Developer: White Birds Productions
Release Date: April 25, 2006
Created by Benoit Sokal of Syberia fame, Paradise will take you through the fictional African nation of Maurania. Despite the change of locale, this title exhibits Sokal's personal touches in its gorgeous backgrounds, breathtaking cut scenes, deep and engaging story, and intuitive puzzles. Although the game is coming out soon, we spent some hands-on time with an early preview build. The gameplay mechanics needed some smoothing out, but we were fairly impressed with what was available at that early stage. Given that the game is much further along in its development cycle, we can only imagine how much better Paradise has become.
The story begins with a young woman waking up in a harem with no recollection of who she is or how she ended up in Africa. At the suggestion of Aicha, a helpful attendant, our protagonist takes the name of Ann Smith, which is found on a book in her possession. Ann seeks out the prince, hoping to enlist his help in sending her back home, but instead, he tasks her with returning a black leopard to its birthplace.
As a third-person point-and-click adventure, Paradise has simple, clear-cut controls. A metallic ball serves as the cursor, and it sprouts an arrow in the direction of the path you can follow; double-click in that direction if you want Ann to run instead of walk. The cursor sprouts a magnifying glass if you can take a closer look at an item, spokes protrude if you can use or interact with an object, and pinchers appear if you can pick up the item. The inventory menu comes up with a simple right-click, and clicking on an item will activate it for use with the environment or an NPC. (If you cannot use the item on a particular person or place, the cursor is supposed to indicate this, presumably with a different icon, but this feature was not present in the preview build.) If you select an item and drag it around in the inventory menu, you can combine it with other objects. Additionally, the cursor changes into a trumpet if you can speak to an NPC, and dialog keywords will appear in a gray box in the upper left-hand corner of the screen.
Many adventure games have promised dialog systems that will yield different results, based on the level of sympathy – or apathy – the NPCs felt towards the protagonist, but as the games inched closer to their respective ship dates, ideas about unique dialog systems were usually the first to get scrapped. In this preview build, White Birds has not shied away from the challenge. If Ann manages to upset or bore an NPC, he or she will not speak again until you somehow manage to regain their sympathy or interest. Alternatively, you can leave the room and do something else until the character is in a better mood to answer your questions. Paradise's story is so engaging that these enforced breaks are often frustrating, since you just want to get back to helping Ann with her quest.
Unlike most adventure titles which have obscure puzzles for the sake of having obscure puzzles, the riddles in Paradise are quite straightforward. If you can't figure out a puzzle, then chances are that you don't have all of the necessary information to solve it, so you should explore a bit more and come back to it at a later time. For example, there's a boiler room puzzle with a number of levers and knobs. Now, having played too many sub-par adventure titles since Syberia 2, I started tinkering with the levers and knobs, tilting them this way and that, and trying to find a pattern. It was completely futile, and, as it turns out, completely unnecessary; a conversation yielded a widget, which, when fed into the appropriate panel, produced a punch card. The card was used to activate a machine, and then, the solution became glaringly obvious.
Since Paradise is a point-and-click adventure title, one of the basic requirements would be effortless pointing and clicking. This was an early build, so my comments may no longer be valid, but the cursor's animations, while initially innovative and entertaining, slow down the pixel-hunting process to a crawl. When mousing over environments, the cursor will begin to sprout a magnifying glass, spoke, or pinchers, but since the animation takes so long to play out, you'll have moved onto another grid before you realize that something was beginning to form on top of your cursor. You'll have to double back and pixel-hunt the region again. Furthermore, the cursor sprouts an arrow in the direction of the path you can follow. Sometimes, the arrow won't appear until you've navigated the cursor to the far right of the screen, hiding the right half of your cursor from view. The cursor might have an arrow pointing to the right, but you certainly can't see it, which makes it a weak travel indicator. Hopefully, the cursor animations will be more streamlined and accurate in the retail version.
Paradise will feature four worlds and offer at least 20 hours of gameplay. Only one world was playable in the preview build, but if the region of Madargane is indicative of what can be expected in the rest of the title, a wide variety of gorgeously pre-rendered locations await us. Portions of the game will play out as more of an action title, allowing players to control the leopard as he also searches for a way back home.
Graphically, there is no mistaking Paradise's pedigree. The cut scenes are simply stunning in their meticulous detail, and the color palette is muted, serving as the perfect complement to the game's locale and ambiance. The graphics weren't optimized in the build, so "jaggies" sometimes cropped up in character animations. A few animation hiccups were also present, and the pathfinding was a little awkward; Ann would turn around a few times before finally walking in the desired direction, but these are common bugs which hopefully won't surface in the retail version.
The voice acting that I've encountered thus far has been superb, to the point where the harem girls retorting, "Go away!" brought back memories of high school ineptitude. Ambient sounds are present and accounted for, from the babbling brook in the garden to the squawking birds in the aviary. The background music plays at a lower volume than the ambient sounds, and it is so subtle that its tribal drums and Arabian notes delicately situate you in the land of Maurania.
It's a little disappointing that a limited beta build was sent out so close to the final launch of the game, but even in its unfinished state, Paradise manages to impress. Gameplay is intuitive, the graphics are breathtaking, the cut scenes put most others to shame, and the puzzle solutions are usually quite apparent. Fans of Benoit Sokal and the Syberia series have already started camping out for this title, but if you thought Syberia was too whimsical, there are more serious undertones to the storyline here, so Paradise might be just right for you.
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