Someone who reads novels but also enjoys video games? Aghast! Shock! Horror! Perhaps blasphemy? Unfortunately, no, I do not dedicate every waking moment of my life to the pursuit of literary ascension. Despite what seems to be a somewhat prevalent idea that video games and television as entertainment are entirely antithetical to one another, I actually consider video games my twin passion to detective stories. Sometimes I’ll burn out on playing a heathenous amount of whatever indie game of the week has captured my attention and my heart and I’ll need an escape to the puzzling tale of a locked room murder, and when I’ve got a couple of those under my belt I’ll probably spend another unnatural amount of time on some OTHER indie darling. Rinse, repeat, you understand the drill.
Well, some people out there noticed the obvious benefits to taking the metaphorical game of the Golden Age detective novel and adapting that into a literal, honest-to-God game. It started with board games like Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective, but it eventually found its way to the video game sphere. Japan, in particular, has had a field day with this concept, spawning two wildly successful honkaku-styled video game franchises in Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney and Danganronpa. This year, however, the birth-place of the Golden Age, England, saw fit to try their hand at a mystery video game called “Paradise Killer”.
And it’s exactly the opposite of what you think it is.
Paradise Killer takes place on the 24th iteration of Paradise, an island sitting on the fringes of conventional reality, where humans simultaneously take refuge from and offering tireless worship to alien gods that granted humanity civilization and technology. Whenever some sorry soul lets these gods, or demons, into the heart of Paradise, the citizens of the island are slaughtered, and the high-ranking elites are ushered away to another reality where the “Architect” tries again to create a perfect world. Only, this time, things go awry, when on the very night the island is to be reset, the oligarchical world leaders are all murdered behind multiple, seemingly impossible-to-penetrate “Holy Seals” (puzzles) that only the victims know how to pass through. The man responsible for the fall of the island after his demonic possession years prior is soon to be executed after he escapes from his prison, and is soon found outside of the crime scene with a cocktail of the victims’ blood inside of his stomach. The impartial faces of criminal law, Justice, believes there’s more than meets the eye in this case and summons Lady Love Dies (the most normal of the names you’ll find in this game, probably), also known as the Investigation Freak and currently in a 3,000,000 day long banishment from Paradise for inviting a dangerous god into Paradise many iterations ago, to solve this bizarre murder.
And it is from here the player takes control of Lady Love Dies, running around the island of Paradise and investigating suspects and gathering evidence. As the player collects information, clues are automatically organized under files associated with the characters they implicate as well as the individual smaller mysteries that make up the crime, such as who is really responsible for the demonic possession years ago? Who is responsible for the suspect’s escape from prison? Who killed the Council? Whenever the player is satisfied they have a case, they return to Justice whereupon they can start the trial. During the trial, the player walks through every individual sub-crime, name a culprit and back up their accusations with the evidence they have on file
“Paradise Killer” is a weird hotpot of conflicting ideas, with its freedom of investigation undercut by the automation of evidence sorting. The game is angled as a deconstruction of the notion of “Truth” versus “Reality” in the classical detective story, whereby the detective isn’t presenting an absolute, infallible argument but simply their interpretation of the most likely scenario. This is handled by allowing the player to “Build-a-Murder” their own “Truth” by mixing and matching different interpretations of the different sub-crimes into different permutations of plot, so that, while there is a single canon solution, multiple other solutions can become the “Truth”. However, because every piece of evidence is automatically sorted into files for the characters they implicate, and so few characters (three or, usually, less) ever have any clues associated with them for any given crime, it isn’t as free as you’d think, with all evidence interpreted for you by the game. While you can accuse any character with evidence you like, the game also lays an overwhelming amount of evidence on the “canon” culprit of any crime that, if you investigated at all, you’d have to mess up on purpose to not get the proper ending.
The solution itself is suitably complex in its order of events and alibis and the actual goings-on, but as far as trickery goes there is nil. There will be almost no surprises to anyone remotely familiar with the genre, and the evidence almost invariably has a single viable interpretation that the game itself feeds to you. The locked room mystery, despite being a huge part of the set-up and even mentioned as, specifically, a “locked room mystery” is also nothing special and such a minimal part of the actual experience that I had to reconsider whether I wanted to give this post the “impossible crime” tag to begin with.
As for the investigation itself, the open-ended nature of it is super fun… at first. At first there’s a wealth of information and evidence and clues just lying around, so there’s constant feedback. The player has the freedom to direct the investigation however they please, follow whichever leads they think is most important or most interesting at any given time, and get whatever answers they feel they need. However, as the information becomes sparse, often as it will in a real investigation, you end up just beating your head against the wall. Some clues are hidden in totally out-of-the-way places, but because the world is so overlarge and empty, you have almost little reason to explore every little corner of it. And worse yet, it’s almost impossible to know where you have and haven’t already investigated, so that all of the little clues can go missed even after passing through the same area at least a dozen times. Perhaps the greatest fault of the format is that the investigation also plays into the world-building and lore, so that even though the narrator has this information ready it is still up to the player to figure it out, leaving the early hours of the game needlessly confusing and disorienting, especially with how damned odd the writing is.
The aesthetic can be described as something like vaporwave satanism meets Austin Powers. The funky, jazzy presentation of the world, and characters, helps keep long segments of dialogue fresh and interesting. However, the setting is just so weird, to the point that I shudder to think how many people may be put off by it. It’s surreal and bizarre and a weird mix of theology and cyberpunk, modernity and the 70s-80s, that at least a few purists will be put off by that alone. The game also can be crass a times, and while it isn’t gratuitous and simply a natural, well-handled part of the aesthetic, some people may not be comfortable with the frankness with which the game handles topics of sex, drugs, religion and government. It’s hard to consider it very conducive with the Golden Age sort of mystery it’s going for, and it ends up walking the line between GAD and neofuturistic neo-noir more than I’d like.
“Paradise Killer” admirably set out to combine open-ended investigation with a bizarre fantastical world, and in places it absolutely succeeded. Anyone who had a power fantasy of leading their own investigation, and getting frustrated with the detectives for not following the obvious leads in a classical crime novel will find a good few hours of fun here. However, the open-endedness also lends itself to a lot of tedium and thickness in storytelling that detract a lot from the overall experience. The plotting also suffers from the fact that you’re only ever presenting one of a few potential solutions at any given time, making tricks minimal, evidence simple and resolutions straightforward. The good news, however, is that you can essentially end the game at any point you’re bored and feel like you’ve got enough to nail any suspect with the crime, which can save you from the game’s longer, less fun stretches.
The nonlinearity didn’t serve to make the game more fun than the typical mystery game, and to my friends who love a good mystery I have multiple other video games I’d sooner recommend to them than this. Only check out Paradise Killer if you have $20 to spare and a hankering for something more experimental. Otherwise, give it a pass.