Nailing a game opening is hard, but Paradise Killer kills it. Playing as the exiled former investigator Lady Love Dies, you're called up to solve a seemingly improbable case: the heads of the island, the Council, have been murdered on the eve of their departure to the next Paradise.
Within moments, you're literally plummeting into a sea of death and intrigue. Yet despite its strongest foot set forward at the beginning, Paradise Killer struggles to maintain that pace throughout the entirety of its murder mystery narrative. It's an ambitious story that will quench the investigative thirst of virtual sleuths, but the compelling world and characters developer Kaizen Game Works has built can feel underserved by some of its more game-like aspects.
Once Judge, the island's living embodiment of justice, has briefed you on the situation, you're set out to explore as you see fit. The facts are scarce: The Council is dead, but the Syndicate—the next rung lower on Paradise's latter—are unsure of how it even happened. Their best evidence is finding one demon-possesed Citizen, Henry Division, outside the Council's locked quarters with a knife and stomach drenched in their blood.
Paradise Killer takes a page from the likes of Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective or, more recently, Disco Elysium, in letting the player determine their own course for solving the mysteries. The entire island, with some exceptions, is open for Lady Love Dies to explore, discovering discarded clues and suspicious details. Where a Danganronpa trial might make certain the player has all evidence necessary to start the proceedings, Paradise Killer lets you start it whenever you see fit, acknowledging that you must then make a case with whatever you have.
The most immediate draw of Paradise Killer is the world it's set in: Its bizarre nightmare island called Paradise. The history of the island(s) is incredibly dense and pretty fun to dig into, but to sum it all up, long after ancient gods died or retreated into hiding, their followers retreated into another reality. Here, they started developing the perfect island of Paradise under the supervision of the immortal Syndicate and its ruling Council. These beings would try to rescue or revive gods, as well as abduct mortals from other realities and force them to worship their gods to feed them psychic energy.
Paradise is obviously not perfect—after all, nowhere is—as there is the ever-present possibility of demonic corruption. Paradise always runs the risk of demon possession, which can then lead to demonic invasions. The next Paradise, dubbed "Perfect 25," is the 25th recursion and supposedly built to be impervious to demonic invasion; yet the Council who oversaw its construction has now been murdered on the eve of their transfer to the island.
It's a really fascinating setting that I've barely grazed the surface of here, and it's propped up by some excellent characters. The members of the Syndicate all make up a great gallery of suspects, each hiding potential motives and thinly-veiled grudges. They also have a great deal of style: Doctor Doom Jazz is a charming, roguish M.D., and Crimson Acid's literal goat head makes her an incredible symbol of this island's idols. A pair you meet early on, Lydia and Sam Daybreak, are two former assassins who found each other on the battlefield, though not before the former turned the latter into a red skeleton. Love, am I right?
The initial mystery of the Council's death is fascinating on its own. The murder took place inside locked quarters, sealed behind four different security measures. Discovering how each was bypassed means figuring out how to get through them yourself, and quickly the details of those machinations become just as important as a motive or method. Through each, you uncover centuries of anger, spite, and resentment among the members of the Syndicate. It turns out living forever gives you a lot of time to hold a grudge.
At first, the open-world structure seems free and open to discovery, but it soon gives way to a strange game of collectibles. Paradise Killer has one main currency, Blood Crystals, and they're scattered across the island in various places that Lady Love Dies will have to pseudo-platform around to access.
It's a really jarring experience to go from thoughtfully dissecting alibis and motives to completing first-person platforming challenges, and this aspect of Paradise Killer is, to some extent, mandatory. Upgrades to Starlight—your personal assistant, evidence tracker and computer hacker—will let you unlock new areas to explore. Footbaths will improve traversal skills, Fast Travel lets you jet between various save points, and intel from Crimson Acid (who is moonlighting as a rumormonger) can provide new leads. All of it is purchased with Blood Crystals.
Still, exploring the island and investigating suspicious areas is really fun for the first few hours. Paradise seems impossibly dense, and it always has some mystery tucked away in its corners. However, once you've passed the figurative event-horizon of discovery and start ramping toward its endgame, the enjoyment starts to narrow a fair bit.
Part of this is that details of the mystery are based on whether or not you find an item. Meanwhile, other parts of the mystery and the grander schemes at play have some 11th hour pulls that don't feel as satisfying as you'd hope. A mystery doesn't always need a magical a-ha moment, and in Paradise Killer, I felt like some of its revelations didn't add much insight into the true culprit's motivations.
The focus on revealing your version of the truth ends up feeling strange too, given that there's no real urgency to compel me toward ending my investigation before scrubbing the entire island thrice over for any shred of evidence I could find. There are multiple endings, but in hindsight, they seem more like "bad ends" in a visual novel, and often involve purposefully leaving out evidence or ignoring possible leads.
By the end of my investigation—about eight or so hours to tick off every lingering question in my itinerary—I found myself spending most of my time just running from place to place, showing clues to different characters to see what reaction it elicited. There's also a hang-out mechanic, where you can spend time with each character to build relationships and coerce more info out of them, but this mostly resulted in either a prod in the direction of more clues or info I could've (already had, in some cases) discovered myself.
Paradise Killer is an ambitious, stylish mystery that makes an incredibly strong first impression. Its mixture of vaporwave and 'zine-style aesthetics where its island's inhabitants strike poses that would seem right at home in Jojo's Bizarre Adventure builds a world that's exciting to explore. The soundtrack alone is arguably worth the price of admission: Barry "Epoch" Topping does some incredible work creating a tone that feels right at home in this colorful game, and the vocalized version of its main track is a showstopper.
By the time the final trial started though, it felt like a prolonged conclusion. I was sad to say goodbye to further mysteries, but happy to leave the awkward platforming to find more collectibles behind. And in the end, the mystery's final culprits didn't compel me. Paradise Killer's better moments are in the discovery of facts, and the decision of what to do with them. It's a good option for someone who's really craving a good modern detective game with some incredibly endearing style, sound, and setting. I just wish its conclusion was as strong as its introduction. This is the imperfect Paradise, and I'm hopeful that Kaizen's next attempt smooths out the edges to make a perfect murder-island paradise.
Paradise Killer drips with endearing style and charm, but can't quite make its finale match up to its opening hours. Discovering intrigue and mystery is compelling at the start, but the good gets lost in its collectible busywork. Paradise Killer is a good option for virtual detective fanatics in need of new mysteries, but it lacks the staying power of other modern mystery giants.