Paratopic Review (Switch eShop)
VC-arrrrghby Stuart Gipp
As a rule of thumb, it's probably best not to watch mysterious VHS tapes. On the plus side, the fact that it's a dead format means that the sheer effort of locating a VCR in order to violate said rule is almost certainly more trouble than it's worth, and if said mysterious tapes were uploaded to YouTube you'd probably have to deal with ads. Thankfully, Paratopic seems to take place in an indeterminate recent past where procuring the means to watch videotapes is simplicity itself. Imagine if it didn't. Whole game, scuppered. But we digress.
This kind of levity is necessary because you'll find very little of the sort in Paratopic. In the vein of the indie horror likes of Kitty Horrorshow's Anatomy (sadly, not on Switch), it's a first-person narrative experience that's almost exclusively about evoking a mood. Which it does, with aplomb.
Paratopic features little in the way of traditional gameplay. There's a gun, but to elucidate on its usage would be a spoiler. In fact, it's difficult to talk about the game without giving too much away, so obliqueness is unfortunately a necessity. You move through its bleak, scuzzy, lo-fi world and gradually unpick the mysteries of its story; periodically, you'll jump-cut between three different characters under your control, slowly coming to more understanding on how they relate to one another.
You'll take on an ambiguous task for a menacing client, drive down seemingly-endless highways towards inexorable darkness, and journey out into the wilderness to take photos of an unusual pink avian. None of this challenging, so to speak – the worst-case scenario is that you might get a little bit lost when unsure where the game expects you to go next – but Paratopic is extremely good at using its limited environmental cues to send you in the right direction.
There are also conversations, which operate with an interesting D-pad-based flow – though, giving different responses didn't seem to have a meaningful effect on the narrative on our playthroughs. Said dialogue is also, occasionally, the source of some bizarre and pitch-black humour, though it doesn't offer any respite from the experience. You have to beat the whole thing in one session – there's no save feature – but that's not really a tall order, and definitely helps with immersion. We're all trapped in this nightmare.
The frequent snaps to another, completely different perspective are jarring in a way that services the slow-building sense of dread very effectively, helped along by a thoroughly impressive soundtrack. We called the game "lo-fi", and that extends to every aspect of its presentation. The graphics recall the original PlayStation's muddier aesthetics, with warped textures and bizarre faces stretched over low-poly character models. It runs at a locked, butter-smooth 60fps throughout, which adds to the dreamlike feel of it all. Its whole vibe reminded us of Japan-only PlayStation fever dream L.S.D, with which Paratopic shares a similar feeling that something truly appalling is going to happen.
As effective as Paratopic is at building and maintaining its off-kilter atmosphere, it's not perfect. Like many games of its ilk, Paratopic is extremely short, but despite its brevity – it'll take you an hour, tops, to finish – it still feels like there are a couple of unnecessary longeurs present. The driving sequences are certainly in keeping with the ambience but we felt like the same point could have been made in roughly half the time you spend accelerating and unnecessarily steering the car away from barriers that it will simply bounce off anyway.
We also felt that the game failed to answer almost any questions – there's a difference between intriguing and obfuscating and Paratopic doesn't always manage to straddle that line. There are plenty of memorable sequences and images, but when none of them really stitch together to form a coherent theme – not to mention a narrative – it's difficult to muster any lingering interest after the credits roll. That's not to say Paratopic isn't interesting, but we can't imagine much in the way of prolonged debate or discussion being inspired by it.
Maybe that's the point. Not everything needs to have a deeper meaning outside of just being a succession of cool ideas and images, which is what Paratopic most certainly offers. Will you see something more in it than we did? Perhaps, but at any rate, it's a journey into the night that's very much worth going on.
Paratopic is a fever dream; a near-constantly engaging sequence of strange and at times frightening imagery. It's intriguing stuff, to say the least, but we felt that it rather fizzled out just when our interest in the various eldritch goings-on was piquing. We found that beyond experiencing it all over again there was nothing much in the way of meaningful replay value, but as a once-through bad trip, it'll keep you glued to your Switch from start to annoyingly-abrupt finish.