Paradise Killer’s breezily cheerful trailer is only telling half the truth. It most certainly is a colourful, sometimes goofy investigatory adventure in the vein of Phoenix Wright, but it’s also weird, a dizzyingly high-concept descent into the menace of the unknown, where balmy afternoons and beach-side cocktails co-exist with genuinely disquieting cosmic nightmares from beyond the stars.
Welcome, then, to Paradise, a breathlessly stylish, vaporwave wisp of a tropical island retreat, where palm trees forever sway in the afternoon breeze, where turquoise waters stretch from pristine beaches to an unblemished horizon, and where monstrous effigies of brutal gods spill out across every square inch, like entrails from a festering wound.
More specifically, welcome to Paradise 24, the latest attempt by the mysterious Syndicate to create a perfect living mechanism capable of sustaining the religious fervour required to resurrect the Old Gods it reveres. Like all 23 previous attempts, however, Paradise 24 is doomed, corrupted, and poised to be scrubbed from existence in order to begin the cycle anew.
But this time, things are different; on the island’s last evening, as the brilliant sun makes its final descent below the horizon, the Syndicate’s ruling Council is horrifically butchered. Enter Lady Love Dies (Paradise Killer has a fine line in absurdist names, from Lunatic Pope to Leon Disaster), brought back from exile to resume her – and now your – investigatory duties; to figure out which of the nine remaining islanders are responsible for the Council’s slaughter, so that Paradise 24 may die and Perfect 25 may thrive.
And that’s only the first few minutes of Paradise Killer’s story; from there, it explodes in multiple directions at once, masterfully intertwining an intricately constructed murder plot with a second, and arguably more interesting, mystery: the truth of the island itself, gradually unfurling to reveal a rich, expansive, and wonderfully imaginative lore, spanning centuries and a pantheon of preposterous gods.
It makes for an enormously compelling, occasionally philosophical tale of sun, sea, and blood ritual sacrifice. And while that’s certainly not an easy mix, Paradise Killer’s carefully balanced tone never falters, successfully presenting a breezy, upbeat veneer, while a genuinely unsettling, and refreshingly idiosyncratic, threat of cosmic and human horror builds insidiously beneath the surface.
Much of its fizz comes from its lively, appealingly diverse cast of characters, ranging from a fighter turned reluctant idol after a thankful god blessed her with the head of a goat, to a blood-red skeleton eternally caught between life and death following a confession of true love. There are zealots and assassins, even a naked blue demon that drops by to comment cryptically, and rather sassily, on proceedings – very much in the Grasshopper Manufacture mould – before its literally explosive departure.
As you might imagine, with the shadow of suspicion hanging over them, the island’s inhabitants are all selective with the information they’re initially willing to share, and getting to know them, and interrogating them more deeply as new leads arise, is a crucial aspect of resolving Paradise Killer’s murder mystery.
Genre fans will immediately recognise elements of Phoenix Wright and Danganronpa in the structure of Paradise Killer’s investigative design, but developer Kaizen Game Works reshapes them into an almost entirely open-ended adventure, giving players the freedom to explore Paradise, and unearth its secrets, however they choose.
Probe the island thoroughly enough and you might stumble across a secluded crime scene, a vital piece of carelessly discarded evidence – perhaps a body part beneath a rotting walkway or suspicious tracks atop a distant hill – even the occasional hackable computer or environmental puzzle, all steadily expanding your search for the truth. And as new avenues of investigation open, whether through character testimony or exploratory discovery, the loop begins anew.
Admittedly, none of this particularly sophisticated from a purely mechanical perspective, but Paradise Killer’s focus on personal, unprompted discovery helps to create an immensely satisfying illusion of complex detective work, and of a vast, island-spanning web of intrigue to chart and tame. And once you believe your evidence to be sufficiently incriminating, you’re free to return to Judge – a being fused to the very fabric of the island to uphold the law – in order to begin the trials, effectively Paradise Killer’s end-game, where clues are collated, fingers are pointed, and justice is, hopefully, served.
Until that point, though, the focus is very much on teasing out the island’s secrets thorough exploration, and Paradise is the ace up Kaizen’s sleeve; it’s a dense, disorientating, and phenomenally well-realised tangle of familiar tropical resort trappings, Egyptian iconography, Eldritch nightmare, and 50s brutalism, all filtered through Paradise Killer’s insidiously off-kilter vaporwave lens – purposely delivery a simultaneously beguiling and rather off-putting vision of neon-hued beauty, with all the leaden grace of a 90s CGI CD-ROM adventure.
Truthfully, I hated Paradise at first; it’s confusing, claustrophobic, and thoroughly oppressive – not to mention enormously intimidating as its undulating mass stretches outward and upward in a cacophony of monstrous edifices, crowded corridors, sweeping beaches, grimy factories, opulent temples, criss-crossing waterways, apartment blocks, and sunken plazas.
Start to explore, though, and the brilliance of Paradise Killer’s world reveals itself. It’s vast, yes, but not so much that, once you’ve started to orientate yourself, you’re ever more than a minute or two away from your next destination; and as you become accustomed to its busy visual language, its jumble of initially incongruous elements snaps into focus, revealing a logic to its underlying layout that puts everything pretty much exactly where you’d expect it to be.
But wonderfully, even as familiarity with the island grows, a deliciously inescapable sense of menace lingers, Kaizen carefully seeding Paradise’s operational mundanities with ever-present reminders of its terrible cosmic entanglement: glance up at night sky as the sun sets and you’ll see the stars spinning violently across the heavens; cast your eyes toward the shoreline and you’ll spy vast obelisks teetering among the deckchairs and beach towels; glance out further still and squat black pyramids ring the shimmering horizon with ancient malice.
What initially appears an incongruous mess quickly reveals itself to be a brilliantly considered and entirely coherent exercise in world building, rich in atmosphere and hypnotically convincing. Even Paradise Killer’s sublime, breathlessly catchy soundtrack, a relentless ooze of smooth vaporwave synths and sax, has a natural place in the scheme of things; it doesn’t merely play over the action, it’s a diegetic accompaniment to your travels, fading in and out as you pass between the island’s speakers, an insinuation of its much darker purpose.
In terms of pure craftsmanship, Paradise is rich enough to inspire exploration even without the drive of a murder to solve, but Kaizen, in yet another seeming incongruity, attempts to expand the scope of its adventure further by marrying its measured mystery narrative to a feverishly busy, and entirely unexpected, platform-style collect-a-thon.
You can barely walk a few feet across Paradise without being interrupted by the audio static lure of another Blood Crystal collectible, hidden in a bush or a shadowy corner. These, to a certain extent, aid in your investigation, unlocking fast-travel, accessing a new decryption algorithm, even teasing out a particularly juicy secret from a friend – but predominantly, and rather mercifully given their abundance, they’re a route to acquiring Paradise Killer’s wealth of optional mood-enhancing collectibles, most serving to expand its irresistible lore.
There are ancient tablets detailing unspeakable acts to unlock within sacrificial altars, new background images for your portable Starlight computer, even curiously poetic soft drinks to collect from vending machines; it’s largely inessential stuff, but I found Paradise Killer’s humorous, dreamily surreal prose ample incentive to hunt out its treasures.
“This image reminds you of a wonderful family holiday on a beach you had,” reads the description to one otherwise innocuous unlockable wallpaper, “You frolicked in the sea with your siblings. You have never been to a beach”.
And as you fall deeper into Paradise Killer’s fever dream of ceaseless acquisition, you’ll eventually unlock improved dashes and double jumps, unleashing a surprisingly passable, satisfyingly agile sideline in platforming.
There is, then, a lot to keep track of between Paradise’s unfurling mysteries and its endless trinkets, but Kaizen is always careful to prevent things from becoming overwhelming. An “AR” overlay can be activated to show you exactly where your suspects are, and whether there’s something new to talk to them about; collectibles can eventually be highlighted with a touch of a button, and most importantly, your trusty computer Starlight endlessly logs and cross-references clues, contradictions, and connections against a rapidly burgeoning list of mysteries, meaning there’s always a new thread to tease.
Eventually, though, once you’ve had your fill of footwork – which might happen in ten hours, or, if you’re as obsessively thorough as I was, 20 – it’ll be time to return to Judge to begin the trial, closing off all further avenues of investigation.
It’s here that Paradise Killer might prove most divisive, particularly for players with expectations drawn from the likes of Phoenix Wright or Danganronpa. While trials are the mechanical heart of those games, with their nervy cross-examinations and rug-pulling twists, Paradise Killer’s final confrontation is more of a well-earned exhale, a chance to calmly present the evidence you’ve gathered and construct your own truth – the one that feels most authentic, and narratively satisfying, to you.
Paradise Killer isn’t particularly bothered about delivering a definitive version of events, or nudging players toward a specific narrative full stop, instead permitting them to accuse – even execute – any suspect, provided there’s sufficient evidence to do so. It makes for a conclusion whose lingering ambiguity feels odd, even a little anticlimactic, in the moment, but one that’s thematically resonant and remains entirely in keeping with Kaizen’s commendable commitment to crafting a story that belongs to the player, right to the very end.
That Kaizen has delivered that freedom across such an expansive adventure, with only occasional pacing issues and without Paradise Killer’s peppy central mystery collapsing in a heap of dead ends and chronological inconsistencies, is impressive; that it’s managed to fold it into such an intoxicating, imaginative, and brilliantly conceived world is even more so.
Paradise Killer is, like its island setting, so many things jostling awkwardly against each other; it’s a visual novel, a first-person exploration adventure, a kleptomaniac platformer, a murder mystery, and a refreshing spin on cosmic horror. And like Paradise, once you’ve become attuned to its peculiarities, it coalesces into a beautifully distinct whole.
It’s a stylish, wonderfully assured vision, and a deeply engrossing detective yarn, as goofy as it is disquieting, even in the brilliance of its tropical sun.