The mystery genre is one that is rarely attempted with games. For a medium that revels in acts of violence and spends so much time in the murkiest side of crime, the classic murder mystery or crime solving capers are few and far between. That is likely because they are so damn hard to get right even before you add the need to include some form of player agency.
2020 brought a game that wanted to give a stab at putting the player in charge of an investigation to solve a crime. Throwing us into a tangled web of intrigue and conspiracy, Paradise Killer kicks off with the most conventional of all mystery story setups, the locked door murder. That is about where the conventions end though, as we step into a world that is as imaginative as it is strange. At first glance, we are presented with a sun-drenched landscape, a setting that would not look out of place on the front of an 80s pop album cover or as the scene of a crime in Miami Vice. The bright warm setting isn’t to last though, as this is a dying world.
This is the 24th island to be created by the Syndicate. 23 previous attempts to create perfection had failed and this is about to go the same way, as they are about to leave for the new island named Perfect 25. As has taken part in the all the previous attempts the citizens are all sacrificed to the gods, as the Syndicate prepare to move on to a new life. This is interrupted by the members of the Council all being murdered in their highly secure penthouse on the final night of the island. Although evidence points towards a demonically possessed citizen that escaped moments before the murder took place, the remaining Syndicate members are all potential suspects. The islands Judge calls upon their exiled investigator Lady Love Dies as the only person that can possibly unravel all of these facts and turn them into truths.
The game sees the player taking on the role of Lady Love Dies (or, as she is known by many of the inhabitants, LD), as you leap and bound all over the island hunting for clues and talk to the various suspects. Inevitably, the mystery you are investigating widens out into other past crimes and wider conspiracies, as you piece together all the events that took place the previous night. More importantly though, the initial investigation for the player will simply be what on Earth is this place that you are traipsing around? The cast of characters is the most striking element of that. The first character we meet is the Judge, who is shown with many interlocking arms, a mask with multiple faces and wires plugging him into some contraption. Things only get stranger from there, with a goat headed lady, a red skeleton bar tender and a doctor with large gold mechanical arms. The names all are as odd as the main character too, such as Sam Day Break and Doctor Doom Jazz.
Presentation of these characters is also striking. In the 3D world, we see them with the same 2D images that are presented of them in conversation. Like something out of the original Doom, these 2D characters slowly turn to face us as we move around them, unable to hide their completely flat side. Initially, these flat images feel like what these characters are underneath too. That isn’t a criticism though, as these are archetypes that have a sole purpose on the island. The characters we see are merely caricatures of their roles and this works really well. We do find more depth to the characters are histories are discussed and secrets exposed, but they still rarely feel like actual people. It is interesting to see that this group that have lived for millennia become more defined by their purpose on these islands and stuck in a routine.
Much like the other game from 2020 featuring 2D art of a collection of a variety of characters, Paradise Killer’s assortment of misfits are depicted as beautiful people, even with their oddities. We have bare chested men and women with amble bosom, all ready to meet whatever desires the player might bring with them into the game. If this game were as popular as Hades, I have no doubt that discussions on it would also require answering the question of which of these beautiful people fulfils your particular kink (for the record, I would likely go with the former assassin turned trans-dimensional taxi driver Lydia). Cosplays are likely to have a field day recreating these outfits. Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately, depending on your stance on these things), “romancing”/shagging these characters is only possible with a couple of them, so you may not be able to fulfil your desire with any character you wish.
Perhaps it is fortunate that this game does not become a sex game, but it does lead into one of my first criticisms. The game is mostly split into two-parts. One sees you navigating around the island hunting for clues, whilst the other is closer to a visual novel in style, as you talk and interrogate the potential suspects remaining on the island. The visual novel sections are limited in choices available to you. You can raise any topic and make any discussion without any consequence. This is even true with the “hangout” option available to you, which allows you to increase your relationship with the person. There are is no way to fail in this and you will always increase your relationship with them, no matter how the conversation goes. Considering one of the characters will regular tell you they are going to kill you, the mechanics here clash with what we are being presented. There is no reason, not to progress through each person dialogue and reach max relationship with anyone. Even though most of the dialogue options result in the character telling you to talk to someone else (which you have probably already done), discussions with characters will see you just clicking through every option to see if any more clues will be presented to you. Throughout my entire time with the game, I only encountered one moment where someone said they would not talk to me anymore, but this was right at the very end of the game and I believe it was the last thing that I could have asked them about.
Having to plan out exactly what you are going to say to people, what evidence you want to present to them and what you want to hold back until you get more information or even until you get to the trial, would have been a much more interesting approach and added to the feel of being a detective.
The other aspect of the game, the exploration side is an interesting mixture of gameplay ideas that makes it all feel quite unique. Initially, the navigation is mostly just reaching characters to talk to, but as the game progresses you will need to start using your notes and observation to find further clues in the case. Some of this is handled better than other bits, with a particular low point being gaining entry to the barracks, but it is the highlight of the game. Solving the riddle of the second seal to the Council’s penthouse is particularly great, with each clue giving you more and more evidence that you almost regret finding.
Helping you along the way are some abilities to aid in LD’s traversal. Using foot baths, will unlock extra movement options, with a double jump being the first one and a dash being the second. These allow you to build up some real speed and gain a lot of height when used together. It initially felt at odds with the game I was playing, with me half expecting the game to become a platformer. The controls for all this also felt surprisingly good, so it wouldn’t have been too obnoxious if it had have taking this direction. Instead though, these traversal options are mostly used to reach places that you would otherwise not be able to get to. Soon you are leaping and bounding over rooftops, scaling mountainsides and dashing into secret areas. Scattered across the island are numerous collectibles, mostly in the form of blood crystals, which serve as your currency, but also relics that are left behind by citizens of the island, details of past islands, keys to unlock other collectibles and vending machines that dispense drinks. The movement is pleasing enough that collecting these is quite enjoyable… for a while. It is the point that you get the meditation ability that allows you to reveal the location of these items for a few seconds that you realise that trying to get all of these is a fool’s errand. There are hundreds of the things, each indistinguishable from actual useful clues that will progress the plot until you are right in front of them. This is particularly a problem in the Citizen’s Apartments area, which is made of identical looking buildings all covered in relics to pick up. This fortunately isn’t too much of a problem until you are approaching the endgame, but dialling this right back to items that are mostly meaningful would have been much better.
Early on though, all these items you find help to build a picture of this great world that has been crafted. The developers, Kaizen Games, have created something very special with this world. A world that has gods and demons, sometimes seemingly indistinguishable from each other, existing just out of reach of the humans that long to commune with them. Not only does Island 24 feel like it is dying, but the whole society feels like it is on the brink of collapse and not just because the leaders on the Council have all been slaughtered. This is a bright a sunny façade that hides away the dark underbelly of greed that infects the higher echelons of society, as they work the citizens to the bone, only for their payment to be taken to a blood sacrifice in order to fuel the energy required to create another “perfect” home for the 1%. The game doesn’t beat you over the head with it too much, but there is certainly a message to take away from what is being portrayed and it is delivered artfully. The melding of the synth pop soundtrack straight out of the 80s, the decade of greed, with the ancient Egyptian architecture, slavery and sacrificing, may initially seem an odd mix, but it becomes to feel right the more you explore and discover about the workings of the island.
On top of those allusions, we also have the occasional nod to Lovecraftian horror, most notably with the few statues we see depicting tentacles extruding from someone’s neck. This feels rather apt, as it becomes clear that these people are not much more to ants to the gods, merely pawns in their game. As the Council and the rest of the Syndicate meddle in things they do not understand, there is a sense that they are likely to be crushed by these gods, if they ever stop and take much notice of them. As it is though, the Syndicate act like gods themselves and with the depiction of these characters as archetypes rather than full characters they must appear like that to the citizens too.
Once you are done gallivanting around the island and you feel you have sufficient evidence to accuse someone of the various different cases that you accumulate, you are able to begin the trial. The game will allow you to do this at any time and you are free to accuse any of the suspects of the crime. If you have sufficient evidence, the judge will side with you and declare the accused guilty. If you are not able to present sufficient evidence, he will likely find the scapegoat guilty, the demonically possessed Henry. Although there are a few faults with the game leading up to it, the trial itself is electric. There is a correct answer to the crimes and I’m not sure whether you can wrongly convict someone, but during the process of doing this your choices suddenly begin to feel important and like they matter. All that work you had done previously to gather all this information suddenly begins to pay off, as you present the evidence and the pieces slot into place. It makes you wish even more than the conversations previously had played out a little more like this, with choices actually making a difference. Clearly, having such branching choices and avoiding locking someone out of actually solving the mystery is a hard thing to pull off, but that seems a worthwhile challenge to try and solve.
Personally, I went into the trial feeling like I had missed some important pieces and I didn’t have a clear view of exactly what happened. As the trial went on, this did begin to all come together correctly, but I would have liked to have felt a little more confident in going to court before I did. This could have been the nature of the game being reasonably open ended and I may well have missed some evidence that would have made things clearer, but I had cleared all of my notes, so I expect that is likely to be a common feeling. By the end of the trial everything did feel connected, but it would have been nice to go in with more certainty over the truth.
Besides that, the trial sequence makes everything really worth it. The rest of the game certainly has faults, but it definitely did not out stay its welcome during the 12 or hours that it took me to complete. This is mainly due to the central mystery being so excellently crafted that the other issues fall away to being less important. I likely won’t remember trying to dash around identical apartment blocks trying to grab another blood crystal, I’ll instead remember the time hangout with Sam Day Break talking about is whisky blends or the time that I cracked through the second seal to see what I will find next as I delved deep into the Council’s penthouse. I will remember convincing the Judge of a conspiracy that spread across multiple Syndicate members and bringing it down or maybe that time when I stumbled upon how the killer really reached the penthouse. This is a debut game from Kaizen Games. On the strength of it, I look forward to seeing what incredible worlds they go on to create.