A ship of the East India Company washes up in a harbor, the crew missing or dead. It’s the Obra Dinn, which set sail four years prior and was never heard from again. You’ve been hired as an insurance investigator to determine what happened to the ship and its crew.
Return of the Obra Dinn is the latest game by Lucas Pope, creator of 2013’s fantastic dystopian immigration checkpoint game Papers, Please. You’ve been given a tall order, so you have some help in the form of a supernatural pocket watch that, when used on a corpse, allows you to view the person’s final moment of life. The Obra Dinn is known to have set out with 60 people on board, and it’s your goal to identify each person and their ultimate fate. It’s a bit like a giant game of Clue. The scenes you’re sucked into are frozen in time, often preceded by a bit of dialogue or other contextual sounds. Somehow this lack of movement makes things seem more chaotic, caught in death’s climax.
Also at your disposal is a notebook that logs each individual memory, in which you must chart each crew member’s identity, cause of death, and, in some cases, who killed them. Identity is often the most difficult thing to figure out, and you’re made to pay close attention to things like how people dress and the company they keep. The higher up in the ranks, the better someone dresses, and countrymen tend to have tight friendships among their own. Dialogue will often clue you in with things like accents, ranks, or familial ties to compare to the crew manifest. At one point I was even typing foreign curse words I had heard into Google Translate in an attempt to narrow down the possible identity of a crew member.
The story is revealed nonlinearly, and this works all the better. The Obra Dinn is one unlucky ship and goes through quite the interesting voyage, which allows the puzzle pieces to slowly fall into place—there are times I felt totally lost on the identity of a crew member, only for an “Aha!” moment much later in a seemingly unrelated memory. This is exactly the type of game in which it’s tempting to look up answers in a guide, but it’s so much more satisfying to stick with it and let the answers fall into place. Trust me, though, there are times you’ll feel like an idiot along the way.
Obra Dinn’s visuals are quite unique, mimicking the 1-bit graphics of early Macintosh computers. The game does some interesting things with depth and lighting, though it’s a tad disorienting at first. There are even neat graphics options to emulate other vintage monochromatic monitors, like the IBM 8503 or Commodore 1084.
The game is accompanied by a great soundtrack, driven by strings and bells. It has a maritime tinge, but never stereotypically so. Light, happy motifs are the stars during the Obra Dinn’s early stages, while deeper, brooding overtones take over when things start to go south. Due to the game’s lack of animation, sound takes center stage. Waves crashing, ropes straining, the macabre sound of someone being stabbed—it’s all delight to listen to, especially through headphones.
Return of the Obra Dinn comes down to repetition, repetition, repetition. Viewing all of the memories took about two and a half hours, solving what I could along the way, but it took over eight to correctly solve everything. That was done through rereading dialogue transcripts and replaying memories a lot. Even on fourth and fifth times through I was picking up on things I hadn’t noticed before. It’s quite a feat how all the plot threads intertwine and eventually come together. The game only reveals correct guesses in sets of threes (that is, correct identity and fate of three crew members), which stops you from bull-rushing your way through, though trial-and-error guessing becomes a more viable option once you’ve slimmed down the crew manifest.
Lucas Pope has proven once again that he’s highly talented in making games that are small in scope but wonderfully detailed. This is one of the most unique mystery titles I’ve played and one of my favorite games of 2018.
Return of the Obra Dinn is available on PC and Mac via Steam, the Humble Bundle Store, and GOG.com.