Paradise Killer: Facts vs. Truth vs. Justice vs. Whiskey
I love murder mysteries. I don’t have a pipe or deerstalker hat to wear but when it comes to a game like Kaizen Game Works' Paradise Killer that wouldn’t fit the aesthetic anyway-- and if this game has anything in spades, it’s aesthetic. Behind the neon glitz and brassy flash of PK’s vaporwave-chic aesthetic, however, is a very shrewd system of mechanics that brings to light one of the chief ambiguities most mystery games overlook: that there is a big difference between facts, truth, and justice. You, as both the player and as the main character Lady Love Dies, are forced to wade in the messy territory between the three.
What follows is both an analysis of the game and its themes, random thoughts, and post-playing reflections. I will try to keep the first part of this spoiler-free as possible, but I will eventually get into talking about spoiler content so if you haven’t played the game, proceed at your own discretion.
(CW: Talk about criminal justice, murder, mentions of police brutality)
Death in Paradise
The base lore of the world is this: There is an organization of ageless humans called the Syndicate which is dedicated to bringing a pantheon of dead cosmic gods back to life. They are seeking to create Paradise-- a “utopian” society housed in a pocket dimension where they can live eternally in glamour and opulence with their revived gods. This Paradise is made possible by the labor and psychic energy of Citizens, regular humans from earth who are coerced or kidnapped to the island and forced to work until the day they become a blood sacrifice to the cosmic deities. However, the Syndicate (led by a small group of members known as The Council) have had consistent trouble creating a true paradise: they are plagued by corrupting demons from beyond the stars that are drawn to the psychic energy of the island. Out of the 24 attempted island Paradises they have made, every single one has fallen to demons, been wiped clean, and started from scratch.
The story begins on the last day of Island 24, slated for destruction to make way for what is supposed to be the final paradise known as “Perfect 25”. However, on the night before the last Syndicate members are to leave the island, disaster strikes: the entire Council is murdered all at once in a locked room guarded by four protective seals. The prime suspect has a previous record but seems a little too good to be true, and an engineer who was responsible for the construction of one of the seals that was supposed to keep the Council safe has mysteriously gone missing.
You play as Lady Love Dies, the exiled head investigator of the Syndicate’s Paradise Psycho Unit (read: criminal justice department) called back to duty by the sudden mass-murder of the Council. Armed with your trusty digital sidekick and evidence locker, a hyper-advanced PDA called Starlight, it is your duty to solve the mystery and bring the murderer to justice. Most of the gameplay is searching the island and unlocking different areas to gather clues, interspersed with visual-novel-style conversations with the remaining inhabitants to get testimony or other secrets that can aid you in your mission. The big finale is a trial where you get to accuse suspects of each crime committed, but we will talk in depth about that later.
Beyond that initial premise of the Syndicate and their failed islands and your personal introduction as Lady Love Dies, the player doesn’t get much exposition. You do, however, get a very fun jump-off-of-an-insanely-high-building-with-no-fall-damage introductory view of the island.
Murder mysteries are often defined by the world they are set in. You need to understand the priorities of the society or the characters to understand the motive, wrap your head around the relationships people have with each other to untangle webs of meaning. That’s easier when the setting is mundane or historical because we understand the way the world generally works; but PK at first blush is both strangely familiar and staggeringly foreign-- benedictions to goat-headed gods and casual human sacrifice are planted within modern apartment blocks, danceable pop-jazz tunes on the radio, and sun-drenched beaches that would look at home in a travel guide if not for the crystal obelisks rising out of the sand. An island where no one has a normal name and shirts are decidedly optional.
The first part of the game felt overwhelming, having to juggle so many names and gods and events that you don’t know the significance of yet. Despite this I felt like the strangeness of the island was compelling in its own right: I wanted to understand the workings of this wild, stylish world, even if I don’t feel like I ever fully understood the larger history of the alternate version of Earth the characters were born into. The descriptions and stories I heard during my investigation were evocative enough that I developed an emotional attachment to the characters and investment in their fates.
The island itself is an incredibly detailed, sprawling setting that takes hours to navigate in full even as it feels so empty yet descriptive of the people who left it. It is the unspoken main character outside of Love Dies herself: a relic of glory and opulence and subterfuge and suffering. The staggering golden structures of worship juxtaposed with the humble, packed-in apartments of the citizens didn’t feel too far off from the days in which I would walk the streets of San Francisco, towering glass structures casting shadows down onto disenfranchised people who work years to earn as much as the tech CEOs at the top of those very skyscrapers do in 5 minutes. Paradise Killer, for all its wild extravagance, feels in some ways like our world taken to the Nth degree. It contains everything we already have but magnified in all respects-- color, style, ambition, and cruelty.
And perhaps that’s why the lore of the world does come more naturally than one might expect. We all know what it’s like to watch the magnitude and terror of unjust power structures operating as designed. We know what it’s like to look at the people above us in society and feel the gap between us and them. We all know the horror of how it only takes a tiny nudge in the right direction to send a society hurtling off into corruption and scandal. The only difference is that here on Island 24, it involves cosmic demon summoning rituals.
(Spoilers from here on out!)
A big part of what carries the game as an experience is the cast. It’s full of big characters and bigger secrets-- and no one can be entirely trusted. They are a fabulously diverse set from all over the world, at least two characters are bisexual, and I was personally happy to see that your protagonist was a plus-size woman who is just as glamorous and smart and confident as anyone else in the game. That is a rare and wonderful thing indeed.
One thing I wish the game did differently, or at least with more depth, was the social element. Each character has a relationship stat that you can rank up, and the higher your relationship the more likely they are to divulge sensitive information to you, or give you things. None of the objects they give you are evidence, but they are sentimental artifacts that tell you more about the people they come from. I wanted them to react to me asking them intensely personal questions or poking holes in their alibis when I went from investigating them to hanging out for social points, and they never did. That was the primary element that broke my immersion more than anything else.
Despite the lack of depth in PK's social mechanics, I found myself delighting in the way that the first pieces of information I got slowly blossomed into leads and secrets. The more I understood the characters the less I felt I really knew about them; but instead of that not-knowing becoming a barrier to understanding, somehow realizing the ambiguity and causality of their relationships with each other made me feel like the world of the game itself made more sense. This felt especially pertinent when it came to characters who it seemed like I might be able to trust-- the married couple Sam and Lydia Daybreak, for example. Sam is the local bartender, Lydia the ferrywoman responsible for taking people between Islands. Even though they were cagey and mysterious they do seem like genuinely good people, despite troubled pasts. By the end of the game I was both more convinced of their honest intentions and also more convinced of their certain treachery. I’ll talk more about them later in relation to the endgame, but another good example of my evolving understanding was Akiko-14, the head of the island’s police force (called Marshals).
Akiko is brusque, uncooperative, and regularly swears at you in Romanian. I definitely got frustrated trying to pry shreds of information from her since there’s no one more convinced that Henry (the demon-possessed Citizen who is your conveniently-caught prime suspect) is guilty. She never stopped being any of those things even as I took the time to develop Lady Love Dies’ relationship with her, but as you learn about Akiko’s relationships with the other characters and her involvement with at least one of the overarching conspiracies unfolding on the island, she very quickly becomes a tragic figure with honorable intentions that went awry. It’s her loyalty to her Marshals and her desire to save them from certain death that is the leverage needed to get Akiko to do things against the honor she so prizes. I knew less about her the more I learned because the picture I had been constructing fell apart when it came to the boiling point that was the crime: everyone’s true character was revealed in the course of that fateful night, and everyone was found wanting.
It’s worth noting that, barring Henry and the puckish demon Shinji, everyone you interact with is a member of the Syndicate (Lady Love Dies included). The way they talk about what happens in their world is so casual you almost forget that all of these people are generally okay with the way their society works. They don’t bat an eye at the idea of stealing people from the real world and putting them into what is, essentially, slave labor in the name of dead gods and a ruling bourgeoisie. There’s plenty of artifacts of the inhumane treatment the Citizens face that can be found around the island-- letters they write for each other about their suffering, cassettes they record for one another because the Syndicate monitors all digital transmissions, the tiny “rewards” for their work such as a coupon you can find for two minutes in a footbath. The Syndicate characters sometimes express shreds of regret or acknowledge that it’s maybe kind of bad that thousands of people die with every island, generations slaughtered before they move on to their next pocket-dimension paradise, but ultimately every single character except for Henry has come to terms with the fact of this society and deemed it acceptable.
I mentioned before that Paradise Killer is a reflection of our own world dialed up to 11. The game might be a UK product, but when politicians are arguing mid-pandemic that loss of life is a necessary sacrifice to keep our economy afloat, when people are dying because the prohibitively high cost of insulin forces them to ration-- it’s not hard to draw comparisons between the parasitic ways in which the elites of society prey on the most vulnerable as the Syndicate does, all for an esoteric cause that does nothing for the people paying the most grievous price.
"When The Truth Is Revealed, Love Dies."
One of the first mechanics that struck me about Paradise Killer was that you can start the final trial at any time. The trial is the endgame, the assigning of guilt, the conviction and execution. I accidentally got the prompt asking me if I wanted to go to trial when trying to examine something in the judge’s room right after I began the game, and that discovery set the tone for the rest of the experience. The idea that you can go into it with no evidence at all and still accuse people was terrifying in its implications; there would be no way of knowing for sure that I had found all the evidence there was to find, no reassurance that an objective truth exists for me to uncover, no barring my way towards wrongful conviction with mechanical guard-rails. I haven’t tested this, but I have a hunch that it doesn’t matter if you have no evidence of a character’s guilt-- if you accuse them the Judge will proclaim them guilty. Case closed.
I am a big fan of the Ace Attorney series. There’s a peace of mind that comes with the knowledge that there is always one true killer, you can’t proceed past a certain point without the evidence you need to find the truth, and the game will lead you to that end no matter how many tries it takes. It will always be the same, and it will always be objectively right.
There is, in many ways, a version of events that contains the most complete, closest-to-truth timeline of what happened based on the evidence. To me, as a murder mystery fan who delights in piecing together the right answer to complex scenarios, that is what kept the game satisfying-- there was a set of material facts that project a story I could sink my teeth into. If you accuse the “right” person of a crime then there are extra bits of dialogue from the Judge complimenting your skill as an investigator, and the character accused will reveal more information about the crime (because if they are going down then it doesn’t matter anymore, they'll take other guilty parties down with them). If you accuse the wrong person this doesn’t happen.
However, just because that “true” story exists doesn’t mean that you can mete out proper justice based upon it: there are a few crimes where multiple people are culpable. There are crimes where the one who “did it” was a victim of circumstance and abuses of power. You are only allowed to accuse one person of each crime, and there is only one punishment you can give to any character convicted of their crime: execution.
If Paradise Killer makes any point with its systems, it’s this: whoever has the authority to make decisions has the authority to decide what is truth, what is fact, and what is justice.
I mentioned I would return to Sam and Lydia Daybreak. They are keystone characters in unveiling the truth of what happened the night of the murder. To explain the “complete” events of the night for context: there were two parallel murder plots happening at the same time independent of one another, unaware of the other’s existence. Certain characters were involved with one or the other, and the plots had been in motion for years. Both of them "succeeded" insofar as the Council all died.
Lydia and Sam, despite being ex-assassins, didn’t actively kill anyone that night-- but they did help set up one of the two plots, providing instrumental help by delivering a killer demon inside the Council room. They didn’t realize what the box contained, but they didn't ask questions because in exchange for their help they were promised freedom from the eternal cycle of the Syndicate and their Islands. They wanted out, and they saw this job as their only chance to leave.
Now, Sam and Lydia are good friends of our protagonist. Lady Love Dies was close with them before the story began, and as you uncover their involvement it is clear that they didn’t kill anyone. Even the bad things they did were for understandable reasons. The world of Paradise Killer is unforgiving, bloodthirsty, and ruthless, so of course they want out of it! It’s hard to blame them for that. But in order to completely and truthfully explain one of the two plots to kill the council, you are forced to implicate them and they are killed for their crimes.
That is, if you tell the truth.
You have the option in the endgame to lie. You can selectively present evidence. You can do what I did and focus on the conspiracy plot that they weren’t a part of, glossing over any involvement they had by not explaining how the demon got into the council room. Though you still have the chance to convict the mastermind of the demon plot, you can leave holes in the story that are never officially explained. Whatever you decide to do, that becomes the truth, and justice is meted out accordingly.
The facts are the evidence. The truth is a narrative. Justice is the consequences.
A funny side note on the demon plot-- based on the decisions I made in the trial, because I avoided explaining the reason for the demon’s presence and focused on the other killer who had an equal hand in slaying the Council, the Killer Demon itself was judged innocent. It was already dead before the game began so there was no execution, but the absolute justice meant that because I did not explain how the demon got there and someone else was deemed responsible for the crime as a whole, he wasn’t convicted.
In the continuing trend of incisive political critique masked beneath the unrestrained camp of PK’s style, it is also worth mentioning that cases and convictions build upon each other. All of the crimes are tangled up into one big knot of causality-- of course the person who breached the second seal breached the third seal, and of course accusing them again for the fourth seal and planting the murder weapon only makes sense. Each of these is a separate mini-trial but the more convictions you have the quicker and more decisive each of the subsequent trials become. It’s even acknowledged obliquely in-universe by Carmelina Silence, one of the two criminal masterminds: she set up Henry, our demon-possessed citizen, to both get possessed in the first place and murder the chief exorcist so that when she made her move to kill the council, he would have a preexisting criminal record that implicated him as an easy scapegoat. There’s something in the way convictions (whether or not they are reflective of the truth) become the justification for other convictions that rings hauntingly reminiscent of modern forms of justice.
It’s also another way that authority shapes truth. One thing Paradise Killer does very well is make you feel personally responsible for whatever decisions you make in the trial. Before you start the trial sequence you must pick up your weapon-- a gun with which you mete out your justice-- and it is clear that you, as much as Lady Love Dies, are the one pulling the trigger with every execution. At the end of all the trials, when verdicts have all been given out, you go through each crime and shoot the person responsible.
What Happens After Justice Has Been Served?
After the trial Lady Love Dies has returned to her full power. She has reclaimed her gun, solved the mystery, and restored herself to good standing with the Syndicate for her service. It was at this point that I really started feeling like Lady Love Dies began taking on a quality quietly more sinister-- or perhaps it was always there and simply didn’t seem alarming to me until then. Before you drive off into the sunset and go to Perfect 25, you can go on one last jaunt around the island and talk to all of the still-living characters. It’s good for closure but as a player I wished that the characters reacted more to the specific choices you made with regards to who was accused of what, since so many of them had strong feelings (one way or another) about the other residents of the island and none of them have much special dialogue from what I could tell.
However, what stands out most about the post-trial world is your ability to wield the true authority of Lady Love Dies. You now have the power to exile anyone you want from the Islands (like Lady was at the start of the game, chained to the space but unable to escape her towering prison) or outright execute them. No trial. No evidence. No warning. You point your gun, they say a few lines in surprise or pleading for their life, and you shoot. Lady Love Dies has absolute power to dispense absolute justice with no consequences. It is her job within the Syndicate.
In a world rife with police brutality, murder, and miscarriages of justice, the dawning horror that the character you spent the entire game playing as is the one who wields such power is upsetting-- rightfully so. I had assumed that Lady Love Dies would put away the gun after the trial and that whatever happened on the record would be what stood. The reveal that she truly had become the hand of unrestrained, unregulated “justice” herself felt like the final crime in a long series of deceits, backstabbing, and murders; but this time, it was me as the player who felt betrayed.
Same As It Ever Was
The character ending I find most heartbreaking is that of Henry Division, the innocent but oft-framed demon-possessed Citizen bitter about the world and how horribly it has treated people like him. Even if you do get him acquitted of his wrongful convictions and save his life, he is doomed to die on the island. Citizens are always sacrificed to the gods when an island ends, and though he avoids that fate the matter still stands that he is possessed and a threat to the Syndicate. Henry is doomed to stay on Island 24 until it dies and he dies with it.
I admit that I wondered if executing him would be kinder, a quicker and gentler death. I played this game with a friend and we both decided to try saving our file and seeing what would happen if we chose that option, if it would be framed as a mercy kill-- it wasn’t. We couldn’t bring ourselves to see it through and so restarted the game from the save, but it hurt to know that no matter how hard we had worked to give justice to a kid who had never been given a chance, in the end it didn’t matter one whit.
The whole arc of the game is framed with scenes of two silhouetted figures talking in a bar on the 25th island, discussing the situation and the Syndicate and their takes on their own work as Syndicate members. Every time you find a bottle of whiskey on the island it cuts back to them. The way they talk is almost defeatist, weary of the whole thing but complicit in it, speculating on what’s happened with the last island and Lady Love Dies and speculating if justice was served. As a scene from Perfect 25 it feels like a glimpse into the future; and the future isn’t much different from the present. We return to the way things were: Lady Love Dies is back in her old job and re-forms the Paradise Psycho Unit, the Syndicate will elect new leadership, the living members will move to Perfect 25, and a new Island “Paradise” will begin.
That’s the true tragedy of Paradise Killer: all of the plots and murders in the game were carried out in order to try and create change in this world. Some changes were for power, some for justice, some for love, some for revenge-- but almost every single person was yearning for a different world than the one they were living in. None of them got it, and they never will.
The Camp Prevails
To circle back to the aesthetic: Paradise Killer wouldn't work if it weren't so dedicated to the wild neon world it creates. Without the haute couture cast and cosmic demons and dead gods and giant golden pyramids, the game's cutting and incisive critique of contemporary society and notions of justice would be laid bare from the get-go, and so would have been defanged by obviousness. It takes that audacious camp to dazzle us as the audience and make us truly believe we are in a world distant from our own, giving us a sense of safety to criticize and gawk without shame. Yet there's a reason the term "Glamour" originally referred to magic, illusion, and fae deceit; Paradise Killer casts a vaporwave spell on its audience so effective that the slow sucker-punch of reality doesn't set in until you're already invested. It waits until you know the inner workings of each seal on the council room, until you remember the difference between New Night and Crying Grudge, until you feel the stinging shock of sudden understanding at the discovery of bunker-bound Dainonigate. It is only then-- having learned how to look past every glamorous distraction-- like a true hardboiled gumshoe, you realize the horror of the truth.
And that is what a good mystery does.