Whilst we’re not short of alternate history World War II games, it’s not often that they get the sort of treatment seen in Paradise Lost. Where we more used to blasting through waves of Third Reich Supersoldaten or dodging rockets in hijacked mechs, this is an altogether different experience. Polish developer PolyAmorous have taken some of the more difficult concepts of coming to terms with loss and turned them into a story that wants you to view cause and effect from both sides of a conflict, as well as unravel a mystery set deep underground. It’s sombre material at times that wants you to be emotionally engaged throughout, but can it manage to hold your attention in what can at times be quite a slow paced exploration of a faux past?
Szymon is grieving for his mother. They lived a happy life isolated from a world that’s been ravaged by nuclear war until she became sick and passed away in their shelter. With little more than a picture of the life his mother had before being shut away, he heads out to discover more about her and see if there are others that have survived that will at least assuage his loneliness. Entering the dark of a sealed bunker that was planned to be the safe heaven of the Nazis and German citizens as they nuked Poland to stop the Allied invasion, he find himself discovering a lifeless city that still holds a few secrets, one of which is a voice over an intercom. Ewa is trapped in a control room somewhere deep in the bunker, and with Szymon needing answers to his questions, he descends deeper into the Earth. Paradise Lost puts you in the shoes of a small boy on his own in a devastated world, desperate to find out if there’s any people left… though can he trust the voice on the other end of the line?
Even though it shares the same title as the famous Milton poem, this isn’t a tale of divine obedience, it’s about a paradise being lost… or rather, several of them from different characters perspectives. It’s not that it doesn’t have something in common with the 17th Century work though. The poem was written when Milton was in mourning for his second wife, Szymon is mourning for his mother, and the game is centred around the Kubler-Ross model of the five stages of grief: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance. Each phase makes for a chapter in the game as the journey goes deeper into the heart of the bunker, and in each stage Szymon and Ewa learn more about what’s happened to the original inhabitants through the computer system that controls the complex. Despite going into hiding in the late 1940’s, this version of the German empire were ruthless as well as technologically advanced, and were expecting to hole up underground until they were well armed and well prepared to take over the rest of the world. 20 years later and that’s not gone to plan, and that’s the biggest lure of the game for me – what happened?
Paradise Lost is definitely an exploration game, and unfortunately a slow one at that. Szymon plods along at a very sedate pace, and even the run button doesn’t seem to do much to chivvy him along. I’m assuming it was run, there was no marking and it seemed that I was moving about a meter an hour faster for pressing it. At least it gives the opportunity to take in the detailed environments and stunning ambition the makers of the bunker must have had. There’s a grandeur about the place that instils the belief that this was for the elite and the chosen to occupy, very much in line with the Party’s values. PolyAmorous don’t shy away from those distasteful aspects, or refrain from including the Slavic people being enslaved and used for experimentation. All of this is conveyed through papers and documents discovered on the route through the city. There’s nothing graphic displayed, though it manages to be more effective as most of the reports are from a detached scientific standpoint, and the odd human note you come across has more impact. With the notions meshing with what we already know about this part of the real life conflict, it’s very easy to believe and be frequently appalled at the treatment of the individuals they’re supposed to be preserving.
With the core mechanic being exploration there’s not much in the way of puzzles to solve, only the odd search and use routine. Every interactable object is pretty clearly signposted, and there’s a Heavy Rain style button/stick combo needed for most actions. It adds a bit more immersion, though the atmosphere is probably what will draw you in the most. Paradise Lost isn’t a horror game or an attempt to build up to an almighty jump scare, but it manages to hold a tension in the air for every inch of the bunker that you search through. There’s power and access to nearly everywhere, but it’s dark in the shadows and anything could be there, especially when you don’t know whether the original owners are still there, all dead, or mutated into something worse (it’s not the latter BTW, yet you may start to imagine that). The environmental storytelling is really good and it’s very easy to pick up on what was happening in each area and piece together what caused the fall. For the bits you can’t see directly, the computer terminals fill in the blanks by providing security playback that includes a strange bit of interaction as if you’re reaching across time to try and alter events. Or maybe it’s there to make you think you caused them. Either way, it’s a bit odd and you might think you imagined it the first time.
Fans of the genre will really get on with the design and style of Paradise Lost, it ticks all the boxes when it comes to detailed environments, good audio work and a breadcrumb trail mystery to unpick. There’s a twist at the end that most will see coming by the time the second chapter is complete, though it’s executed well and offers up a branching narrative for the end at least. I’d like to have seen what would have happened if I’d gone with other options, as well as re-explore some of the areas, but sadly the physical pace of the protagonist is too slow. Without a chapter select and knowing a linear path is the only option, trudging through der Bunker again felt like it would be too much of a chore. However, taking the story as unique to me for the playthrough I had, it’s a satisfying conclusion and one that’s worth seeing due to the entry price.