to some of them in a way that the best visual novels are capable of. But as an investigator, sometimes you have to set these relationships aside in order to obtain justice.
This is what makes PARADISE KILLER special: it has such a clear understanding of what makes for a strong investigation game. Even though the story and the lore can be confusing, it makes you WANT to figure it all out for yourself. There’s a strange allure to this world, inviting you to forge your own path. Like all great mysteries, it constantly shifts gears by introducing new character motives, forcing you to rethink which character may be guilty. It not only presents you with the necessary freedoms to assume the role of a detective in the midst of a cosmic crime scene, but it also brings with it the emotional, interpersonal complications that arise from such a job. I can’t envision any other medium telling this same story with such efficiency.
PARADISE KILLER was released on September 4, 2020 and is available on Windows and Nintendo Switch. A Nintendo Switch copy was provided to Nightmarish Conjurings for the purpose of this review.