Imagine if David Lynch or David Cronenberg began their artistic pursuits as game developers during the mid-90s instead of filmmakers in the 60s. That's the immediate connection I felt when discovering Paratopic. After releasing to PC in 2018 and earning street cred at Independent Games Festival thereafter, Arbitrary Metric's humble origins surprised the industry. Now that the dust has settled and it continues releasing on various consoles, there's still one burning question to consider: does it succeed at its intended goals?
Paratopic's story is told through spliced-together vignettes. You begin as a recently-detained person caught smuggling contraband VHS tapes across the border. The specifics of how or why you've been coerced into this line of work by a stranger aren't clearly understood; all things considered, it's best not to frustrate a man whose face has fluctuating UV mapping positions and resolutions. You also step into other characters that involve different plots, such as an assassination. How these stories intersect and intertwine is part of its enigmatic engagement.
Like others in this sub-genre of low-poly horror titles, Paratopic cares more about subsuming you in an uncomfortable atmosphere instead of a digestible plot. The majority of dialogue sounds more gargled than actually spoken, save for a few phrases here and there. Even though most of it is naturally complimented with subtitles, those rare times when it's not included add to this alien world. That sort of unease is also incorporated through the few modest branching narrative paths too, tempting you with a greater understanding.
Its best successes are found in the presentation. The world exudes a palpable griminess thanks to PS1-era rendering techniques (a la original Silent Hill). Regardless of budget, it wouldn't be hard to stylistically alter this tone, but dirtying everything up was the right call. The way sound design enhances the setup and payoff of its critical jump-scare is also quite commendable. Finally, Lazzie Brown's disquieting soundtrack – especially the diegetic tunes heard through the car radio – really sell this unsettling place.
These various elements also make for some compelling scenes in isolation. Although somewhat annoying after the first playthrough, patiently waiting for a slow-moving elevator and then jump-cutting to your floor is a nice editing trick. Those flavorful cinematic techniques are efficiently sprinkled throughout and can surprise you, especially when it tries to be more abstract and surreal. There's so much texture buried within this otherwise low-resolution world.
Whatever interesting mystery you have can't solely rely on neat concepts alone; there needs to be a substantial foundation giving weight to player interaction. Since neither the design nor narrative do that here, those suspenseful moments of intrigue don't follow through. It's like writer Doc Burford and designer Jessica Harvey had an – admittedly – intriguing collection of ideas with various characters and a non-linear structure at play, but then couldn't congeal them into a cohesive whole. Even the few repeating gameplay sequences between characters only have a tenuous thematic connection.
There's some replay value in discovering who you're playing at any given time, but the grander mysteries here feels too empty and meaningless. The story structure feels more like a desultory exercise in cool horror things™ than having a grander design, especially after the abrupt ending. It's a shame too, given the brief window of authentic weirdness you have with it.
This lacking substance applies to its limited gameplay too. It plays to the standard first-person walking sim tune most often, but with some driving and dialogue decisions in between. The issue is not much outside of dialogue choices feel as meaningful as they should. Interacting with the environment is often fruitless and unsatisfying; moreover, a few little interactive elements aren't clarified as well as they should be. Even the repetitive Desert Bus driving bits lose their luster when noticing that steering isn't even necessary to move forward. There is a legitimate atmosphere to these interactive portions, but there's not enough of a mechanical connection.
Paratopic Review | Final Thoughts
That question isn't aimed towards a dollar-per-hour tradeoff, but rather the value of the experience. Its ephemeral runtime (under 1 hour) does curb the $5.49 price point with disparate narrative threads and an achievement system; despite this and the lack of a save function, there's not much of a drive to re-experience everything from a new perspective. Hell, my reason for restarting was due to a weird bug not allowing me to leave the pause menu as I neared the end.
In the end, Paratopic is a title I respect more than enjoy. I admire Arbitrary Metric's specific ambiance and presentational qualities they were able to make on a shoe-string budget; moreover, I can see that being enough for some genre fans – especially with certain qualities being so strong here. But my engagement becomes hobbled when it starts spinning its wheels, as the overarching mystery eventually feels like an illusion of one.
TechRaptor reviewed Paratopic on Xbox Series X with a copy purchased by the reviewer. It is also available on Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, & PC.
- Great Soundtrack
- Stifling Atmosphere
- A Couple Interesting Design Elements
- Effective Use Of PS1-Era Graphics
- Lacking A Cohesive Structure
- Some Middling, Repetitive Mechanics
- Feels Incomplete Thanks To An Abrupt Ending