Close your eyes, whisper the word, and let the pictures flow in. The cradle of mankind, a land of mystery, of fascinating cultures; a land still to be explored, where animals that exist nowhere else on Earth are free to roam in the wilderness.
Open your ears, turn on the radio, and let the news roll in. A gigantic killing-field, a land of war, of genocide; a land tormented and spoiled, where all the plagues that humanity has ever known seem to cry out in unison.
It is a wonder that Belgian artist and game designer Benoît Sokal managed to wait for so long before directing his pencil toward this continent. Beauty and sadness, exploration and loss: those are themes that were already the backbone of his previous games, Amerzone and Syberia, and for which an African setting would seem so naturally suited. Paradise is Sokal's journey to Africa, and could be expected to be his masterpiece, the culmination of the themes he started exploring with his previous games. It unfortunately misses that mark, but not without some considerable achievements.
Paradise takes place in the imaginary country of Maurania, and tells the story of a young woman named Ann Smith. But that is not her real name. The estranged daughter of King Rodon, the country's aging ruler, she lost most of her memories in a plane crash as she was returning to her homeland after many years spent in Geneva. Sheltered in the palace of the prince of Madargane, a city full of Arabic influences in the north of the country, she now wishes to escape back to Switzerland. With Maurania caught in a civil war, Ann learns that her best hope of escape lies in journeying south, where fights with the rebels opposing Rodon still have not started. In return for his help, the prince of Madargane asks Ann to take with her a mysterious black leopard, whose history is unknown but whom the prince feels will be of importance to her. And Ann, clinging to no more than a name which is not hers and a majestic beast whom life seems to have scarred as much as her, sets out on a four-part journey along the River Maur, fleeing ever southward.
A young woman on a journey through mysterious lands, where she will also learn more about herself, as well as crumbling worlds, strange cultures, wondrous animals and delightfully complicated machines. So it's Amerzone and Syberia all over again? It is -- and yet it is not. Amerzone gave the impression that there would always be fantastic lands to explore, their beauty sheltered from the outside world, their secrets forever passed from one explorer to the next. But that was only an illusion. In Syberia, that dream of free, enchanted worlds had started to fade, and Kate only barely managed to catch a sad, last glimpse of it, never to recur. In the deceivingly-named Paradise, Ann comes too late, after everything has been tainted, and nightmares are all there is left to explore. Yes, the game is dark. Dark and chilling to the bone, like the rain that never stops falling over Maurania. Dark and hopeless, finding only beauty in landscapes when it can find none in mankind. It takes its place perfectly in Sokal's digital œuvre, and is certainly his most accomplished story for that medium so far.
The first character Ann meets in the game is Aicha, a servant in the Prince's palace. Aicha almost immediately points out that Ann must be a rich European, and not-so-subtly suggests a gift would be appreciated. Only after receiving one does the servant consider lending some help. Somehow that first encounter sets the mood for the whole game: Ann is vulnerable because of her amnesia, and most of the people she meets want to take advantage of that situation, either to get her to do what they want, or by giving her only the details of her past life that best serves them. Syberia's Kate Walker was a strong character, always taking charge of the situation. The hero in Paradise is a very different woman, accepting whatever she is told as long as it can help speed up her painful journey. And yet, there is strength in her, shining through from time to time, and it is possible that she remembers more than she may be letting on.
Having played the French version first, I was a bit disappointed with Ann's English voice. Though definitely talented, the actress seems at times to have forgotten that less can be more. Voicing anger or sadness always a little bit too strongly, she failed to find the sullen resignation that was necessary to perfectly convey the subtlety of her character. The other actors fare well, but their characters are often not explored enough to require as much complexity as Ann. Many of them are interesting (though a few are completely bland), but not as memorable as those in Sokal's previous games. Syberia's characters were colourful; Paradise chooses to paint them with shades of grey.
Artistically, Sokal and his team at White Birds have outdone themselves. The settings are incredibly beautiful, with a particular attention on light and weather, as Maurania enters the season of storms. And the game's artistic power goes beyond the quality of the depictions; Sokal has definitely not lost his imagination and touch when it comes to architecture, animals or machines. The most important aspect about graphics in Paradise is that they go far beyond mere eye candy: they fully serve as narrative devices, building the game's atmosphere, conveying feelings such as peace, loneliness, or turmoil at the appropriate time. The only real drawback is that the 3D character models, including Ann, are not as detailed as the backgrounds. This may look a little jarring at first, but with a recent graphics card, this manages not to be too much of a problem, and you'll quickly adjust.
The music is perfectly suited to the settings, and also plays an important part in defining the atmosphere. Unfortunately, like in Syberia, there is only one piece for each of the four "worlds", and it just keeps looping. This is particularly noticeable in Madargane, where the city's Arabic theme, with its percussions and abrupt variations, while a delightful piece in itself, can get quite tedious after the tenth hearing. This is thankfully not the case in the next chapters, where the music is more ambient.
The game makes many unexpected narrative choices, and one of them is being a bit slow to start. By keeping Ann sheltered from the war and its implications during most of the first two chapters, the game seems to indulge in detailing the mood and customs of those places while sacrificing the larger picture. Sokal actually plays a very subtle game, keeping most of his cards up his sleeve until the very end, while hinting enough at having them for the player not to be taken aback when he finally plays them. While events seem to unfold slowly, an important part of the narration progresses through shifts of themes and atmosphere, slowly making the game's stunning fourth and final chapter unavoidable. The pay-off is definitely impressive and, in hindsight, I was glad Sokal chose that narrative route. Still, I wonder if he has not been too subtle for the game's good, risking losing the players' interest in the early parts.
Speaking of the ending, get ready for long debates about it. It reminded me of The Longest Journey's: slightly unexpected, finishing the main story arc but leaving many other plot branches unresolved, and leaving the future open. I like it a lot, but if you need everything to be neatly resolved, prepare for some dissatisfaction. Still, this ending kept me thinking for some time, and I am sure the story in Paradise will spur many interesting discussions. And isn't that the characteristic of a plot well handled?Continued on the next page...