Return of the Obra Dinn: Review
Return of the Obra Dinn is the newest title released by indie developer Lucas Pope, and his first game since 2013’s Papers Please. The premise of the game revolves around the reappearance of the Obra Dinn, an East India Trading Company ship thought to have been lost at sea 5 years prior. The player takes the role of an insurance adjuster sent by the Company to determine the fate of the ship and its crew, and although making an appraisal for the sake of insurance claims may not sound like the most engaging of gameplay, players are also provided with two interesting gifts from a mysterious benefactor. One is a log book containing a crew roster with names and positions, sketches of the crew members, and a layout of the ship. The second is a strange pocket-watch device called the Memento Mortem that is able to view the last moments leading up to a person’s death upon the discovery of their corpse. You only hear a few seconds of sound and/or dialog before you are allowed to investigate the final instant of their life now frozen in time. By utilizing all of these tools, it is the player’s job to fill out the blank chapters of the log book detailing the fates of the Obra Dinn’s crew. This means matching the faces from the etchings to a name, determining how or if they died, and who or what was responsible. Your ultimate goal is to unravel the full extent of the mystery of what exactly happened to the good ship Obra Dinn.
Return of the Obra Dinn is everything a great mystery game should be; it’s atmospheric, packed full of small details and clues, and just difficult enough to keep you invested without becoming tedious. That being said, the game doesn’t hold your hand by any means. For instance, you need to guess fates correctly in groups of three in order for the game to validate your findings. This means you won’t know whether you’ve come to the right conclusion until you’ve already discovered the truth about two other crew mates. Additionally, the story is put together in a non-linear fashion with the player accessing memories taking place at different points during the voyage. While everything you need to know to solve the mystery is there for you to discover, it may take multiple visits to some areas before you pick up on some of the more subtle hints. I found this out the hard way when, after accessing all of the available memories of the deceased crew, I was given the option to disembark from the ship. Thinking this was the end of the game, I looked at the log book and realized I had only solved the fates of about a third of the crew. Before that moment the game had felt pretty straight forward in terms of investigating, but now I saw I would have too look much closer than I had before. This resulted in some seriously satisfying “eureka!” moments when the pieces suddenly began to fall into place. Seemingly innocuous details turned out to be critical in deducing the identities of some crew members, especially during the end game when clues are sparse. You’ll have to rely heavily on your deductive reasoning skills at this point and some fates can really only be discovered through process of elimination - I got some lucky guesses on more than a few of them.
Atmosphere and presentation also go a long way in setting the tone for a good mystery, and luckily this game also excels in this regard. One of the first things you’ll take notice of when starting Obra Dinn is its unique visual style. The black and white “dithering” art design is actually reminiscent of the sort of etchings one would see from a 18th century sketch book. Developer Tom Pope stated that he was inspired by the aesthetic of the 1-bit graphics used in early Macintosh games and wanted to make a game that would let you navigate it in 3D space. The ship itself is impeccably rendered with a staggering amount of detail, down to every individual crew members’ respective quarters. For me the real stand out feature for this game was the sound design: every floor of the Obra Dinn features a completely separate ambient soundtrack fitting its location on the ship. On the main deck the sound of waves crashing and the wind blowing are most prominent, while the lower you go the louder the creaks and moans of the old wooden ghost ship become. The sounds of the ocean become muffled as you enter the lower decks below the waterline. The audio during the memory scenes can also be a clue unto itself, as the volume of a character’s voice can be indicative of their relative position in the scene, while the grisly sound of a knife being stabbed into someone’s abdomen can hint at the nature of their demise. The voice acting is also quite commendable and I give a ton of credit to Pope for using voice actors with accents fitting their character’s nationality in the game, thus making the dialogue feel that much more authentic. If I had any complaints about my experience, it might be that the graphics can be little hard on the eyes because of the extreme contrast between light and dark, and I had to take a break after a while because it was starting to giving me a headache. Also due to its nature as a mystery there is little reason to revisit the game once you’ve completed it in its entirety.
Overall, I highly recommend Return of the Obra Dinn for any fans of mystery and/or puzzle games. Being the product of a one man development team, it shows an incredible amount of dedication and passion and I hope this work ethic persists in any future projects Mr. Pope undertakes. I have not yet had the opportunity to play his previous release Papers Please but based on my experience with Obra Dinn you can rest assured I will be checking it out in the near future.