At its core, a murder mystery is a fairly straightforward concept for a video game. You run around collecting evidence and talking to suspects until you can formulate a theory of who committed the crime and why. Once you think you know “whodunnit,” you show your cards and find out if you’re right or wrong. It’s a process we’re used to seeing across pop culture, but what really makes a good murder mystery is the setting and the characters. A unique setting and interesting characters make the mystery worth unraveling, and I’m hard-pressed to think of a premise more out of this world than that of Paradise Killer.
The game is set in an alternate reality where alien gods stumble upon Earth in the distant past and immediately enslave the human race to fight in their genocidal wars. Humanity doesn’t take very kindly to this and rebels, killing many of these gods and imprisoning or driving off the rest. Not everyone wants the alien gods gone, however; the people who don’t support this “Great Betrayal,” as it comes to be called, form a society known as the Syndicate, and with some help from a dying god, they learn how to become immortal and create pocket dimensions to seclude themselves away from the real world. Each dimension they create is an island called Paradise, and over 24 iterations and countless millennia, the Syndicate have used these islands to abduct normal human beings and force them to worship the gods in order to resurrect their precious alien deities. You play as Lady Love Dies, an exiled Syndicate investigator who is called back to the 24th island to solve a horrible mass murder just before the island is destroyed and everyone moves to the so-called Perfect 25.
If that sounds like a lot to take in…well, it is. There is an entire alternate history to soak up in Paradise Killer, and the game doesn’t really hold your hand that much or connect the dots for you. The opening briefly sets the stage, and then it’s up to you to seek out relics that contain snippets of lore and piece together character dialogue into an understanding of the world you’re exploring. And let me tell you, it’s a messed up world out there. Most of the characters don’t bat an eye at it, but some do, and you even have dialogue options where you can agree that what the Syndicate does is wrong. Which is nice, but ultimately, I was struck by how conscious I was that Lady Love Dies and the other Syndicate members are basically the bad guys, and that by solving the murders and “breathing life back into Paradise,” I was essentially helping these fanatical loons continue their bloody cult. I’m not saying that the setup is bad, but it was a different experience than what I expected. Questioning everything you know isn’t unusual for a murder mystery, but rarely have I wondered whether solving the mystery is the right thing to do or whether the people who want it solved deserve a resolution to the matter.
Then again, this is a game that explicitly tells you that the facts and the truth are not the same, and even when you lay out all of your evidence during the trial, you are told to “state your truth.” So you are clearly meant to consider whether you want to know what really happened or craft your own version of events, assuming you can even gather enough evidence for a compelling case. I wouldn’t say that Paradise Killer is primarily focused on philosophical and moral quandaries like these, but it does make you think on several different occasions. I certainly never expected to discuss the death penalty or the idea of corrupt, “perfect” societies as I got to know the potential suspects in “the crime to end all crimes,” but it was kind of refreshing nonetheless.
The cast of Paradise Killer are an interesting bunch. Most are fellow members of the Syndicate who fulfill various roles within the cult, and as you question them about events on the island and even hang out with them from time to time, you uncover valuable information you can use to further your investigation. Conversations take place in a visual novel style, with text boxes overlaid in front of various hand-drawn images of the characters, and every so often you can make a dialogue choice that gives you some flavor text but doesn’t really seem to change the outcome of the discussion. The character artwork is bright and colorful, and some of the designs are kind of out there, as you might expect given the game’s setting. For example, local idol and peddler of secrets Crimson Acid has the head of a ram, the result of a blessing from the gods, and Sam Day Break, the island’s bartender, is a friendly red skeleton who used to be an assassin.
Some of the characters are endearing while others are infuriating, but the game does a good job of making all of them suspicious in some way, and my theories about who the culprit could be changed several times over the course of my investigation. I do wish that you could hang out with them more than a handful of times, however, and with the somewhat abrupt way the game ends after the trial is over, it doesn’t feel like character arcs resolve so much as they just stop. One character you see a lot of over the game, a demon named Shinji, is a lot of fun to talk to and offers some though-provoking conversation, but there isn’t really any rhyme or reason to his appearances and he doesn’t seem to be at all involved in the events on the island. I enjoyed shooting the breeze with him — he’s the source of most of the game’s humor — but I was a little disappointed that he didn’t have a bigger role to play.
Of course, talking to the suspects is only half of the experience. There’s an entire island to explore, and while it’s not terribly large, it is littered with things to find and some rather…disturbing sculpture. The 3D graphics are neither amazing nor awful, but I still found myself driven to discover every little nook and cranny. The platforming can be a little frustrating due to the floaty and often imprecise controls, but it’s serviceable enough, and there are a few upgrades you can find that make getting around easier. As much as I enjoyed my initial foray across the island, there is a lot of backtracking once you’ve gotten the lay of the land. The characters are all spread out and their positions do not change over the course of the game, which is something of a missed opportunity to my mind. Every time you find a new piece of evidence, characters have new things to say, which means that you spend a lot of your time pinballing back and forth between them.
There is fast travel in Paradise Killer, but it costs in-game currency to both unlock and use it, and said currency is finite, so unless you diligently scavenge the island, you may find yourself having to hoof it more often than not. Occasionally, you’ll run into nightmare computers while you’re out and about; these devices protect important information relevant to your investigation and must be hacked to bypass. Hacking involves a simple minigame of assembling shapes to form a series of images, and while you do need to find upgrades to access all of the computers, there’s really nothing challenging about this activity. A few lever puzzles on the island take a bit more effort to solve, but the focus of the game is clearly on exploration, conversation, and investigation.
The music of Paradise Killer is a real treat. Part jazz, part funk, part bop, the soundtrack is incredibly catchy and has a late ‘80s / early ‘90s vibe to it. It’s also implemented in an interesting way: you discover tracks while you’re exploring the island and they get added to a playlist that you can customize to your heart’s content. There are a few areas that have set music, but for most of the game, you’re the DJ. While this is cool, the flip side is that you will be hearing the same 16 tracks over and over again. As much as I loved the music, I did kind of tire of it a bit, and shuffling the track order can only do so much. There is also some limited voice acting, but it’s nothing more than a couple handfuls of quips for each character, and none of it is particularly impressive.
In terms of performance, the game ran well for me in both handheld and docked mode on Switch, though there was some noticeable pop-in of certain assets while running around. As you might expect for a game that is part visual novel, however, the presentation of text is equally important. Sadly, while the writing in Paradise Killer is mostly good, the text is riddled with errors. Most notably, there is a severe and persistent lack of commas, and I noticed a fair number of other typos that occasionally made it difficult to parse sentences. Also related to the text is the dialogue history that is displayed with every conversation. This is a nice feature, but I found it odd that the log is only present during the conversation itself, and what’s more, each topic you choose to talk about starts a brand new log (and you can’t go back and replay old topics). Thankfully, the game is good about keeping track of any relevant evidence you discover in the main menu, but I would have appreciated being able to reference old dialogue from time to time. It’s a minor quibble, to be sure, and the game is still enjoyable despite this and other issues.
If you’re tired of murder mysteries that take place on boring old planet Earth and want something different, Paradise Killer might be the game for you. If you’ve ever wondered whether death god-worshipping cults have to solve murders too and why they would even bother, Paradise Killer might be the game for you. If you just want to run amok around an island created in a pocket reality while talking to some evasive and immoral immortals, Paradise Killer might be the game for you. Which is to say that Paradise Killer might not be for everybody, but it’s certainly an interesting trip.