On paper, Faravid Interactive's The Samaritan Paradox has a lot going for it. Political conspiracy, arms trafficking, dark family secrets, cult activity, parallel storylines, and a distinctly dark, moody vibe. The man behind Faravid, Petter Ljungqvist, put a large deal of thought and effort into making this game. As such, it's with difficulty that I follow this by saying that The Samaritan Paradox isn't a very good game. It features many promising concepts, but they don't quite work out in execution.
This is not to say it doesn't show promise. Judging by his blog posts, the responses he's made to criticism on AGS forums, and his interview with Game Academy Radio, Petter Ljungqvist is a demonstrably intelligent individual who knows what constitutes a quality video game. And by no means did he cut corners with his own game. He created Paradox with solid intentions in mind and a steady design philosophy. I would be more comfortable amounting Paradox's failures to being Faravid Interactive's first professional product. To be sure it's recommended seeking out future releases by the company. For the time being, however, The Samaritan Paradox veers toward the disappointing.
Paradox is set in the early 80s in Sweden. It concerns cryptography postgrad Ord Salamon, who busy dealing with writer's block while trying to work on his thesis. On a friend's recommendation he picks up the latest novel by recently deceased author Jonatan Bergwall, who purportedly committed suicide. Ord discovers and deciphers a hidden message in the novel that suggests there may have been something more sinister at work behind Jonatan's death. Accordingly he tips off Bergwall's daughter Sara. From Sara he learns that Jonatan wrote another novel called The Last Secret before he died, which may hide further hints into the true specifics of his death. One problem: The novel is missing. Events influence Ord into tracking down the novel. Little do Sara and Ord know that this search may also reveal conspiracies on a much larger scale than they ever bargained for. As Ord obtains each successive chapter of Jonatan Bergwall's novel (which are shown rather than told, as intermittent fantasy-realm asides), he begins to uncover the narrative's real-world implications.
Now, this all sounds cool conceptually. One could imagine it as a Stieg Larsson or Dan Brown novel, with David Fincher adapting it for film. But Paradox simply tries to do too much in too short a time, which means underdeveloped characters, built-up plotlines that are resolved or else dropped too abruptly, and an altogether haphazard narrative.
For one, Ord really doesn't have much going for him as a protagonist. He's a cryptography student and seems pretty nice. Sure, as a player we'll root for him. But one can't say much more about his personality. One can pick out George Stobbard, Rosa Blackwell, and Gabriel Knight without trouble, but Ord is barely a notch above a silent protagonist. His struggle to finish his thesis is never much elaborated upon. We learn early on that he's recuperating from a breakup, but this point is pretty much never addressed again. He has a buddy named Magnus who you can call from Ord's apartment and schedule a dinner date with, but there isn't much to Magnus either. Their conversations are to the point, which is nice if we're to value brevity, but not when it comes at the expense of flavor. This dinner date never happens, also.
This actually ties into the most controversial part of Ljungqvist's game design philosophy: Setting up plot points that intentionally go without resolution. This is supposed to highlight the contrast between fantasy and reality, how things don't come full circle just because the game is over. It's an unconventional and interesting idea for sure, but there's a reason why we as players enjoy setups and payoffs. There's a reason why everybody knows the Chekhov's Gun. Setting up numerous questions without ever answering them is somewhat of a betrayal of the player's trust.
With only the slightest of spoilers, Ljungqvist explains: "I wanted there to be a tangible difference between the dramatic showdown ending of the fairy-tale, and how the real world works - mundane and anti-climactic. [...] A realistic ending is one where there isn't a perfect closure - you don't always get all questions answered."
Again, an interesting idea that's questionable in its execution. Paradox feels uncomfortable in its own genre, not wanting to commit to being a conspiracy thriller for fear of losing its realism. To be perfectly honest, pushing for more realism in a game about a cryptographer accidentally unveiling things like illegal arms trafficking is missing the point of the player's inherent suspension of disbelief.
There is a welcome array of female protagonists, although they too are largely two-dimensional. Our player character in Bergwall's final novel, Freja, for instance. She has barely more to her than Graham in the early King's Quest games. Although to be fair, given that she's fiction-within-fiction, it makes sense. The novel is supposed to be a thinly-veiled analogy for a darker real world counterpart, so at least here the two-dimensional characters are suitable. And anyway these sections harken back to retro-style King's Quest gameplay and storytelling. For better or worse, on that end Faravid succeeds.
Aside from Freja we have Sara, Jonatan's daughter; Signe, Jonatan's Alzheimer's-afflicted wife; Veronicka, Signe's caretaker; and Anna, a detective who may be on the same trail as you, although perhaps not on the same side. These characters are fine enough to begin with, but end as little more than tropes and plot devices.
Both the men and women of Paradox suffer this problem: They carry the narrative forward, are the triggers for certain events, but ultimately fail to fully develop identities in their own right. Take for instance a scene in which Anna saves Ord from an attacker. Now, we know little about Anna. Just that she may be useful in trading information with Ord. But when Ord is in danger, for a few minutes there she becomes an 80s action hero, shouting one-liners at Ord and knocking out his would-be assailant. The whole affair feel terribly forced, all too apparently put in as an attempt to show to comic effect a woman with more initiative and strength than Ord. Anna isn't really developed beyond being a "strong woman" though, so we're left feeling like she was there just to complete the scene, not because it made sense for her to be there.
The dialogue, perhaps as a result of the two-dimension characters, is stiff and awkward. This causes the competent voice acting to suffer somewhat. None of it is necessarily lacking, but at the same time it feels like the dialogue displays just the bare bones of information without anything to zazz it up. There's occasionally an attempt at humor, but they more often than not just come off as uncomfortable. The characters are terrible at swearing - Anna in particular - and it sounds jarring and artificial.
Now, Ljungqvist formed the dialogue in this way for brevity's sake. The player's goal is to beat the game, right? Why fluff up its length with superfluous dialogue? The intention is sound, but it doesn't work when it comes at the expense of the characters' personalities. Dave Gilbert followed a similar philosophy in his later Blackwell games, but it is much more successful in that case because the characters have appealing personalities. The dialogue exists here solely as exposition. The result lacks in energy.
Gamemaker and developer Lannie Neely III, who co-designed parts of To the Moon, composed the Paradox's soundtrack. It's a creepy and ambient piece of work, one which remarkably lends itself to the game's atmosphere. One is reminded of Thomas Regin's work on the Blackwell games. Most of the tracks are sad and jazzy. "Gothenburg" and "Loss of Nerve" stand out in particular. The latter is unfortunately overused in situations that don't call for it - the song is tense, suggesting danger around the corner, and often it is used under milder circumstances.
The graphics are lovely. Ljungqvist certainly has a talent for pixel art. Most backgrounds are a bit washed out and drab, but they're done well and fit the overall atmosphere of the game. Iron Square is particularly beautiful, less claustrophobic than the rest of the game but still permeating that gray, dreary mood in a more outstanding way. Unfortunately many of the backgrounds stick to this mood too well, leaving them fairly non-distinct. The character portraits share the same pros and cons: Well done (they look much like the character portraits in the original Clock Tower), but nothing to write home about.
Sprites are only sparingly animated, which causes the game to look less polished that it could have been. The sprites are mostly nice otherwise, if still suffering the problem of being unmemorable. Also Ord's idle animation, with his hands stuck casually in his pockets, is comically inappropriate during many of the game's tense moments.
In sum everything on the graphical front shows talent - just not talent reaching its potential.
The puzzles are the main draw of the game. Paradox is in part an homage to 90s adventure gaming, so one can already guess what's coming. Ljungqvist explains on his website: "[I]t does feature a few puzzles based on combining inventory items and using objects in unexpected fashions, which some people may find a bit convoluted, but most obstacles and their solutions are logical and at least make sense." Which I can confirm is true, as it takes both the good and the bad of 90s adventure games. A few, such as a maneuvering a certain statue in the Bergwall estate or using a crane to remove a missile from a crate so you can hide in said crate, are infuriating. However others, such as entering a code into a sundial or deciphering clues from a poem and implementing them into a chess game, are actually rather clever. Timed events are sparse and forgiving. There are even some competent stealth sections. Hot spots are sometimes awkwardly placed or else too close to the UI though.
The Samaritan Paradox has some good parts, let's not forget them. It really feels like an old-school SCUMM engine title, with all the nostalgia that comes with that association. And for those who adored games of that ilk, Paradox can be quite enjoyable. But it never adds up to what it should be. The story tries to tie together too many complex themes in too short an amount of time. With about five to seven hours of playtime Paradox ends up being a series of build-ups with lackluster payoffs. Perhaps if Faravid Interactive's next release took a more polished approach - with more varied graphics, tighter plotting and characterization, and altogether smoother mechanics - then we would have a game truly worth playing.