“Paradise” might be the last thing to come to mind when you think of 2020, but in a way, that’s fitting for a game like Paradise Killer. This indie detective game might have flown under your radar this year, but if you did play it, you know one thing for sure: The soundtrack slaps. We couldn’t do a roundup of the best music of the year without including this gem, and for good reason.
The Best Game Music of 2020 is a weekly feature that highlights some of the best soundtracks of the year.
I’ve already written about how Paradise Killer creates atmosphere through its soundscape. By integrating the music into the world itself, it creates an extra layer of immersion. You have agency over the game’s soundtrack, and when it takes that away from you, those moments feel all the more poignant.
But pretentious video-game meta-narrative nonsense aside, the Paradise Killer soundtrack is an absolute joy. Even if you aren’t a fan of first-person detective stories, it’s worth checking out the music all on its own. The synthy vaporwave and city pop influences create an 80-minute tracklist that creates a real mood amid the many other soundtracks of the year.
Spoiler Warning: This feature spoils some details about the mystery in Paradise Killer.
Vaporwave and the Sound of Nostalgia
When it comes to video-game soundtracks, vaporwave doesn’t come up often. There’s something about it that evokes a weird sense of nostalgia, even if you’ve never heard it before. It taps into a different point in time, harnessing influences from Japanese city pop, smooth jazz, bopping funk, and electronic. There’s something about its essence that sounds familiar, and when juxtaposed against the sheer insanity of Paradise Killer’s aesthetic, it’s a nutty match made in heaven.
Nothing about the game’s aesthetic, characters, or laws of physics are even remotely familiar. Demigods sacrifice humans to create paradise out of nothing, but they never seem to succeed. People carve flesh off cosmic gods to unlock doors. The soldier-turned-literal-idol Crimson Acid has a human body, but the gods blessed her with the head of a goat. Now she’s an underground information broker for the formerly exiled Detective Lady Love Dies, who can survive a fall from any height.
Paradise Killer isn’t normal (and that’s a good thing). It’s not familiar. But the music absolutely is, almost supernaturally so. In a way, you can cling to these comforting tunes as your parse through the universe’s mystery on top of the murder mystery—namely, how the hell does this world even work?
Parts of the Paradise Killer soundtrack are perfect examples of muzak, a genre of music made to be in the background. In fiction, it’s a fitting vibe. After all, Lady Love Dies has the all-important task of figuring out the truth behind the Crime to End All Crimes. She needs to focus, and something like muzak—think like elevator music—fits the bill.
“Lady Blue,” as an example, has a cosmic feel to it starting around 50 seconds in, and it’s easy to bob your head along to the beat. At the same time, put it on a low volume and it becomes perfect background music while you study or work. “Breeze With U” features a more laid-back vibe, but it again fits the bill of easy yet engaging listening.
The easy listening aspect gives the soundtrack the perfect method to seep into your brain, almost insidiously so. After a couple hours of play, you’ll find yourself humming these tunes to yourself, wondering how they got stuck in your head in the first place. Therein lies the beauty of Barry “Epoch” Topping’s score here: These songs can both slip into the background and into your mind.
The Earworms to End All Earworms
Muzak vibes aside, Paradise Killer houses some absolutely groovy bangers that demand—and deserve—your attention. Generally speaking, sexy saxes, vibrant synths, funky guitars, and upbeat drums drive the soundtrack. However, “Paradise (Stay Forever),” arguably the best song on the soundtrack, throws in an additional spice: vocals.
Just as the horns steal the show from the synth and drums, Fiona Lynch’s powerful voice takes over, carrying through the verse. When the chorus hits, we get a classic example of call and response. As Lynch sings, “Our red skies,” the horns respond back. “Where love dies,” prompts yet another response. It’s a simple yet effective musical tactic that creates an addicting chorus, one that you’ll want to listen to over and over again.
On top of all that, Epoch had the audacity to put a sax solo in “Paradise (Stay Forever)”—and a kickass one at that. If there’s any song that’s worth your time from Paradise Killer, even if you never play the game, it’s this one.
When it comes to the muzak vibe, however, “End of the World” truly stands out. This song evolves drastically from start to finish. Its first few measures are regal and loud, almost like it’s shaking you out of whatever zen-like state you were in. You might be able to study while the other songs play in the background, but this one doesn’t want to fit that mold.
Then it settles into a reggae-like groove until it plays that regal riff once more. Afterward, a synthetic-sounding saxophone takes its solo, playing until the end, where the song goes into a suspenseful march, as if walking toward a grand finale. It’s a fitting sound, considering the name of the song.
Finally, I couldn’t gush about the music in Paradise Killer without mentioning “The Sarcophagus.” Aptly named, this song plays when you go to the Dead Zone, a destroyed set of apartment complexes corrupted by miasma. It’s sealed away from the rest of the island, making it feel a lot like a sarcophagus.
This song struck me in its stark difference from the rest of this upbeat soundtrack. “The Sarcophagus” oozes darkness; it’s moody, with an oppressive, deep bass taking over. Around 44 seconds in, it settles into a groove, making it something you can once more bob your head to. But something feels different and less optimistic than the rest of the music here.
It isn’t until a full minute in that the synths chime in, ramping up to a riff that lifts directly from “Paradise (Stay Forever).” You can hear the synth play that motif prominently right before the line, “I put it up, I take it down,” and it continues to play those chords underneath that line. However, in “The Sarcophagus,” it sounds distant, as if the beauty of paradise is nowhere to be found in the Dark Zone, despite having once been there before.
‘25, You’ll Stay Forever (Here in Paradise)’
Paradise Killer, as a game, might not be for everyone. Methodically piecing together a murder mystery through investigation and exploration isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. The soundtrack, though, is on another level. It easily stands out as one of the best of the year. It’s on Spotify if you want to take a listen, which I encourage you to check out. Whenever you’re busy and need a little bit of background noise, this soundtrack is a good place to start. Just be careful, because you might never hear the end of it.
This feature is part of our limited-run series on some of the best soundtracks of 2020. Tune in next week for another installment!