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Hands-On: Paradise Killer

28 Apr 2020

When I read the broad summary of Paradise Killer, I wasn’t actually sure what to expect from it. Having sat down and played the game for an hour as part of the LudoNarraCon online experience… I still don’t.

This is not an accident.

Paradise Killer flouts an easy interpretation. At one point during the demo, the four-armed dog-faced electric blue demon named Shinji asked me, in his mocking tone, if I realized that we were the bad guys. After all, here I was climbing a spire dedicated to the blood sacrifice of Paradise Island’s alien deities. But… are we the bad guys? Is anyone the bad guy? I’d believe both. Or neither. Or that perhaps we’re all the good guys, even the man covered in demonic glyphs who supposedly killed the Council despite having to pass through space in order to reach them, in a crime scene I can’t even investigate yet despite being the investigator.

Wait, no; I’m sorry. I’ve skipped ahead. Let me try again. Paradise Killer is a game in which you’re investigating who murdered the Council before the end of the world, because the next version of Paradise Island will be perfect. Sadly, this version is not. The previous 24 have been imperfect. Demons invade every time, and the protagonist, Lady Love Dies, was responsible for an invasion three million days ago by falling under the thrall of the god known as Damned Harmony. But now, someone has to find out who killed the Council.

That’s what we’re told, anyhow. If you find yourself sort of casing around for any sort of anchoring information or some sort of would-be handhold on this entire situation, you’re not alone. But if you’re feeling a bit dazed and confused about what the heck is even going on here… yeah, that’s about right.

Let’s retreat to the comfort of genre, shall we? Paradise Killer is a first-person adventure game in which you control a woman named Lady Love Dies as she investigates murders, disappearances, and the political situation of Paradise Island. You move around, talk with people, gather evidence, put together evidence in a database of facts and figures and alibis while grabbing items, ranging from mementos to valuable Blood Crystals you use as currency.

Most of the residents are gone, because they’re all dead – but they’re supposed to die, because everyone is ritually slaughtered before the immortals move on to the next island. And as you can see, once again, we’re moving out of the range of comprehensibility, which you kind of have to, because Paradise Killer is just bizarre.

It’s intentionally so on multiple levels, though. If you had Jodorowsky developing a murder mystery set in an 80s shopping mall drenched in neon and cocaine, it would probably look not altogether dissimilar to this. Also, demon worship imagery. But maybe the demons are actually deities, or maybe the immortal citizens who remain on the island are deities, or… it’s all unclear. Intentionally so.

And that’s part of the brilliance because, in contrast to most murder mysteries, Paradise Killer is advertising itself on an interesting conceit by suggesting that the truth itself is mutable.

Most adventure games of this sort are built on the premise that you are trying to find the truth. This is kind of the whole premise of these games. Someone actually committed the murder, and you have to find all of the things to shed light on the situation. At the end, you present all your evidence and then you win. It’s a delight!

Here, though… in part because the whole setting is already so surreal and in part because of the very premise, there isn’t a clear line of truth. There’s not supposed to be. Everyone left on the island has their own motives, their own goals and enemies, and your task is not just deciphering who’s hiding what and why but whether or not it’s relevant… and, for that matter, whether or not you personally want to help the people who are manipulating things.

That’s not to say that there isn’t a proper answer; rather, it’s that this is an investigation like any other investigation, wherein you put together your evidence and see if it’s convincing, and then the cards fall as they may. It’s just that the game isn’t here to score you on getting things right or wrong. If you’ve managed to build strong cases against people you know are innocent or a weak case against the person you think to be guilty, you have to choose what you roll with… and at the same time, you could be wrong. Everyone is guilty of something, probably. This entire island is guilty of something, and by being complicit in it, are you the bad guy?

Are we all the bad guys?

What keeps you drawn forward is the fact that the setting and alternate reality is at once so far removed from reality and yet so familiar at the same time. Yes, you’re having a chat with a man who has two robot arms and a gold lame fur coat named Doom Jazz, and yes, he’s the doctor. That’s all just up front. At the same time… if you’ve watched even a handful of films, you know the sign of an investigation that’s been rushed through with everyone quick to point fingers at an obvious suspect. Everyone is lying to you, everyone’s hiding something.

But what is Doom Jazz hiding? Is he just going along with the prevailing winds because he doesn’t care? Does his medical report leave things out because he’s covering something else up? Or is he actually telling you the truth and trying to make you think he’s covering something up so you’ll decide to investigate someone else more closely? It’s not clear at all, it’s all vague, and you’re thrown so decidedly off-kilter by the weirdness that it’s hard to determine which details are relevant or not.

Of course, the game is not going to be everyone’s cup of tea. The presentation has two-dimensional cutouts of every character that you walk up to and interact, a stylistic choice that’s going to strike some people as so weird they can’t see past it. The sense of no real time limit or no promise that the game will give you an objective truth is unmooring. If you want to find the bad guy and put them in jail, this is going to be frustrating in the extreme.

But if instead you’re willing to deal with the surreal trance-like state of affairs, it’s easy to see yourself losing time in Paradise Killer. Maybe you’ll find the real killer. Maybe you’ll find a reason to point to the fake killer, either because you want Paradise Island to fall… or because you can benefit from who gets to rise as a result. Maybe you’ll do your best and feel you found the real killer, but it’ll nag at you, worming its way into your brain, that seed of doubt until you go scratching at the case again, trying to find new clues, to see what’s there, what the actual truth must be.

I’m still not sure exactly what to expect from Paradise Killer, but in the best way. This is a game that’s built a surreal and nightmarish world, one that feels intoxicating and toxic in equal measure. And based on the demo, it’s going to be fascinating to peel back the skin and see just what’s growing underneath.

Paradise Killer is in development by Kaizen Game Works, and is planned for release in 2020 for PC and Mac.

Demo copy provided by Fellow Traveller for PC. Screenshots courtesy of Fellow Traveller.