Paradise Killer Review: Take Me Down To Vaporwave City

Vaporwave is a type of art that deals with the excesses of capitalism. It’s preoccupied with taking elements from 80s and 90s corporate oversaturation, then re-contextualizing them in a bizarre, abstract, occasionally nightmarish sort of way. As an artistic movement, vaporwave stands as a cheeky pop in the face to rampant modernization and the myth of capitalism’s greatness.

It’s also an artistic movement that people like to slap on t-shirts and JPEGs, then call it their “a e s t h e t i c” or whatever. Vaporwave’s sudden thrust into popularity has watered it down from a legitimate artistic movement to a passing fad – something corporations use to market product on Twitter. And while I’ll admit that Paradise Killer isn’t quite as soulless as a McDonald’s ad campaign, it certainly feels like there’s not much substance to its abundant style.

What’s A God To… Uh, Another God?

Paradise Killer takes place in a bizarre, abstract construct of bureaucratic godhood. Home to the Syndicate, a bourgeois cult-like organization devoted to the worship and rule of alien deities, this construct is known as Paradise Island. After the island’s council is murdered en masse by an unknown assailant, the exiled Lady Love Dies is brought in to investigate. As she tries to redeem herself by solving the murder, she stumbles onto a conspiracy deeper than she could’ve imagined.

To say much more would be to give away the game’s plot, but suffice it say – Paradise Killer is a weird one. The narrative goes to some abstract, heady places that I didn’t expect, and by game’s end, I was left wondering just how the story got from point A to point B. In terms of being a twisty and unpredictable mystery, it’s a definite success.

But Paradise Killer is lacking in something that makes a truly great mystery: interesting characters. None of the ostensibly quirky cast put their hooks in me, and for the duration of the game, I felt like I was solving something that I had no investment or stakes in. I wasn’t particularly interested in Lady Love Dies’ shot at redemption, nor was I interested in any of the weird alien cultist gods. A truly fantastic work of interactive crime fiction, like Ace Attorney or Jake Hunter, gives you a cast to connect with and get invested in, raising the stakes of the story.

By contrast, Paradise Killer never truly feels like it has stakes beyond, “solve this genocide before our weird alternate dimension world gets erased for some byzantine reason.” The game is caught up on the inherent cleverness of its concept so much that it forgets to give us any reason to care about it.

Unhappy Together

Unfortunately, that lack of purpose carries through the flat hodgepodge of gameplay. Paradise Killer is part first-person exploration, part visual novel – the closest comparisons I can come up with are Theresia or Danganronpa. But while those games earned that blend of styles with a focused, cohesive sense of forward progression, Paradise Killer feels like more than a little unfocused. Simply put, too much freedom is given to the player upfront, and they’re thrown in without much in the way of explanation.

Now, don’t get me wrong – I love when games don’t tell me where to go or what to do, and I value the sort of oblique progression found in games like Myst or countless classic survival horror titles. But the problem with Paradise Killer is that it can’t nail a balance. You’re told too much about the world’s lore instead of given reasons to care. You’re given a map to roam without any real idea why you’re roaming it, or even what you’re looking for. Mechanically and narratively, it never sells you on the “why.” The result is a package that rings hollow for experienced mystery VN veterans.

Paradise Killer also commits the cardinal VN sin of having menus that are a true pain to navigate. Presenting evidence or going through case files flat-out sucks, and spends far too much time trying to be stylish instead of trying to actually feel coherent. There are ways to balance the aesthetic this game is going for with intelligent design, and unfortunately, those ways seem to elude the developers. The result is a game that’s too clunky and obtuse to want to deal with 90% of the time.

Wow, Cool Aesthetic!

But where Paradise Killer stumbles the most, for me, is in its art direction. This is a game that, like many indie titles in the past few years, trades in vaporwave iconography and aesthetics. But unlike titles like VA-11 Hall-A and Hypnospace Outlaw, this game doesn’t ever earn its aesthetic. Instead of doing something meaningful with the artistic movement it’s parroting, it pulls a real “wow, cool robot” and slaps that aesthetic over a piece that it doesn’t actually serve.

By consequence, Paradise Killer comes across as insincere. It trades in vaporwave iconography and city pop soundscapes, but neither are ever truly reconciled with the game’s themes, narrative beats, or characters. I suppose you could make an argument that the game’s otherworldly social elite are bourgeois classists, and that their space is therefore depicted with art defined by social class, but even that feels like a real reach. Ultimately, it feels as if it came from an inauthentic place of orientalist navel-gazing, as opposed to an addition to the vaporwave canon.

In other words – the aesthetic of Paradise Killer feels as if it’s a bit lacking in soul, and by consequence, it only serves to undermine a narrative that already couldn’t sell me on its characters or world.

Stylish But Dishonest

And ultimately, that’s where I’m left at with Paradise Killer – disappointed in its lack of soul. To call it a “bad game” would be a disservice to the clear effort that went into its character designs, its palette choices, its genuinely great score. And, truly, I do think there’s something to the game’s world and the concepts within.

But at the same time, it’s impossible for me to look at all of those things and not ask, “why?” Why am I supposed to really care about any of this? Why are these characters people I want to talk to? Why does the world look the way it does? Art for art’s sake is one thing, but much like you wouldn’t just divorce context when evoking Dadaist motifs or German expressionist tropes, I think it’s genuinely careless to stretch the skin of vaporwave over bones that it doesn’t fit. Furthermore, with clunky HUD elements that make the game a genuine chore to play, and with a cast that I felt wholly detached from and disinterested in, I just couldn’t reconcile my curiosity with motivation. Had it not been a game I was playing for review, I would’ve likely stopped playing this game in its opening hour.

In short, Paradise Killer is a game that looks and sounds great, but ultimately, feels devoid of any discernable raison d’etre and actively holds itself back with baffling design choices. The developers are clear talents, and I’m truly looking forward to what they make next. Next time, though, I hope that there’s a bit more there to unpack.

A Switch copy of Paradise Killer was provided to TheGamer for this review. Paradise Killer is available now for PC, PlayStation 4, and Nintendo Switch.

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