This format is a shorter, more to the point, off-shot of the normal review/op-eds I normally do. A ranking will be given at the end from a scale that starts at (from the lowest to the highest): Bad – meh – fine – good – great. Anything not appropriate for these “scores” will likely warrant a more in-depth discussion, which is what I normally do, so this range does not cover all games, just the ones that I think are suited to this format.
Paradise Lost is a narrative-driven game from PolyAmorous games, and is about 12-year-old Szymon exploring an underground Nazi bunker searching for a man who seems to have a connection to his recently deceased mother. The game takes place in alternate-history Poland, where WWII went on for an additional 20 years and the current state of the world is in a post-apocalyptic nuclear wasteland.
What caught my attention from the marketing was the graphical fidelity and well-realized vision the game seemed to have, but not much else; the game seemed to have very limited gameplay or non-existent mechanics and was very vague about what the story actually is. That’s actually a fair overview of what the game actually turned out to be; style over substance in every way. Paradise Lost has a highly-detailed world with a grim and depressing back story to find along its abandoned and eerie setting. It has a few technical issues, but nothing game breaking. It has simplistic and occasionally annoying gameplay. Its voice acting is hit or miss (mostly the latter), the soundtrack is surprisingly good, and it is missing a lot of Quality of Life (QoL) features that ultimately downgrade the overall experience of a main storyline that is underwhelming on its own. It is a game whose puzzle pieces I like well enough, but when they are pieced together in a complete puzzle, I can’t help but feel it being lackluster; or what fellow pretentious intellectuals would call MEH.
As context to this paragraph, my rule of thumb is ‘graphics are a cool bonus but will never substitute a good story or gameplay feel’. A very important rule to rules though is that there are always exceptions and Paradise Lost is the closest to that exception I have gotten this year so far. It is less about the game looking photo-realistic and more about how consistently cohesive the game looks and the world is designed; while the game prominently markets its influences, I hadn’t seen them before playing and was surprised at how instantly those different elements were able to convincingly coexist. It also looks brilliant on a 4k TV, I won’t deny it that. There are some technical issues I experienced like textures loading, pop-in, and some frame-rate drops, but nothing game breaking or too distracting from my immersion; at most it can get somewhat annoying.
The distracting stuff are more nitpicks, but in a game that is as basic as Paradise Lost in most other categories, these many small issues in its one undeniably good feature are more than important. First off, I like a good lighting engine or developers taking time to consider the visual artistry of their work through techniques like lighting; making everything shiny used to be a good trick, but now it simply annoys me and Paradise Lost makes A LOT of its floor shiny. Second, I hate how goofy the animations for the main character are – I know he is 12, but getting over a couple of stair steps should not take 10 seconds worth of effort and a long sigh at the end. Somewhat adjacent to this, Paradise Lost uses the well-known technique of hiding loading behind slow-moving and visually blocking crawls or shimmies in tight spaces. I don’t mind that except in the few cases where its less of a shimmy in tight space and more of a shimmy and a weird bend on a spacious hallway; these are less impactful oversights, but they did stick out in my mind and wanted to devote an entire paragraph to them.
The audio presentation is also very conflicting. On the one hand, the voice acting is pretty mediocre at best and woefully bad at its worst, which made me care even less for the characters and snap out of any immersion the game had built. On the other, the game boasts a surprisingly decent score with some good melancholic orchestral melodies to go along with its depressing and bleak story.
However, I also want to point out that although I’m generally positive on the presentation aspects of the game, they aren’t really all that important in the end. Gameplay is incredibly basic with most interactivity coming in the form of picking up letters and reading them, opening doors through a button press and holding the right stick in the pointed direction, and some objects being able to closely inspect them. With that in mind, having striking graphical fidelity but with little to do with it besides stare at it isn’t really all that meaningful in the end.
What that fidelity is actually there for is to create the aforementioned depressing and harrowing atmosphere the game successfully sets up through its writing and visual story telling. Without spoiling anything, the way the game explains and delivers on its alternative history world, what it choses to focus on about how the bunker worked or why it was made in the first place, and what happened to its inhabitants, is as fascinating as any good backstory and made me morbidly curious to hunt down every readable object and get more of the side story. The main storyline however sets up a pretty easy to read twist and just keeps to that with little deviation or urgency; I don’t care about Szymon or why he is in the bunker because the game never gave me enough of him to care about. The biggest problem of the story is the medium and how Paradise Lost fails to use it to the story’s benefit. QoL features missing in this case really made a difference for me and my emotional engagement with a solid (if a bit predictable) drama about human grief and the darkest sides of humanity; an easy example is with these many Polish and German names, a journal would have made it easier to remember who is who, what their role in the story is, and how their story connects with the other stories in the game. Furthermore, this is a game that has a lot of reading and playing this game with a console set up meant that the longer letters made the text almost illegible to me. Worst of all though, has to be the laughable walking speed; if there is one way to disincentivize me from exploring is to make the walking speed as slow as this game and also make the left trigger either zoom (which made me feel like I was going faster) or increase speed by 2% to actively annoy me.
These issues may sound trivial, but the last act of the game is where it all fell apart for me, due to these reasons (mostly). The walking speed meant that covering a lot of ground the game leaves last to build up towards the ending, was an exercise in patience and deflating any interest I had in the ending; it also meant that I did the bare minimum of exploring, which meant I missed important pieces of information. Furthermore, I forgot a lot of names that hadn’t been mentioned for a while, misremembered relationships or I don’t get them, and can’t piece all the pieces together because I associate the wrong names with the wrong events (and can’t remember them all anyway), which is where a journal would have come in handy. This is also a game that has 4(!) endings and deletes your save data after the credits roll, and also has diverging paths that are permanently closed off if you take another path; I don’t know what they look like because I am not going to go through the entire game again with that walk speed. At the most convenient of times with all the QoL features, I rarely go back to see different endings (besides on YouTube), Paradise Lost feels especially inconvenient in that regard.
Worst part about the ending is that I didn’t even find it remotely interesting; its not disappointing or noteworthy in any way, good or bad. That’s the case, overall, with Paradise Lost; I have feelings and opinions about each piece of the game, but when it comes to the game as a whole, the most I can muster is MEH. That doesn’t mean its bad, and especially given its price point I wouldn’t say its not worth a buy for 10 euros (or if you missed the promotion, wait for a similar discount), I’m just left unmoved by it; I do hope the devs follow up on the ideas and double down on what worked for Paradise Lost (since this is their debut title), because there is a lot to like about Paradise Lost. Getting to it or those things being the features that shine through is where the problems lay for the game.