While it’s not exclusively defined by it, Paradise Killer’s pastel world derived from Miami and Tokyo, painfully retro presentation, and smooth jazz soundtrack tick enough of the boxes of the all-important aesthetic to be conclusively considered a vaporwave game. It’s probably the most noteworthy title to carry that designation, so adherents to the inexplicable artistic movement practically owe it to themselves to play it. For everyone else, here’s an open-world cosmic horror detective game that looks, sounds, and feels very strange for basically no reason – take it or leave it.
The story takes place on Paradise Island, a pocket dimension devised by the psychically-empowered Syndicate as a base of operations for restoring the cabal of variously unavailable alien gods they worship. The leaders of the Syndicate have all been mysteriously killed, so the formerly-exiled detective Lady Love Dies (who the game helpfully informs us was born under the sign of a god named Kiss Me to the Moon) is dispatched to investigate the case. This task involves digging into a flamboyant cast of characters practically ripped from the pages of JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure, with names like Doctor Doom Jazz and Eyes Kiwami.
I remember wishing I could tell the writers that words are supposed to mean things very early in the game, so I was surprised to discover that the plot actually makes perfect sense within its idiosyncratic framework. Naturally, the conclusions are a lot more complex and unique than “Colonel Mustard in the study with the lead pipe,” but the impressively well-defined set of rules for this universe are never broken. The setting’s careful construction also helps to assuage fears that the developers have merely juxtaposed disparate words and images in lieu of originality. One particularly interesting feature of the premise is that the entire Syndicate, including the protagonist, is unambiguously evil but stills abides by its own laws, systems, and internal personalities.
At first, Paradise Killer‘s open-world structure appears as a hindrance to the experience. There are large stretches of believable but inconvenient landscape between the major players, and it’s all dotted with seemingly arbitrary collectibles. Eventually, however, these aspects are revealed to fulfill supporting roles. The collectibles provide crucial world-building details, and by exploring to find them, you become familiar with the island’s geography and stumble upon hidden clues, both of which assist with the investigation. A valuable lesson from Breath of the Wild has been taken to heart – exploration relies on using interesting scenery to pique players’ curiosity rather than spewing map icons at them. Unlike BotW, though, traversal in Paradise Killer involves annoyingly realistic first-person jumping and fast travel tied to a finite resource.
What really lets the game down is its anemic detective gameplay. While exploration awards some clues, most are acquired by checking off a self-updating list of questions with each character, and all of them are organized and linked automatically. The climactic trial at the end of the story may superficially resemble Ace Attorney, but the only agency players have in this case is who to accuse of each action; the evidence just pours out automatically from there. The dialogue is largely divorced from the game’s sillier side and is pretty snappy even when it gets philosophical, so it’s reasonably engaging – just not enough to distract from the empty core gameplay loop. Meanwhile, the simple and surreal hacking minigame barely warrants a mention.
For some, the gaudy and selectively-primitive aesthetic of Paradise Killer will be a huge selling point. For others, including myself, they’ll be met with raised eyebrows and a shrug. Despite that indifference, the narrative at the heart of the game was wholly engrossing from its foundation to its conclusion. The gameplay can only hope to limp along in support of that narrative, which is disappointing but never makes for a frustrating or outright boring experience. If nothing else, the game may be worth looking into just for the complicated reactions it can elicit among different players and within individual ones.
This review is based on the PC version of the game. A copy was provided to us by Fellow Traveller.
Paradise Killer is a smart, imaginative tale supported by barebones gameplay and wrapped in a highly subjective presentation.