Earlier this week, Kan Gao put out a humorous video on expectations for Finding Paradise. He sarcastically commented on how terrible every aspect of the game is in order, I presume, to temper expectations. As is often the case, truths are clothed in jest. For an independent developer who found success early on with a deeply affecting title that changed lives the world over — this reviewer included — crafting Finding Paradise must have been an emotionally daunting experience. I can easily see the humble director and composer of Freebird Games wringing his hands, worrying if Finding Paradise can meet fans’ expectations — expectations resulting from the critical acclaim of To the Moon. But that’s why I’m writing this opening. While stylistically similar, Finding Paradise should not be compared to prior entries because it’s an entirely different tale. That’s why I won’t be referencing To the Moon in this review except where explicitly appropriate, and never over quality.
Undeniably heartfelt and moving, the themes and lessons in Finding Paradise grant insight into distinctly human qualities. This insight makes me want to be better than I am. The tale is timeless and meaningful as it gently (and comically) pushes me to explore who I am. I’m encouraged to look at others with kinder eyes and a softer heart. I’m reminded of personal mantras I have regarding paths in life and regrets, solidifying my devotion to my life philosophy. For these reasons alone, Finding Paradise is a must-play, but there’s also more to the package than just these lessons.
Finding Paradise is a continuation of the series that began with To the Moon as we join Sigmund Corporation’s star duo, Dr. Watts and Dr. Rosalene. The chemistry between these two doesn’t miss a beat as we’re graced once again with zany antics matched by capable execution of the job they’re given. They’re tasked to provide a dying man his final wish. This time, the wish isn’t so straightforward and the tale isn’t told in such a fashion, either. The hurdles in their path are fascinating and kept me thinking until the very end, which, for someone who plays quite a few narrative-driven games, is an accomplishment. However, Finding Paradise didn’t instill any sort of anxiety or compulsion to “figure it out.” While I certainly had predictions and questions, I blissfully let the writing glide me from point to point.
Unfortunately, the whole contains some weaknesses. For the most part, Finding Paradise has tasteful jokes that fluidly flow with the writing and pacing of each scene. Only one section of the game overstays its welcome and acts as sort of a “speed-bump” in terms of the pacing and tension. To the Moon had a section akin to this as well, which sort of hijacked the experience near the climax. While awkward in terms of flow, it certainly doesn’t upend the journey. This could simply be a matter of taste to this reviewer, and I’ve thought about how else this tension and conflict could be demonstrated. Fact is, I think this fits Kan Gao’s style and is consistent within the context of the game.
Gameplay occurs briefly at certain points, typically to ease the tension and add personality to the world that would otherwise border on morose. While most of the game involves walking around in an SNES-style RPG and talking to people, the notable changes in gameplay include RPG battles, switching characters, and solving simple puzzles. These are humorous asides that add, arguably, much-needed levity. Most of the gameplay is surface-level and rudimentary but serves as a capable vehicle with which to convey the artist’s sense of humor. What is odd, though, is that some game mechanics appear early on, as if intended to introduce a mechanic that will survive the duration of the experience, but never again appear. This isn’t a criticism, just a curious observation.
What’s a story-driven game without a soundtrack to match the writing? And match it does. I can hardly comprehend what Finding Paradise would be without its touching music. Not only do the pieces enhance each scene, they’re memorable and I crave access to the soundtrack so that I can relive those moments and the emotions they bring. Laura Shigihara performs once again in a song that communicates the themes remarkably effectively, her voice breathing feeling into the already evocative lyrics. Overwhelmed, I had a hard time focusing on the coupled scenes that played before me. Fortunately, I was able to load an auto-save and experience the performance again.
One might look at Finding Paradise and dismiss it by visuals alone. This would be a mistake. To see the game play out before you is to believe it. The attention to detail in the animations, sprite work, and environments not only looks good, it humanizes the pixels on the screen. Whether a coy sidelong glance or warm embrace, each character feels like someone I could see in front of me because they move and act like real people.
Finding Paradise is a memorable experience that may last me a lifetime, like a good book or film. The care placed into each scene is one of the reasons why Finding Paradise is such a masterpiece. Each string of dialogue, each reference to other games, every joke, and every pixel — they all feel deliberate and labored over, yet also so smoothly executed, as if effortless. Precision and work like this are why independent games have rivaled and exceeded AAA titles in terms of storytelling. Kan Gao has a story to tell and wants to share it with the world, and anything less than his best won’t stand. We’re fortunate to have a creator like him to carry the banner of art for our medium, because his work proclaims that games don’t have to be for enjoyment alone — they can make us better people and help us get more out of our precious lives.