Paradise Lost Review
Descending into the past while hiding history
Walking simulators do not have a lot to fall back on. Without traditional gameplay, they rely heavily on world design and story. When both are in harmony, the experience is usually worthwhile and sometimes poignant. Paradise Lost is a new first-person walking simulator that only manages to succeed with its setting. While its premise is interesting, the story is both shallow and unsatisfying, and this is an issue in a game that will take less than four hours to complete.
Paradise Lost features an alternative version of history where World War II did not end in 1945. Germany charged across Europe and through Russia until 1960, when the allies finally pushed the Nazis back into a losing position. All that extra time at war gave Germany access to nuclear weapons, and they decided that if they could not have Europe, nobody else could. Before they instituted their scorched earth policy, they built bunkers and recalled their Nazi elites back to reside within them until the nuclear winter subsided. But the allies got word of one bunker and a few managed to infiltrate it just before the sky caught fire. That bunker is called Gesellschaft and it is the best feature of Paradise Lost.
To dive into Gesellschaft, you play as a 12 year-old boy named Szymon. It is now 1980, many years after the bombs were dropped. Szymon’s mother has recently died as they were trying to survive on the surface. Among her possessions is a photograph of an unknown man standing inside the Gesellschaft bunker. With no family or friends, Szymon sets forth to enter the bunker and find answers.
Gesellschaft is not an ordinary bunker. It is a mini Nazi city, hidden in an enormous cave. Among its many buildings is an ornate mansion that serves as the living quarters. These living quarters rest along the shore of an underground lake, emulating a scenic beachside locale, while the world above is barely habitable. The bunker also has a promenade with alfresco dining and gaudy fashion shops. Even the entrance area is framed by marble pillars, eagle statues, and plentiful swastikas. Gesellschaft is both a fantastic technical feat and an extravagant demonstration of what the Nazis thought of themselves. But when Szymon arrives, it appears to be empty. There are no bodies or blood. The entrance lobby is packed with suitcases as though something interrupted the initial occupation. Deeper into the bunker are signs of a gunfight. This is where the allies got inside and the story focuses on them trying to take control.
It does not take long before Szymon finds out he is not alone in the bunker. A girl named Ewa contacts him via the internal communication systems. Ewa came to explore the bunker and is stuck in a control room. She offers to help him find what he is looking for in exchange for freedom. As Szymon has trouble navigating the interior, and Ewa can open doors remotely, he has little choice but to agree to the deal. There is some choice-based dialogue when interacting with Ewa, and although she does change her responses, it does not affect the main story and is rather inconsequential.
Aside from discussions with Ewa, a significant portion of the story is revealed when you interact with computer terminals. The computer that operates the bunker is sophisticated for its age, controlling many systems and tracking residents. It recorded previous events onto memory tubes and re-inserting these tubes will allow you to relive key moments. Although these are historic devices, you can interact with them as though you were the person controlling the bunker’s operation. This is confusing but it allows for some changes. Certain choices will alter the environments ahead; like if you choose to defend the base aggressively, it might result in a statue being constructed to honor dead civilians. But like those interactions with Ewa, there are not many choices and they do not result in drastic world changes. A few more computer simulations could have lessened the main problem with the narrative: there is simply not enough of it.
Despite interactions with Ewa and the computer, the narrative is thin and a letdown for the world design. The cast is tiny and the sequence of events are rather basic once you have all the information to piece them together. But since the game is 3-4 hours long at a leisurely pace, the only way to make the story interesting for the entire length was to exclude pertinent information. Names of characters are withheld, basic revelations are cut short, terminology merely obfuscates, Ewa knows nothing, and generally the story tries to be misunderstood until the end. It even leaves a few major questions unanswered. This is frustrating and it might not have been if there were even just a few stories of side characters like in other games of this type.
Withholding information might also be why the ending is unsatisfactory. Near the finale there are three areas that help explain everything, but only two of them can be accessed in a single playthrough. This was probably done to entice another playthrough, as there are two ‘endings’ based on a trivial final choice. Since the game has no save files to select, you have to play through the entire adventure again to see them both. It is not worth doing, even when speed-walking.
As a walking simulator, interaction is expectedly minimal but also inadequate. There are some buttons to press and levers to pull, but nothing that could be called a puzzle. Despite the level of detail in the bunker, there is no ability to zoom in your view like in other games in the genre. Some miscellaneous items can be inspected and a few empty drawers can be opened, as though these features were never fully implemented. A disturbingly large number of rigid first-person animations are in the game too. Here you just push forward until the animation begins—climbing up or jumping down takes 5-10 seconds—leaving the player little to do but watch. They just drag out a game that is already too long given the minimal narrative content within.
Paradise Lost presents an alternate version of history but does not pack itself with enough narrative to remain interesting. Exploring a Nazi bunker is intriguing at first, when the story is not trying so hard to evade answers by excluding vital information. But when the story stretches itself thin, players have to wait until the lacklustre end for it to make sense. It is a shame, too, because the environments are designed well enough that they could have been part of a better game. Paradise Lost might have succeeded as a more traditional adventure title, with puzzles and non-linear exploration. As it stands now, even at its reasonably low price, this walking simulator is a few steps behind the pace.