This game really snuck in under the radar for me. The first I knew of its existence, it was already receiving stellar reviews – reviews which it has earned. Return of the Obra Dinn may be one of the best detective games you will ever play because it lets you actually be a detective.
In Return of the Obra Dinn, you are an insurance agent tasked with determining the fates of every passenger aboard the Obra Dinn. You are armed only with a couple of drawings of the early events on the ship and a passenger manifest. Oh, and also a pocket watch which you can wave over a corpse to view the ship at the corpse’s time of death and hear a brief audio clip surrounding their demise.
With these tools, you must investigate the ship to learn the names of the people in the drawings and determine how they died. When you have guessed the names and fate of three of the characters correctly, the book will notify you and make the guesses permanent. By only validating in groups of three, the game keeps you from solving puzzles with random guesses.
The character fates themselves are also extremely fun to witness. There is a lot less sailor killing sailor than I initially expected and a lot more monster killing sailor. The tale that unfolds over time includes all of the most wonderful parts of an epic sea adventure: storms, sirens, krakens, terrifying sea creatures, and mutinies.
Yet on top of all of these fantastical elements, you also pick up a lot of heart from the moments surrounding each character’s death. For instance, in one case you hear a dying character beg an officer to tell everyone that he really tried to save his friend from the kraken. While many of these moments also serve to identify characters from prior parts of the story, they are voice acted so wonderfully that you feel like you are actually getting to know the different shipmates.
Where Return of the Obra Dinn most succeeds is in giving you the time and space to be a true detective. The game will never give you an answer and will never force time constraints on you. You have as long as you want to replay character deaths and search around these moments for additional information. The game rarely offers any help and will never highlight the solution or guide you towards it.
The one exception to that rule is the tracking of faces. For each face in the images, the game will tell you which memories they have been in and when they are present in a memory you are viewing. While the facial tracking is helpful in determining where a character disappeared, it is also used as elements of puzzles for identifying the names of some of the deceased.
While Return of the Obra Dinn is generally a great implementation of a great concept, there are a few aspects that became annoying or frustrating. Since you can only use pocket watch on existing corpses, the game has you move from one death in the story to the next in one of the only instances that control is removed from the player. That means that the first time you view a character’s death, you will be limited in how much you can look around before the game forces you to the next one.
For a game that is usually about letting the player take their time to solve puzzles, forcing the player to move along from a current mystery becomes annoying. The frustration is then increased by the fact that you have to follow a white light as it dances along the ship before you can get to the next corpse (despite knowing exactly where the corpse is from the get-go. But in the face of everything the game does right, these nitpicks are extremely minor.
I loved Return of the Obra Dinn. From the epic sea story to the actual detective work to the monochrome design (which can be changed in settings to look like any of the older monochrome computers), Return of the Obra Dinn shines as one of the most interesting games I have played this year. If you are a fan of puzzles, solving mysteries, or even just awesome sea tales, I recommend picking this one up.
Return of the Obra Dinn
- Amazing detective gameplay that forces you to solve the puzzles
- Overall game aesthetic mixes well with the epic story and savage murders
- Snippets of conversation surrounding character deaths
- Forced ending of scenarios the first time you view them + forced navigation to next scenario can be a little frustrating
- No easy way of navigating through already viewed scenarios without finding the corpse on the ship
- Music and sound effects can start to feel repetitive after a while