Paradise Killer – A Vaporwave Album Come To Life

This is probably the closest I’ll get to a review on this blog, but I’ve spent around 12 hours the last few days diving into and finishing the Kaizen Game Works title Paradise Killer. Released just last week on Switch and PC, the game is an interesting fusion of first-person open world platforming and exploration coupled with visual novel styled character interactions and then topped off with a bit of Phoenix Wright (or Danganronpa, which I haven’t played so I can’t really say). All of this is fused together with a vaporwave-inspired aesthetic and soundtrack that plants itself into the full game, from the character designs to the world to the story.

I want to preface with this – I am very positive on this game and voraciously chased down almost every lead I could find, and even went back after the game-ending trials on a different save file in order to discover more stuff I missed the first time and then redo the trials and see what changed. I lead with this because I think it is important to be honest about the game – it has shortcomings, and several of the game’s individual elements fail to measure up on their own merits. However, this game is greater than the sum of its parts, and the overall experience impressed me so much that I more or less marathon-played the game once it sank its hooks into me, but that process did take a bit of time.

First, the positives – Paradise Killer is an extremely open game that allows players to approach the game from all kinds of different angles. The core premise is simple enough – you are Lady Love Dies, the investigator of the Syndicate that runs the Island Sequences. The Island Sequences are an alternate reality tied to the real world, run by the immortal Syndicate members. Each island is an attempt to curry favor with the Gods of the world, which the Syndicate does by…kidnapping and enslaving people from the real world to serve as Citizens, who perform the work that makes the island live and thrive. Each island continues until demon infestation occurs, at which point the Architect of the Syndicate designs the next island, which the Syndicate moves to, while the Citizens are sacrificed in a blood ritual and the power of their deaths used to move the Syndicate to the next sequence.

Despite trying to design perfection, the Syndicate are on Island 24 with critical errors or failures in each one.

In the case of Island 24, though, there is a huge problem. The entire leading Council of the Syndicate has been murdered in cold blood on the last night of the island, leading you as Lady Love Dies to be called from exile to investigate and determine the cause of the murder and the killer. When you arrive, there is an official version of events from the Syndicate members who remain on the now locked-down island which has implicated Henry, a demon-possessed Citizen who is imprisoned on the prison island off the main island 24. There’s just one major problem – there are a series of Holy Seals locking the Council penthouse away, which are intended to only be crossable by the Council members, and so something isn’t quite right.

With this establishing premise set out, the game cuts you loose to explore. If you wanted, you can immediately turn back to the Judge, start the trial based on the official account of events, and end there, but of course, to get any actual value out of the game, this starts the exploration of the island. The game offers you a framework in which you can play in multiple ways – talking to the Syndicate members and Henry as they remain on the island, requesting their alibis, their motives, and discussing what they think of the events of the murder and what led to it. The game gives you a first-person roaming mode for most gameplay, during which you can complete platforming and navigation puzzles for relics that offer additional information about the island (although, crucially, almost never play into the actual investigation with only a one-handed count of exceptions), items for various puzzles (valves, idols for statues all over the island, other items that become critical for investigation), and music tracks. You can also gets skins for Starlight, your personal computer assistant (which are just aesthetic) and upgrades (which serve a gameplay purpose for certain pieces of evidence and getting into some places).

The world is well-realized, stylized, and really soaks in the vaporwave aesthetic. It is also a little plainly modeled, with clear geometrical lines in models even at Ultra settings on PC and sort of dull textures broken up by shiny statues and pops of color. Characters use a 2.5D sprite which allows them to have visual continuity between the world map and the visual novel segments, and makes them very easy to spot in the world as you roam around. The sprites have the standard pseudo-animation of the visual novel genre – static characters that use screen-shake transitions between various emotional states to capture the spirit of the dialogue as you read. While I was critical of the texture and polygonal fidelity of the game’s world, I really liked it – leaning into the vaporwave aesthetic makes it feel contextually appropriate, even as I am not fully sure if it is a deliberate stylistic decision or a learning curve with the amount of detail wanted on screen. Every screenshot you’ll take of the world of Island Sequence 24 looks like it could be a vaporwave album cover or on a music channel on YouTube, and it all works to improve the impression the game leaves.

The music is genuinely great, leaning on the vaporwave genre with funky 80’s-styled beats loaded with synth, but small bits of distortion and audio-artificing to give that bit of unease – appropriate given the setting and world built on the sacrifice of its workers (is…is this capitalism? It is!). The soundtrack is on Bandcamp, and I think it is worth a purchase in its own right.

The gameplay, as I alluded to above, gives you free reign to run loose on the island to do whatever you want. The core framing of the game involves interrogating witnesses and suspects for leads and clues, running back and forth over the island to complete rounds of questioning, and then returning and looping back as clues begin to push you to additional conversations with suspects as new information surfaces. As you do this, you’ll also investigate the scene of the crime – both of the Council murder and of any other crimes you might find. As is often the case with such a heavy crime, many interconnected incidents present themselves and begin to weave into the tapestry of the story of the fateful last night of Island 24.

Here’s where my opinion of the game is less than favorable – the gameplay of the open world is just bad. It serves its purpose, but the game struggles with being an open world. The ability to explore is great, but the game is loaded down with collectibles that serve no investigatory purpose, while also hiding the game’s currency (Blood Crystals) in the same way. The game doesn’t autosave or allow free-saving – you must find a phone to save at. This is fine and I like it just enough, but the problem is that these phones are also fast travel points. In order to unlock one, you need a Blood Crystal. In order to use one, you need another Blood Crystal per trip. To unlock powers for navigation via the Foot Baths, you need Blood Crystals. To unlock a vital Starlight upgrade, you need to spend Blood Crystals on drink machines, which serves no purpose other than a smidge of worldbuilding text and to sink your money early in the game. There’s a gossipy NPC that offers some primo leads, but she charges for them! In theory, you’ll want to run around, using fast travel where you can to bounce between suspects for questioning.

In practice…you run around exploring for Blood Crystals, being asked to make a myriad of hard choices about how to spend your early currency and running around the island instead of fast-traveling because it is too expensive and you don’t have enough money to be doing that. Eventually, it gets easier, both as the inertia of longer play means more fast travel points and as you have more money to use fast travel, or have more of the foot bath upgrades, like air dashing and double-jumping. There’s a further rub here though – navigating the island is an absolute chore in many cases. The map doesn’t make any effort to show you more than the district you are currently in relative to the full island – no impression of the direction you are facing, how close to the district boundary you are, and the map is a pixel-y mess of the actual island. To make matters worse, the island’s main areas are urban and very vertical, with layers of navigation to account for, and to make matters even worse, the fast travel uses naming conventions that aren’t all that clear early on, until you’ve seen the area a handful of times. This is something I would love to see an update for – just add a minimap to the HUD and visual representation of the fast travel points, and you’d be halfway to a decent navigation experience.

Then there’s the platforming controls. Platforming isn’t awful in this game, but if you fail a jump at a risky spot, it can be difficult to set up for another attempt. What I didn’t enjoy was the clunkiness of the controls. Running is a toggle you can set to one-touch or hold, and jumping works well enough, but the jump is realistic and tough to judge. Mechanics like the air dash are helpful, but they are also very challenging to judge and there will almost certainly be a moment where you get a bit frustrated with the controls. The default mappings (I used an Xbox One controller on my PC to play) are clunky too, with sprinting and jumping set to opposite bumper buttons, crouch to B, with the D-pad used for music track control (the real heavy use buttons) and oddly a respawn option as well, and the shoulder buttons used for a flashlight and the Starlight AR vision (which shows save points through walls and gives you a distance indicator to suspects, along with a helpful exclamation mark if leads and evidence have created new opportunities for questioning). You can remap the controls, so my complaint is fixable, but the stock control setup led to some confusion for me. I found that the game could definitely benefit from a mini-tutorial or some introductions to the controls within the game, as the game introduces the full controls through a pause screen and the main menu alone.

Given all of this, I had a few moments where I found myself asking, “Do I like this game?”

The writing, story, and characters coupled with the aesthetic and music make this game an absolute delight worthy of transcending all of the issues I just discussed to find its way into your game catalog. Without spoilers, the game has a masterfully woven story that allows you to investigate a massive number of crimes. While the pretense is a single massive crime, it is the tip of the iceberg and the island poses a huge question to you as the player – what is the nature of a fact and what is truth? It is a seemingly-nothing question, but one that pries at you philosophically as you play – there are the facts of what happened, and all of the players on the island have used them to weave their own truths, incompatible in many ways with each other. The game gives you enough evidence to setup multiple conclusions, and while the game does somewhat acknowledge during the trial if you’ve discovered enough evidence to prove something conclusively instead of just barely proving it, the game will let you run with your conclusions unless the evidence you have does not support the conclusion. For example, there are roughly 4 different knives you can find in the game, all of which have different means of discovery and tell a slightly different story. If you find the right clues, you can pin each knife to a part of the crime and then use that information to accuse a handful of different suspects – even wrong ones.

This extends to tons of aspects of the game. In nearly every place where there is a clue, there are 2+ suspects you can pin to the scene. I found a side crime that had evidence of 3 suspects just at the scene, and had other elements of evidence that could bring in two more suspects, leaving a pool of 5 suspects around for a single crime. Saying “side crime” is wrong here too, because the evidence from that crime feeds back in to the main crime, and well…you really want to investigate every nook and cranny of the island.

My full playthrough, I found what I thought was a satisfying conclusion, wrapped up every crime I knew of on the island, and ended happily, enjoying the game and really soaking it in. However, I went to YouTube to see other people’s trials, and there was a whole character I had missed and that changed the overall shape of the trial drastically! Naturally, today, I went back and found whatever I could to get me that character, which then changed my case a lot and caused me to run the trials a second time just to see the evidence presented and how the cast of characters would react.

With minimal spoilers, I can say this about the ending and what I was left with at the end. Regardless of the trial result and what you do in the game, there are a few elements the game leaves you with that fills you with a sense of dread. Crime is inevitable, and your actions are really more of a deterrent than a solution. Further, through the visual novel elements, you can express disgust with how the Island Sequences run, and that doesn’t change or even get a glance. A core concept of the system of the Island Sequences and their relationships to Citizens means that even if you prove one of the characters innocent, it doesn’t matter anyways in a functional sense. The game uses a flash-forward mechanic to Island 25 and two obscured characters talking at a bar about the philosophical implications, and they express the dread that you might feel at the end of the game – Island 25 is called “Perfect 25” but can it ever be such a thing due to the nature of the system, the nature of man, and the trail of blood that brought it to fruition?

Just like vaporwave as a genre distorts the past, giving us a twisted lens through which we can view the past for what it was by using its idealized media as a base, the game does this impressively through the story.

What I got as a sale game on Steam with no hype, no previews, and no information, turned into something I really enjoyed. Despite the flaws I mentioned (and they are easy to find and feel), the overall game is a solid, enjoyable experience, full of flavor, character, and with an interesting layering of investigations that bring out tons of stuff to think about. I’d highly recommend playing it – it is an experience that I think everyone should see and try.

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