Review: Return of the Obra Dinn
A rather underrated challenge in designing puzzle games is finding ways to make the puzzles appear natural. Obviously this isn’t a consideration for something like sudoku, but for games where you move around within a world and experience more than just brain-teasers, the presence of puzzles can stick out like a sore thumb. Return of the Obra Dinn tackles this by making the entire game one giant puzzle, an interlocking set of deductions and suppositions that build upon each other until you’ve revealed the entire design. And the fact that it does so with an incredible story and pervasive sense of dread leaves it very much at the pinnacle of several genres.
In 1803, the merchant ship Obra Dinn was lost at sea, with all 60 crew and passengers assumed lost with it. Four years later, the Obra Dinn was discovered drifting in the North Atlantic, its sails damaged and its crew missing. You are cast as an insurance investigator for the East India Company, who have a very obvious interest in the fate of the ship and its cargo. Dispatched to examine the vessel and determine the damages, you are also sent with a special package from an interested third party. The contents of this package will provide you the means to uncover the true fates of every soul aboard the ship, and reveal the shape of the dark events that gripped its journey.
Your journal provides a comprehensive overview of the ship’s route, maps of the decks, a complete crew manifest, and sketches of the crew across several scenes. The rest of the tome is divided into chapters that cover the events of the Obra Dinn‘s fateful voyage. When you find the remains of someone on the ship, their entry is added to the chapter where they met their ultimate fate. Your job is to determine who they are, what happened to them, and if someone or something had a hand in events, who they were as well. Every time you complete three entries, the game confirms them and locks them in. It’s a clever way to allow for educated guessing without allowing players to brute-force every fate in the book.
But how do you determine these fates? Well, if you don’t mind a small spoiler for a game mechanic you discover five minutes in, you have a tool that allows you to witness the moment of death of any corpse or remains you find. You’ll hear the last few seconds of events leading up to the deed, and then you are given free reign to wander around the macabre scene, frozen in time. From here the cause of death is usually (but not always) obvious, and you can begin to make deductions on identities based on circumstances, positions, gestures, even objects around the person. It’s not only the victim, either, because you get an expansive scene of what was happening around them, often enough to make conclusions about complete bystanders. And every detail is going to count when working out the identities of an entire ship of people.
This is what I really want to stress, how incredibly clever and natural puzzling out the mysteries is. The first few entries are bound to be simple enough, figuring out who the captain is or marking off crew who actually get called by name. But then you get to scenes where someone is calling a name into a crowd. Or scenes with all the topmen up in the rigging, performing their duties. Or scenes with a body wrapped tight, with others discussing them in vague terms. Never will a character say someone’s name or label something just to give it away, these are natural conversations and natural interactions that you have to read into as hard as possible to solve the puzzle. Everything matters in these scenes, from a strange accent to a hand resting on a doorknob to a scrap of paper in an odd place. After I completed every fate, I went back to look at guides to help me sort out the story and discovered I had missed fully half the clues in the game with my educated guessing.
And then there’s the story. Believe me, it would be more than enough if Return of the Obra Dinn was just a perfectly-constructed puzzle box of random scenes. But these scenes give you tantalizing glimpses into one of the most tragically cursed voyages imaginable. The despair and desperation in some of these scenes is palpable, even frozen as they are, and the plot is a twisting, sordid affair that’s just as tricky to puzzle out as your task. It’s a shockingly intense game at times, and I guarantee there will be a moment early on that blows your expectations wide open. When that happens the game’s tone turns to 11 and only builds from there as you pile more and more horrific events up. The story is also told out of order in a very compelling way, and even keeps one middle chapter off-limits until you complete the rest of the game, providing a fine coda to wrap up your final suspicions once your task is done.
For anyone intimidated by the scope of the mystery, Return of the Obra Dinn also features a ton of considerations for helping you organize and focus on your work. For the first half-hour or so of the game, it will give you direct instructions on how your tools work, explain the mechanics of determining fates and making connections, and so on. The journal has all sorts of handy linking and bookmarking features, as well as some helpful indicators on how difficult uncovering an identity will be at different points. There’s also a few points where the game will helpfully tell you that you’re done with something, which went a long way to keeping my uncertainties focused on the job instead of the game mechanics.
All this is presented in an incredibly stylish low-res 3D motif that mimics the feel of an old Amiga or Apple IIe. Seriously, there are even options to change the color scheme to copy those, the Commodore, and more. The chunky style can make some details a bit hard to make out, but there was clear effort to minimize these troubles as much as possible and it’s entirely worth it for how breathtaking some of the scenes end up being. The sound design is just as good, with perfectly evocative effects, a moody soundtrack, and some surprisingly good voice acting. Any one of these features, from the presentation to the game design to the writing, would be enough to make this a classic. But somehow Return of the Obra Dinn has it all, making it a puzzling adventure that everyone needs to experience.