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?
But Paradise is not only about art and story -- it is, after all, supposed to be a game as well. So how does it fare in that regard? Well, let's say that, since Syberia, the recipe has not changed one bit. So if you found it absolutely unpalatable there, then it will not be any better this time. Unfortunately, if you did like it but thought there was a bit too much salt and not enough pepper, even that has not been corrected. Oh, and the cook has unexpectedly messed up the sauce this time.
Tired of the culinary metaphors? Let's speak plainly, then. The general formula is a variety of puzzles, partly inventory-based, partly about getting odd machines to work, with a few more original mini-games thrown in in-between. The challenges are never terribly difficult, and never far-fetched -- though it can take some time to understand how some of the machines work, or even what they are supposed to do. The recurring problems begin with a general lack of interactivity, with hotspots being strictly limited to those needed for the puzzles. Furthermore, if you are supposed to use an item on a hotspot, you cannot even get Ann to comment on it. This sometimes makes puzzles artificially difficult, as figuring out what to do can be hard when you are unsure what it is you are looking at. The game has also retained from Syberia a tendency to have you run back and forth between places to progress with a puzzle. I think that Ann runs slightly faster than Kate (but there is still no exit option to go directly to the next screen), and that there are fewer such puzzles, but one would already be too much for my taste, especially when the errand-running feels unnecessary.
And what was unexpectedly-messed-up, then? The interface. You know point and click, but with Paradise, get ready to experience "point and wait and click"! This is achieved by taking a perfectly functional point and click interface, replacing the pointer with some sort of context-sensitive round thing, and then animating it so slowly that players won't wait through the delay. Let's say you are hovering over a hotspot; the cursor will start changing to show a possible interaction, but by the time you have realised something has happened, you are already on the other side of the screen, with no idea where the hotspot that triggered the cursor change was. So you hover through the screen again, but more slowly, this time stopping every few seconds. Paradise has a fair bit of pixel hunting, which would be tedious in any case, but with the animated cursor, it truly soars to new levels of painfulness. The game also introduces a new form of torture: mixed-up hotspots. Since the round "pointer" does not actually point at anything, and since it also does not react instantaneously, it is very easy to miss a hotspot close to another one.
This is the precisely the sort of thing that should have been detected during development. Unfortunately, the game gives the impression of having lacked much testing, feeling terribly unpolished at times. The game is buggy, with lock-ups, countless graphic bugs and misnamed items. A patch is in the works, and will be most welcome, but it will not solve the many little inconsistencies (especially in conversation) and slightly awkward moments that keep cropping up every now and again. It is a shame that a game that devoted so much attention to details and atmosphere when it comes to backgrounds and general story, should give off this (certainly undeserved) feeling of carelessness.
Much like the plot, the gameplay is rather disappointing at first, but gets better afterwards (and even much better in the final part). It starts with a few awful puzzles that only start making sense after they have been solved, with unfair game mechanics such as items magically appearing out of nowhere when the game decides that you are allowed to find them, and with events happening for no good reason when you visit some completely unrelated location. But then you get your first sequence with the leopard, and, by the time you regain control of Ann, the streak of bad design is mostly ended. Still, if you have played one of Sokal's previous games, you probably know that you do not really play them for the puzzles. I believe Paradise shows some progress in this regard, and quite a few challenges tend to be quite enjoyable, especially towards the end, but there definitely remains much room for improvement.
Oh, did I mention a "first sequence with the leopard"? Those need some explaining. At three points in the game, you gain control of the black leopard. The graphics then switch to real-time 3D, and the interface to a sort of mouse-driven direct control, where you hold down the left button and point in the direction where you want to go. As the leopard, you can explore and, when necessary, jump by pressing the right mouse button. These sequences are very short, and provide a nice change of style, but they do not feel like an essential addition to the game. As a matter of fact, only one of them felt really fun to play. The change of quality in the graphics is also quite unwelcome, as the game's real-time 3D looks rather dated, and certainly not up to the standards of the pre-rendered backgrounds of the rest of the game. However, these sequences can be skipped if desired, and I must confess that, even though I think I understand what the team was trying to achieve with them, I wish they had been skipped altogether and more time and money devoted to polishing the rest of the game instead.
Paradise is not only a computer game. Benoît Sokal also asked artist Brice Bingono to turn his story into a series of four graphic novels, of which the first two have already been published in some French-speaking countries. Comparing the two takes on the same story provides some insights into the strengths and flaws of the game. The most striking thing is how much the game brings in terms of atmosphere, thanks to the detailed graphics, the vast locations to explore, and the music and videos. This is definitely a strong point. It is also important to see how much depth is added by giving Ann's control to the player. She is a character who accepts being used by others if it is the only way for her to escape from Maurania, and yet she keeps her thoughts to herself, and remains a mystery for most of the game. Getting to "control" her is therefore an interesting, if sometimes uneasy, experience, and enhances the power of the story. The puzzles, on the other hand, appear often unnecessary to the plot.
But the most disturbing thing is that graphic novels that can be read in an hour manage to hold plot and backstory elements which a game that takes between 15 and 20 hours to complete chose not to include. At the end of the day, I believe this is my main problem with this game: Sokal created fascinating worlds, stories, and characters, but left the player too little opportunity to discover them in-depth. On my journey in Maurania, I often felt like a tourist, going from one exhibit to the next, reading the plaques when there were some, and forbidden to touch anything that wasn't necessary. And yet I wanted to learn more, to look at everything, to touch, to prod, to dig as much as I wanted to into Sokal's creations. This is a testament to both his achievements and shortcomings: after playing his games, I can no longer be satisfied with tourism -- it is an explorer I want to be!
Paradise is what I would call a difficult game, like a classic can be a "difficult book". Its lack of polish and some appalling design choices definitely reduce the enjoyment. Its decision to keep the best of both plot and gameplay for the latter stages demands that the player have some faith in the developers to keep going on. To speak plainly, you are likely to be disappointed as you start playing it. But it keeps getting better and better as it moves towards its stunning conclusion. Despite all its flaws, Paradise has the potential to make a very strong impression on players, to haunt their thoughts long after its end -- if the game's themes and story find an echo within them. If that is the case, the journey will have been well worth taking.
But just try to work on making the trip completely enjoyable next time, will you, Mr Sokal?
Editor's Note: This review is based on the original release of Paradise. Updating the game to version 1.1.1 with the patch now available addresses many of the game's technical problems and programming inconsistencies, and improves the responsiveness of the animated cursor. While highly recommending installing this patch before playing for an improved experience, the final rating still remains the same as our earlier assessment.
While falling short of the masterpiece it could have been, Paradise remains a memorable experience that deserves to be given a chance.