Paradise is the latest in a long line of videogames in which the main character begins by not knowing who they are. It's a popular formula because it places me in the same situation as the protagonist. In order for the game to make any sense at all, I need to recover their identity. In Ann Smith's case, that means I'm destined to spend upwards of a dozen hours assisting the love child of Halle Berry and Winona Ryder. Dressed like an archaeologist, she trudges around the fictional African country of Maurania listening to music that makes it loudly obvious that, if nothing else, Paradise is a multicultural videogame. The locals even sound like they come from Southern California.
Occasionally I'm allowed to play as Ann's companion leopard, roaming around less lavish versions of the game's environments. But the second time I took command of the cat, I got stuck between two trees and had to restart my computer. Most of the time I'm watching Ann from a cold, objective distance as she pokes through broad sweeping scenes. The details of these expeditions should build a complete picture of the world of Paradise in my mind. But the objects that Ann finds, as well as the goals of the game's various puzzles, often have nothing to do with the setting. I'm required to find keys or do meaningless activities such as developing film, which I can do in hundreds of other videogames (as well as in the real world).
Early in the game I was informed that a local animal eats "roots and tubas." (So that explains why there are no brass bands in Maurania.) Later I picked up a bunch of leaves that was identified only as "OBJECT_A02515C04_PLANT2." I think somebody's computer code is showing. Maybe the game's designer, Benoit Sokal, was too busy negotiating the number of times his name would appear on Paradise's packaging (six) to make sure the game actually worked. If he doesn't care about the world of Ann Smith, I think I'll stop caring, too.
THE GOOD: Taken by themselves, the images in Paradise suggest a fascinating story. I encounter tribes of tree-dwellers who "bury" their mummified dead on pikes below their tree houses. I even begin the game imprisoned in a harem. As pictures, they have potential.
THE BAD: The setting, story and characters are always contradicting each other. The pictures show details that appear in one view and are gone in another. The Mauranians act unconcerned about the revolution raging through their country. And when she's in a hurry, Ann can pass right through the body of any other person onscreen.
THE BOTTOM LINE: Playing Paradise is like experiencing an African vacation through misspelled postcards and malfunctioning souvenirs.