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SummaryA one-of-a-kind nautical investigation adventure
The Good* Compelling mystery-solving that's unlike anything else I've played. * Unique, memorable visual style * Great atmosphere evoked though music, voice, and environmental sounds
The Bad* Underwhelming storyline * Minor but annoying technical issues get in the way of the immersion
The Bottom LineReturn of the Obra Dinn is a 3D first-person “insurance mystery” game. Designed by Lucas Pope with his team 3909, it serves as the followup to his critically acclaimed immigration simulator “Papers Please”. Like that game, Return of the Obra Dinn manages to successfully gamify what would otherwise be a mundane task into a compelling and surprising adventure. It’s a small, but mostly well-formed gem of a game that is unlike anything else I’ve played all year.
Set in the early 1800s off the coast of England, you take on the role of an insurance investigator who’s latest task is to investigate a mysterious ship which rolled into harbor one day with the crew all dead or missing. Your main tool for investigation is a magical pocketwatch called the Memento Mori, which gives you the ability to travel back in time to the moment when something died. Your goal is to uncover the fates of every crew member on board the Obra Dinn: who they are, how they died, and who or what killed them if applicable.
Early clues actually take place near the end of the Obra Dinn’s journey, meaning that some of the first deaths you see are among the last chronologically. This backwards chronological order continues throughout the entire game, and by following each corpse back, you’ll usually unlock the next one to go back even further in time. Some corpses will be left rotting on the ship, while others only appear after you view specific memories. Parts of the ship are also locked off until after you view certain memories, which prevents the temptation of seeing all memories early on.
Each memory opens with a bit of dialogue to establish the situation. You then explore a static, 3D scene of the corpse’s moment of death, investigating for clues in the environment and characters. You can zoom in to any character in the memory to locate them in the sketch, and this can help you determine who they might be. When you’ve viewed the memory, you’ll exit via a nearby door, which takes you back to the present era.
The provided journal comes with some materials to help you solve the fates of each crew member, including a manifest, sketches, a glossary for maritime terms, a map of the ship which also shows your current location, and a map of the Obra Dinn’s journey. After you view their memory, each crew member has their own journal page allowing you to review dialogue and a still frame of their moment of death. You’ll utilize this information along with viewing the memories to piece together the grisly fates of each crew member.
There are a few devices used to keep the player on the right track. Whenever you have enough information to reveal the identity of a crew member, their face will be un-blurred in the sketch. You can bookmark each memory that that crew member appears in, though you’ll have to travel to the associated corpses in order to view them again, which is a minor inconvenience. The map will show which memories you can visit in chronological order, and this may be necessary to deduce the deaths of some characters. The game rates each character’s identity on a scale indicating how hard they are to figure out, and encourages you to work out the easier identities first. This is because every time you correctly solve three fates, they will be permanently printed into the book, thus reducing the number of possibilities left for the unsolved identities. You can sort of game this system to your advantage by randomly guessing a third fate until you fill it in correctly. However, I think it strikes just the right balance between letting the player figure things out for themselves while also offering encouragement that they are on the right path. And sometimes, you will just have to make guesses and assumptions until you get it right.
Some identities are easy to deduce from an obvious clue, such as a piece of dialogue or the clothes the character wears. Others are considerably harder to work out. You might look at the crew member’s manifest number for their matching hammock, or guess based on where they’re working or their ethnicity. Some characters are harmed in earlier memories yet don’t die until later on, which can make for some very tricky fate solving.
If there’s a complaint, its that the actual story of the Obra Dinn isn’t too interesting on its own. If the Memento Mori didn’t clue you in early on, the story makes very heavy use of fantastical elements, including various types of sea monsters and cursed treasure. It’s all very “Pirates of the Caribbean”. Admittedly, seeing a giant crab monster attack the crew for the first time is a genuinely frightening moment, but it can be a bit jarring nonetheless for those expecting a more straightforward murder mystery. The game makes the strange decision to lock the last two fates until you have solved everyone else, so I was hoping for some grand twist or revelation hidden in that chapter which puts the rest of the story in a new light, but it was kind of underwhelming. The eureka moments you get while solving this complex logic puzzle are what will keep you motivated throughout the game, so its a disappointment that the narrative itself doesn’t match that feeling.
Much of the attention around Obra Dinn has centered on its unusual look. Paying homage to the classic adventure games of the early 1980s, Return of the Obra Dinn opts for a “1-bit”, green and white style look. Indeed, the game as a whole is very much a modern, 3D interpretaton of those old adventure games. The low-fi visuals manage to evoke a striking sense of atmosphere. I love the use of clear white lines to suggest darkened areas. They also allow Pope to get away with some shockingly graphic murder scenes that might have been a bit too harsh for an M rating. While I absolutely adore the artistic look of the game, things could have used a bit more work on the technical side. It runs on the Unity engine, which has almost always been problematic for me and many other PC gamers, and the developers weren’t quite able to transcend its limitations. For one, the game forces itself into borderless mode, which causes frame pacing problems on my system. Using the commandline to bring it into exclusive fullscreen mode fixes the issue, but causes the game to show the desktop every time you transition to a memory, which is jarring and took me out of the game almost every time. Even with the framerate running at a constant 60 FPS, the player movement on the ship feels surprisingly jittery and not particularly smooth, except during scripted camera moments. This is especially noticeable when walking and turning at the same time, and it can sometimes feel unpleasant. Thankfully this isn’t an action game so a high framerate and smooth presentation aren’t necessary, but a bit more polish certainly wouldn’t have gone unnoticed.
Sound-wise, the game opts for a very modern feel, with recorded ambient noise and voiced dialogue throughout the game. The music has a gloomy, sea-shanty like feel to it, but it only plays when wandering the memories. In the present era, the soundscape is silent except for the waves, the birds, and the rocking of the ship. It’s a very lonely, eerie experience that feels like wandering a haunted house. The voice acting is evocative and fitting, and characters speak in different languages, which can sometimes help you deduce their identities.
Overall, Return of the Obra Dinn is simply a great, unique game. Much like Papers Please, I’ve really never played anything like it, and it will be some time before anyone attempts to make a similar kind of game anytime soon. It might be the best detective game ever released. Admittedly, it is the kind of game that you can really only play once, as one you’ve worked out the mystery you will never want to do it again. Yet that first time through is a journey filled with eureka moments around every corner. A true diamond in 2018 indie games.