Review: Paradise Killer plays detective in a surreal, alien world

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Paradise Killer has one of the most unique, mesmerising world concepts I’ve encountered in a videogame. The whole game takes place in “Paradise”, an alternate reality created by the psychic energy of alien gods, overseen by a Syndicate of immortal beings, and with its very existence maintained by the prayers of people kidnapped from the real world and forced into servitude and worship.

There’s a lot going on, in other words. But as outlandish as it may in that summary you just read, it works. Every facet of Paradise Killer, from its environmental design to the fundamental ways players interact with the game, works to create a believable fiction out of an unbelievable premise. 

For all its idyllic intention (at least from the perspective of the Syndicate), Paradise has one fatal flaw: demons are attracted to psychic energy, and their metaphysical presence corrupts the fabric of this world. The integrity of every Paradise, over time, becomes irreparably damaged, leaving the Syndicate with no option but to create a new one—a process involving a lot of planning, architectural work, and the ritual sacrifice of every non-immortal Citizen on the old island.

Paradise 25 was meant to resolve all that. Its architect thought they’d solved the issue of demonic corruption once and for all, and that this new Paradise was going to be eternal. Perfect. Then, on the night before the big move to “Perfect 25”, someone murdered the Syndicate’s ruling Council–while they were locked in the highest chamber, accessible only to Council members. A classic locked-room mystery, in a decidedly alien world. 

This is where you come in. You are Lady Love Dies, master detective and former Syndicate member until your exile from Paradise. But the murder of the Council is a crime that only you can solve, and so you’re welcomed—with open arms by some, reluctantly by others—back to your old stomping ground. Through good old fashioned detective work, you need to figure out who killed Paradise.

It’s through this investigation that the details of Paradise Killer‘s world come together. The journey to uncover the facts surrounding the case is, necessarily, also a journey to understand Paradise—its history, its society, its culture. The use of blood vials as a form of identification and as a means to unlock restricted doors is crucial to the investigation, but it’s also crucial to building a picture of a world where such a thing is as normal as access cards are in ours. Paradise Killer has you turning over every stone, whether that means getting a testimony from a literal god who lives in an offshore pyramid a jetski ride away, or something as mundane as digging through a regular old apartment complex.

Much of this comes through your interactions with the rest of the Syndicate. They’re fascinating beings in their own right—this is a place where a former soldier turned pop idol having a goat head because she was blessed by a god is something entirely unremarkable—and they have so many stories to tell. When someone lets loose about the Grand Marshal’s wish to have all an island’s guards inducted into the Syndicate so that they can move to the next island instead of being sacrificed with all the rest of the mortals, it’s not just a potential motive, it’s another piece in understanding what Paradise is. Each new conversation adds important clues to the murder investigation, and with it, helps to ground a surreal concept as something entirely plausible. 

An open-world structure adds to this, too. Paradise Killer gives you free reign to explore Paradise as you see fit in your search for clues, and that proves crucial to making sense of how this whole concept of a psychic reality works on a practical level. For the most part, it actually paints a fairly mundane picture of such a bizarre premise—here’s the Syndicate housing area, with fairly standard apartment buildings, a convenience store, a nice garden with statues of strange gods; here’s the opulent mountaintop temple where everyone comes to pray; here’s the beach, where beach chairs and umbrellas sit happily alongside otherworldly obelisks.

Everything in Paradise Killer works in tandem to make this world believable, farfetched as it may seem at first glance. That believability, in turn, allows the game to dig deeper into what such a world actually means, and how it reflects our own.

There’s an overt commentary on class inequality in the very foundation of Paradise. It’s a world whose very existence is predicated on an underclass being forced into work and servitude, for which their only reward is a bloody death at the end of an island sequence, so that a privileged few can live in peace and luxury. That you’re cast as one of these privileged few and interact almost exclusively with them is no coincidence; the injustice of this whole system isn’t something that goes unnoticed by some members of the Syndicate, but the people in power have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo, injustice and all. By seeing it through their eyes, and seeing how superficial those concerns are when they aren’t backed up by action, Paradise Killer takes an important look at how such systems manage to persist.

Religion plays a big role, too. On paper, the ultimate goal of the Syndicate is the worship and of their gods (and the eventual resurrection of those gods that have been lost), but somewhere along the way that’s lost priority to the search for Perfect 25—something that benefits the Syndicate entirely, and the gods themselves not at all. Meanwhile, it’s the citizens that do all the heavy lifting, worship-wise. The religious leaders use their position and exploit the faith of the underclass masses for their own ends… sound familiar? Paradise Killer uses its unique premise to explore religious organisation so often corrupts religious belief, especially when coupled with power imbalances built into society at large.

Perhaps most fundamental to the core of Paradise Killer as an investigation game is the question of what “truth” really means, and how subjective it can be. “Truth or fact?” is a phrase that comes up often, positioning as opposites two things that would normally be considered to be very similar. The point that Paradise Killer makes is that truth and fact aren’t one and the same; facts are the reality of a situation, but truth is a subjective way of interpreting those facts.

This idea is particularly apparent when it comes time to close out the case with a trial. When you feel you’ve gathered as much as you need from your investigation, you can choose to begin the trial that will determine, once and for all, who’s guilty of killing the Council. Using the myriad testimonies and evidence you’ve collected, you need to “Create your truth” and convince Paradise’s judge of that. The catch is that there’s no clear, perfect answer—who ends up being convicted depends on what evidence you’ve gathered and how you interpret it far more than it does any undeniable facts about the case. My truth may be different to your truth, even when we’re looking at the same facts, and that sits at the heart of Paradise Killer.

All of this is to say that this game delves into some heavy, heady topics, but Paradise Killer is far from an exercise in doom and gloom. It’s quite the opposite, really—it’s an exploration of complex ideas, but through an ensemble of wonderfully odd, charming characters and a protagonist whose passion for her work is infectious. It’s a game that’s often very funny, leaning into its surreal qualities and using that humour as a way of helping to make this whole bizarre premise work. It draws heavily on the vaporwave aesthetic to create an atmosphere that’s alien but also fundamentally of this world. It’s a game that, for all its reflection on some ugly aspects of the real world, wants you to enjoy your time with it.

Paradise Killer is the rare sort of game that can take a surreal concept for a world and turn it into something that feels real, that’s easy to get invested in, and then use that for some thoughtful reflection on our own world. It’s a masterful example of all the different aspects of a game coming together for a common goal, and delivering on that to perfection.

Score: 5 stars

Paradise Killer is developed by Kaizen Game Works and published by Fellow Traveller. It’s available now for Nintendo Switch (reviewed) and PC.

A review copy was provided to Shindig by the publisher.

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About Author

Matthew is a writer based in Wellington. He loves all things pop culture, and is fascinated by its place in history and the wider social context.