I have done a Paratopic. I hope never to do a Paratopic again.
Back in 2018, a game released on the PC and Switch, and it was talked about in hushed tones as if it were a banned video nasty or the tape from Ring. I had plenty of game-loving friends who asked me if I’d played it yet. What did I think? What did it do to me?
Perhaps because I’m a great wet lettuce, Paratopic has been sitting on my Switch, never played. I didn’t want to get a call, later in the evening, claiming I was going to die in the next forty-eight hours, thank you very much. Nor did I want my sanity stretched like bubble gum. I was going to play it – of course, pfft! – but I never did. It has stayed, unplayed, accusing me of being a wuss from the Switch’s homescreen.
Fast forward to the present day, and Paratopic is arriving on Xbox. Now is the moment of my redemption. I was going to play it and then review it. Nothing could stop me.
Having spent multiple separate forty-five minute sessions playing Paratopic, I am a jumble of thoughts and emotions. It wasn’t the psychological gauntlet I thought it was, nor was it an entirely pleasant experience. I’m not sure if my life is enriched having played it, but if someone asked me if I would recommend it to them, I think I would stare at them, open-mouthed for roughly ten minutes, before answering “I really don’t know”.
It’s hard to say precisely what Paratopic is, but there are a few anchoring statements that we can say with some confidence. This is a retro-leaning adventure; something that will offer nostalgia to fans of games like Alone in the Dark, Omikron: The Nomad Soul and System Shock. Just like those games, the characters have real-world faces rollered onto polygons, as if made at the height of Unreal Engine.
It has a fantastic soundtrack, too. Some moments are pure John Carpenter in their dissonant wails and a rising ambient dread. Others are more over to Vangelis, sifting some beauty out of the tar. We attempted, stupidly, to play Paratopic once without audio on, and it reduced the satisfaction down to about a tenth of what it should have been. Don’t be like us: play with headphones on.
Paratopic is also astonishingly short. It is a forty-five minute adventure with not a lot of branching or nuance to pick out a second time around. That’s reflected in the price, of course, which is on the budget end. Treat it as a haunted house ride or similar – a concentrated horror experience that’s there to rattle the bones for just under an hour – and you’ll be a better judge of whether the price is worth it.
But that’s all we’ve got: everything else gets a bit hazy: like what it’s about, for example. We think Paratopic is an anthology piece: a game shown from three perspectives, although there might be more. There’s an ornithologist, out for a ramble with her camera. There’s a smuggler, running VHS tapes. And there’s a killer. Scenes from these characters splice together like a dodgy home movie, and understanding who is in focus at a given time is part of the puzzle.
Characters ebb and flow into the narrative, showing glimpses of their lonely, delusional souls. A petrol station clerk delivers a chilling advert for the world’s second biggest ball of twine, and – secretly – we hoped the game would lurch towards visiting it. There are some fantastic Lynchian exchanges here, with the occasional ability for you to tease a dialogue path through it, but most often it is as terrifying and out-of-your-control as watching an octopus unfurl.
And then there’s the pacing. Paratopic can feel like an uncomfortably long stare or embrace sometimes. Some sections go on for too long – and for a huge proportion of the short runtime – and you wonder if they are going to end, or if you’re doing it wrong, or if you’ve uncovered an unsightly glitch. But we suspect that’s the point: that Paratopic is playing at the edges of entertainment, and is watching to see what you do when a road continues for longer than it should, or a walk takes you slowly – ever so slowly – to a distant point.
While we understand what Paratopic is doing in these sequences – and its finest moment comes at the end of one, and has impact precisely because of that boredom – we wished that it would hurry things up, particularly with a view to playing Paratopic several times. There are achievements that practically invite you in for a second play, but the slow march towards a person with a clapperboard who refuses to call “scene” can be intensely frustrating.
And that’s why our emotions are so jumbled. Paratopic is undoubtedly one of the most atmospheric games that we’ve played. We completed it while alone in our house, and we rather wished that we hadn’t. It oozes craft, with ‘oozes’ being a good word for it. And one moment in particular is going to be etched into our retinas for many, many years.
But we couldn’t shake the feeling that it dances through a world that we wanted to spend more time in, and while moments stayed with us, it didn’t let anything else do the same. The world, characters, story – even a sense of comprehension – all get left behind, furtively seen in the rear-view mirror. In exchange, there are long stretches of what can only be described as tedium, and we would have happily swapped them for more of its fine brand of surrealism and horror.
No qualms about it: we are glad we played Paratopic. And while we might apologise in advance for recommending this horrifying little distraction, you should play it too.
Paratopic is over on the Xbox Store for Xbox One and Xbox Series X|S