Disclaimer: Former IGN host Alysia Judge worked on Paradise Killer, providing the voice of Judge.
Detective stories are almost always centred around the search for proof: that key bit of evidence, that slip-up in testimony, that missing cornerstone which holds together the rest of the story they’ve been searching to understand. But, if we’re honest, actually proving things isn’t really the detective’s job – they find evidence, piece it together, and present what they believe to be a plausible truth. It’s not proof so much as the confident suggestion that it could be proof. It’s a subtle distinction, and one that Paradise Killer understands intimately – and, as its credits rolled, I realised the entire game is about that distinction. Well, that and a demonic pleasure-world of ritual sacrifice performed to satiate the psychic energy-lust of unknowable, goat-headed cosmic entities. It’s about that too.
To be simplistic about it, Paradise Killer is something like a visual novel exploded into the structure of an open world game. It borrows much from Japanese mystery games, most notably the Ace Attorney and Danganronpa series, but eschews their carefully unfolded, mostly linear whodunnits for a fully explorable (and initially overwhelming) first-person investigation across a near-deserted island, ending in a trial at which you present the story you believe to be the correct one.
You play Lady Love Dies (which might be the least strange name on offer here), an immortal “investigation freak” who was exiled from Paradise 3 million days ago, and is only invited to return after a locked-room murder spree forces the island’s egoless arbiter of justice to bring in the only person deemed capable of solving the crime. Oh, and you get back from exile by skydiving from a mile-high plinth suspended above the actual game map while the opening credits roll.
Yes, Paradise Killer is weird, with an aesthetic that can probably be best described as “Vaporwave Satanism” – imagine a neon sign covered in gouts of blood, and you’re on the way there. Among its best tricks is that it doesn’t just force you to piece together its mystery after the fact, but the workings of its entire world. People still act like people (and lie like people), but how does detective work change in a universe where ghosts can exist, gods can be imprisoned, and taxis can open transdimensional rifts? You’re essentially running two investigations: one building a case in your head, and the other building the world in which it took place.
That also means that telling you too much about that world would spoil some of the fun, but at its most basic level: you’re on an island, Paradise, built like a beautiful holiday destination, but actually created to offer ritual human sacrifices to gods from beyond the galaxy, run by The Syndicate, a group of immortals hiding in a pocket dimension beyond the reach of humanity. Honestly, that’s the basics. It’s one of the more compulsively unique fictional words I’ve come across in recent years – enough so that I’d welcome a sequel out of interest for that setting alone.
As Lady Love Dies, you travel the island entirely at your own discretion and pace, investigating its jarring mix of 3D architecture and 2D populace, combing for clues left behind at crime scenes, wrenching testimony out of old friends, and generally making a nuisance of yourself, as any investigator should. The beauty of that open-ended approach becomes apparent very quickly – the first piece of evidence you find, which can more or less be anything, will inevitably point you to another clue, which might offer a different line of conversation with one of many wild suspects (who range from married ex-assassins, to a horny Scottish doctor living on a yacht). That conversation might, in turn, break the alibi of someone else, or even open up an entirely new sub-case, promising brand new mysteries to find. The pleasure of unspooling a blood-drenched, twisting story behind the crime you set out to solve is only increased by the fact that you’re more in charge of how that crime’s solved than almost any other detective game I can think of.
The world you travel through to do that is almost equally fascinating, a mixture of the mundane and the bizarre slotted together seamlessly. Climb humble apartment blocks to hunt for hidden clues, or the many collectible Relics that offer glimpses at what this grim world once was, and you’ll stare across a landscape dotted with blood donation points, grotesque statuary, and pyramids jutting out from an endless sea. In an unexpected twist, Paradise Killer is also a platformer of sorts, asking you not just to travel the island, but work out how to in some cases – even offering unlockable double jumps and other abilities to help you find its most inaccessible corners.
You’re not travelling towards an ending, as such, more a culmination – you can begin the murder trial that closes the story at any time after its introductory sequence. The best comparison I can think of, weirdly, is in how you can take on Dragon’s Dogma’s final boss at any time, with almost no impediments put in place to stop you from doing so – it would likely be absolutely terrible to do it too early, but you can if you want to. But that element of choice in when to stop also lends Paradise Killer its greatest air of mystery – you’re never told when you’re done, you simply have to intuit whether there could be more clues out there that you’re yet to find. Are you confident enough to make your case on what you have, or will you keep scouring the island for more?
Unfortunately, that air of mystery gives way to Paradise Killer’s only real point of frustration. After around 10 hours of exploration, clues begin to dwindle, suspects have less and less to say and, without being able to effectively revisit any hints they may have offered, you can simply be left to trudge across a near-empty island for several more hours, looking for a glimmer of possibility based on nothing else than a hunch. Yes, that sounds authentically like a detective story, but in practice it can get pretty dull – in reality, you’re likely to start the final trial because you’re a bit bored of fast-travelling to areas you’ve already scoured, rather than because you have steadfast conviction in your conclusions.
Paradise Killer Screenshots
But no matter how you get there, that trial sequence itself is the jewel in Paradise Killer’s crown. For obvious reasons, I won’t discuss its story contents, but the structure is wonderful – an hour-plus long riff on Ace Attorney’s trial sequences, seeing you accuse suspects and then present your collected evidence to back up those assertions. Except, in Paradise Killer, there’s no truly wrong answer.
While there is a set backstory to be unravelled, it can be interpreted in different ways – the evidence I’ve collected might support one side, and the evidence you collect might support another, and the trial can account for both assertions. That’s not to mention the potential for corruption, as you could purposely accuse the wrong person to save an obviously guilty character you grew to like along the way, or just throw someone under the bus for no reason other than an evil whim. The characters who survive – of course there’s a death penalty – can be wildly different depending on any given playthrough.
Paradise Killer has no narrator in place to tell you the “true” story of what happened, and you’re never told if the actions you take – at any point – are right or wrong. You live as Lady Love Dies up until the bitter end, and your conclusions, whatever they end up being, are hers too, shaping the outcome of your time in Paradise. This is, in essence, a first-person game in more than physical viewpoint. It’s a truly bold storytelling choice, and one that makes Paradise Killer feel more authentically detective-like than almost any game of its kind.