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You have to play the most confident game of 2020

I’ve been playing video games since I was a kid, and while there are always incredible games released year after year, it’s rare for me to play something that feels fresh, bold, and completely in its own lane. Paradise Killer doesn’t just hit those highs, it skates past them with the sort of confidence that turns heads.

The high-level pitch: Paradise Killer is an open-world detective game where you play as Lady Love Dies — yes, everyone has a very Metal Gear Solid name here — as she explores a reality-bending island, finds clues, and questions suspects in whatever order you’d like. Your goal is to solve an elaborate murder involving gods and demons.

Mind you, this isn’t a normal island. Hell, you’re not even completely human. Basically, in this world, there are powerful gods who will bestow special powers onto their followers. You and a group of other pious servants are devoted enough that said gods saw fit to put you in a pocket dimension that you rule over completely. And, to show your gratitude, your god syndicate starts kidnapping a small army of humans whose only purpose is to pray, or, should they be so unlucky, eventually get sacrificed. These gods demand blood, and lots of it.

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Paradise Killer throws all of that at you and then cuts you loose to do whatever you see fit. Mystery games don’t typically give you the freedom to go anywhere and talk to anyone at any time. And to be sure, the design of the game is strong enough that, whenever I pieced together a hidden agenda or broke someone’s alibi, I felt like a genius. I was especially delighted when my thorough exploration of the peculiar island was rewarded with clues that would be otherwise easy to miss.

Paradise Killer doesn’t hold your hand at all. There’s a button that can tell you where a character is, and a menu that compiles all the evidence and timelines you’re discovering as you go, along with potential leads, but the game never tells you if you’re on the right track, or what the next step is.

Even as you build an entire narrative in your head, the game never fully tells you if your answer is the correct one. As I write this, a week after beating the game, I am left with questions and doubts about the verdict I came up with, and whether I missed some key piece of information. This is by design. The game wants you to understand that “justice” is a delicate thread that we try and weave into coherent narratives, but our prejudices and blind spots might make it impossible to see the whole picture.

Did I mention that you can pursue romances with the suspects? And that, incidentally, both of the people I slept with during the course of the game somehow didn’t end up tied to the larger conspiracy? Yeah. Listen: I know made a good case. There was a lot of evidence against the people I pointed my finger at. But I just don’t know, and it’s eating me up in such a way that I can almost imagine the developers reading these words and smiling to themselves. The game knows what it does, and the mystery has enough pull to now live rent free in my head. I hate it and love it for that.

Image: Fellow Traveller/Kaizen Game Works

And yet to boil Paradise Killer down to its mechanical strengths would be a complete disservice to the world it builds. You play as a member of the ruling class, essentially, and the nonchalant way these people talk about the humans below them is horrifying. It’s especially unsettling to explore the society the syndicate has built for humanity, and see firsthand all the altars and monuments where people died over deities that they may not even believe in.

Paradise Killer has loads of lore. Honestly, everything the game dumps on you is overwhelming at first, but once I started remembering names and concepts, I was hooked. I needed to know more about how this messed-up world worked and how it got to the point where I jumped in. I especially wanted to find out more about the figures overseeing the whole thing.

And boy, are they characters. Similarly to the Danganronpa games, the playing field itself is 3D, but the people who inhabit it are drawn lush 2D illustrations. The art director seems to have been given instructions to make everyone as hot as possible, because nearly everyone in this game ripped or has an otherworldly fashion sense. Part of it, I’m sure, is to make your lust work against you during investigations. But also, since these are people who have literally been blessed by gods, they can look like anything. One of the characters is an assassin dude who died and turned into a sentient red skeleton. The skeleton owns a bar where you can buy and learn about drinks, by the way. Another character was chosen to be an idol for the masses, so the gods turned her head into a goat. And the more humanoid of these cast members still manage stand tall next to such weird concepts!

This shouldn’t work. A game can’t come out here and try to introduce me to a character called “Witness To The End” with a straight face and expect me to take it seriously. The whole thing screams try-hard, which is antithetical to coolness. Coolness does not try. It simply is. That’s what makes it cool.

Image: Fellow Traveller/Kaizen Game Works

And in lesser hands, maybe it wouldn’t have worked. The fact that Paradise Killer manages to pull any of it off is a testament to its incredible vaporwave aesthetics and impeccable design sense. I have not played a game that looked this good or sounded this good since Persona 5. Everything here, from the UI elements to the character designs, pops. This is a game that treats you to a banging city pop track when you fast travel via an interdimensional sports car. It is a game where neon-colored limbs stretch out from water fountains, and Babel-like pyramids rest easy next to Japanese apartments. It is a game where you will climb a mountain to shoot the shit with a naked blue alien who is perpetually flipping you off.

There are just so many things going on in this game that it is a wonder that all these wild ideas fit neatly alongside each other, as if they were always meant to be together. Nearly everything else I’ve played in 2020 feels safe and contained next to strangeness of Paradise Killer. The game isn’t afraid to fire on all cylinders, no matter how overwhelming the lore might be seem, or how outrageous the characters might sound on paper. It won’t even tell you if you “won” by the end of it all, if such a thing is possible. What you get, in turn, is a game that takes chances and trusts that you will go along for the ride full of demons, aliens, and human sacrifices.

And as I think back on my choices and the version of justice I doled out in the game, I’m not sure I’ve fully disembarked the ride yet. Paradise Killer is one of the best video games of the year.

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