I scale up to the top of a roof. I was able to access a series of service ladders to get me to the top. I don’t know what I’m looking for, but I have a hunch that I should check every nook and cranny in this unfamiliar environment. There’s nothing on this roof of particular interest but I notice something on the building across from me. I jump across and make my way to the object. It’s a set of tire tracks; three sets of parallel markings leading toward the edge. There’s also a spike implanted on top with a rope hanging down from it. Someone needed access up here for a specific purpose and used a vehicle to get here. And there’s only one person on the island with a car.
It’s these investigatory moments that make Paradise Killer a top notch detective game. I am a huge sucker for detective fiction and murder mysteries and this one is no slouch. I came in expecting a visual novel; the art and character design is exaggerated and over the top similar to the design you’d see in anime and murder mysteries are a big part of that genre. What I wasn’t expecting was a first person, open world investigation simulator. Where as a game like Return of the Obra Dinn asks you to investigate a murder on an enclosed area (ship) Paradise Killer lets you loose on a large island to try and piece together the mystery yourself. Paradise Killer emphasizes exploration most of all. You’ll spend the majority of your time looking for clues rather than chasing suspects for information. There’s a time and a place for that to, but your leads are not inclined to corroborate or give up information unless you have hard evidence. Even then there’s no guarantee that they’re going to tell you the truth.
The genre being “open world investigation” doesn’t mean that this game is grounded in run of the mill detective fiction trappings. Far from it; the game is a heady mix of indulgent sci-fi, fantasy, and mythology trappings which brings a unique world to explore. Paradise Killer takes place on a synthetic island named aptly, Paradise. Paradise is home to human citizens and an elite group of immortals named the Syndicate. The Syndicate uses the islands to try and resurrect their long dead gods one who had granted them their immortality in the first place. Paradies is meant to be an eden but in practice they have never been able to achieve a true paradise. Thus the Syndicate creates a brand new island and moves on to a new cycle. By the time the game starts, they have done this 24 times. You play as Lady Love Dies, a member of the Syndicate who served as the island’s former investigator who was exiled centuries ago. She’s being called back by Paradise’s judge as the ruling group of the Syndicate, the Counsel, have all been brutally murdered. It’s up to Lady Love Dies to piece together what happened before everyone can move on to the 25th island cycle.
Everything about Paradise Killer is extremely over the top from the lore to the characters and to the island itself. The island is bathed in neon colors from pinks, purples, and blues (think vaporwave esthetic). The architecture ranges from large and imposing (the Opulent Zuggernaut) to concrete low-income housing. It bakes the larger mythology and political ideology into a sense of place; the extravagant buildings of the Gods versus the plain and low rent citizen blocks. You get free reign to explore the island digging up collectibles, mysteries, and power ups. The game cleverly uses its in-world currency, “Blood Crystals,” as a way to gate your investigation and encourage exploration. Blood Crystals are readily abundant in the environment and are absolutely crucial to solving the mystery. You’ll need Blood Crystals to extract information from suspects, access hidden evidence, achieve Starlight (your computer) upgrades, and purchase new mobility powers.
Paradise Killer is careful not to spell out exactly where to go, leaving you to do the investigatory dirty work. Digging through citizen trash and accessing hidden passageways is the first time I truly felt like an investigator in a mystery game. I was in charge of gathering my clues and following the leads. You’ll have access to case files helpfully filled in by your interactions so you always have an idea of what to tackle next. Any time I felt stuck, I could pull up my case files and follow a new lead or revisit a previously thought of dead end. It was rewarding to learn the geography and understand when new avenues opened up to me either from new evidence or upgrades. My only complaint is that I wish there was a way to set a marker a la Breath of the Wild. I would often get confused on where to find a specific object or person when I was first learning the layout and got turned around on more than one occasion.
The characters all have Kojima-esque names (ie Witness to the End, Doctor Doom Jazz, Crimson Acid) that all fit their island occupations and personalities. Witness for example is responsible for overseeing when an island cycle needs to end and presents as a very devout follower of the gods. He wears a golden mask that makes his head look like a skull completing an egyptian harbinger esque esthetic. Crimson Acid is Paradise’s “mascot,” a woman who is living proof of the gods’ blessings. She has a ram’s head and is very charming and personable, which makes for a good cover as the island’s purveyor of secrets. She’s also not above using her sexuality to get things done. The names all fit; it makes more sense that godlike beings would have these names rather than increasingly ridiculous military code names.
The Syndicate are all deeply textured, with detailed backstories, conflicts and interests. While they all initially present as straightforward archetypes (the ladies man, warrior woman) the game slowly chips away to reveal that they’re all wearing different facades. Centuries of immortality has affected these characters on an individual and group level. Their roles on the island have locked them in relatively static positions and each character has their own political machinations and motivations affecting Paradise. Wider political intrigue is part in parcel with the detective genre, but Paradise Killer really lets you understand everyone’s motivations and personal stakes. The game also exposes just how self absorbed and uncaring the Syndicate is. Henry, the lone citizen and prime murder suspect you’ll interact with, offers a glimpse into the awful life of the inhabitants on the island. You’ll also find plenty of evidence on the island itself that exposes the dark side of running a synthetic paradise. The game wears its ideology on its sleeve when it comes to the machinations of the powerful.
Paradise Killer’s greatest move is its open ended trial. You can start the trial at any time throughout the game and try to prove your hunch about any of the case files you’ve investigated. When I say prove “your” hunch I really mean it; the game allows the player to dictate the terms of the trial. Do you want to attempt to convict a certain person of the crime? Make sure you have enough evidence gathered to back that up. Do you want to intentionally sink a case? You can set up the wrong individual intentionally to avoid convicting someone. Paradise Killer allows you to dictate the terms of justice and what justice actually means. Is justice solving the crimes and executing criminals or were the murders justice enough? Do you side with the Syndicate or should it all be burned to the ground? The game doesn’t dictate what the correct answers are and leaves it to the player to decide. Paradise Killer doesn’t have a “true” ending, a trope we’ve come to expect in games. It asks the player instead what justice and truth actually mean in Paradise. I believe the truth I put forward in my trial even if I’m conflicted on the way it resolved.
Before you leave Island 24 for good, you are granted the ability to enact justice with impunity. The player is allowed to resolve any lingering character fates with a simple choice. It makes you question the entire investigation and trial; was that all a show when I can execute sentencing now with a simple choice? Or was it more meaningful to meter that out within the rigidity of the trial system? Paradise Killer asks you to interpolate the meaning of truth and justice which makes it oddly prescient for 2020. That was not something I’d expect from a vaporwave investigation game and I was truly blown away by it.