Paradise Killer Review: Facts and Truth Clash in a Vaporwave Hallucination

Paradise Killer is a first-person, open world mystery that questions the line between fact and truth.
Paradise Killer is a first-person, open world mystery that questions the line between fact and truth. / Kaizen Game Works/Fellow Travel

When I finish Paradise Killer, two things echo in my head. One is the game's de facto motto, a mantra that guides the entire experience and attempts to sum up its approach to criminal justice. "Facts and truth are not the same." Suspects cite the phrase, and the player character herself, the savvy and self-assured Lady Love Dies, will repeat it aloud as she investigates. The game's story is built around the seemingly contradictory statement, and in some ways it succeeds or fails based on whether it can live up to this thesis.

The other echo is a dance song from the soundtrack. I expect developer Kaizen Game Works would chalk that up as a win.

Paradise Killer puts players on the hunt for the killer in its title. The island of Paradise is a sunny, vapor wave hallucination populated by immortals tasked with reviving a cohort of dead and alien gods. Part of that process includes making and remaking the same island over and over in pursuit of perfection. On the eve of the journey from island 24 to 25, the ambitiously named Perfect 25, the leaders of these immortals are slaughtered under mysterious circumstances. The immortals have no choice but to enlist the help of Lady Love Dies, an exiled ex-cop, to find out what happened.

Contradiction is at the heart of Paradise Killer. The crime is grisly, but the mood is breezy. The gods are monsters, but they still receive worship. Even the island is at odds with itself. Lady Love Dies gets the run of the place from the get go, free to explore wherever she desires, and that freedom makes the contradiction all the clearer. Paradise is alive with color, collectibles and sound — the game's soundtrack is brim-filled with bops — but most of the world is deserted. The humans that would typically occupy its apartments and factories have already been sacrificed in the ritual that allows for the new island's creation, so Lady Love Dies spends much of the game wandering empty streets and beaches. This allows plenty of time to sift through all the stories the remaining immortals will weave for her.

Paradise Killer flirts with politics, but shies away from a firm stance.
Paradise Killer flirts with politics, but shies away from a firm stance. / Kaizen Game Works/Fellow Traveler

And, oh, what weaving they will do. Characters with names like Carmelina Silence and One Last Kiss will offer the investigating player insults, excuses, exhortations, alibis and, occasionally, confessions. Those threads will twist and tangle into more than one conspiracy, and it's up to the player to untangle as best they can that ever-evasive truth. Is the demon-possessed human to blame for all the carnage? Or is a power-hungry manipulator pulling the strings? Who do we trust between a friend and a seller of secrets? What truths are better left unsaid?

These questions are compelling, and Paradise Killer's open world approach makes the process of investigation satisfyingly wild and unpredictable. Players are free to range across the map's beaches, mountains, golden ziggurats and towering pyramids in whatever order they choose, interrogating whomever they'd like, whenever they'd like. Lore unravels through found objects that tell of earlier islands, statues of nightmarish gods and the crisp conversations between characters, making exploration itself part of the attraction. This is a well designed, well realized world, and it's a simple joy to be a part of it.

Aurora Borealis, localized entirely within Paradise.
Aurora Borealis, localized entirely within Paradise. / Kaizen Game Works/Fellow Traveler

Paradise Killer believes in the importance of friction. As one character explains to another in a self-aware exchange, friction gives meaning to our actions, particularly in games. When I buy a Dead Nebula soda through the game's clunky vending machine interface, or make some finicky jump from fence to rooftop in the Paradise gardens, I feel the truth of the statement. But there's a reason mysteries are typically told with an iron grip on what information is doled out when. The number of strands to follow can make it hard to keep up with the story, and I found myself lost as to my next step a couple of times along the way. That kind of friction is not always so productive.

Paradise Killer also struggles to bring home its lofty themes. When human characters do appear, they hint at a class-consciousness that wisps away no matter the player's choices. Perhaps more damning, the game appears to have a "correct" way to solve the many crimes and conspiracies, undercutting its fundamental questions about fact, truth, and the distance between them. Do your due diligence, check all the boxes, and you'll be rewarded with the truth. The ending lacks the friction the game itself evangelizes, leaving things clean, settled and hopeful. As a set of facts, it's fun and comforting. But I can't help but wonder if it's really true.

Paradise Killer is out Sept. 4 on Windows and Nintendo Switch. It is developed by Kaizen Game Works and published by Fellow Traveler.