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Return of the Obra Dinn - title

In a Nutshell

WHAT I LIKE

  • Requires actual deduction
  • Can't immediately rely on guessing or brute-forcing solutions
  • Book tracks almost every piece of info you learn
  • Wastes little time getting weird
  • Glossary of terms limits the outside knowledge required to play
  • Unique art style
  • Soundtrack
  • Great game to play as a group!

WHAT I DON'T LIKE

  • Hard to make out some details
  • Abrupt, misleading ending

Overall Impression : A
A mystery game that doesn't solve itself

Return of the Obra Bin - cover

Developer:
Lucas Pope

Platforms:
PC < (via Steam or Good Ol' Games),
(< indicates platform I played for review)

MSRP: $20 USD

Original release date:
18 October 2018

Genre:
point-and-click mystery

ESRB Rating: N/A

Player(s):
single player

Official site:
dukope.com

Well, with a Madden review in my rear view mirror, and while waiting for the indie football games to hit the market, I decided to try out one of last year's darling indie games. I very much enjoyed Lucas Pope's previous game, Papers, Please, so Return of the Obra Dinn was high up on my wish list of indie games. It was just a matter of finding time to sit down and play it and give it my full attention.

This isn't a game that you can just kind of casually play. Much like with Papers, Please, Return of the Obra Dinn requires your close attention. You have to pay very close attention to details, which can come from one of several different places. It might be a single word or a name in a snippet of dialogue. It might be inferring a person's naval rank based on the uniform they're wearing. It might be making a mental note of what room a person is running into or out of. You then have to use those details to make genuine deductions or judgement calls.

Elementary, my dear time-lord

The basic premise is that you are an insurance claims adjuster (I guess) working for the English East India Company. A missing merchant ship suddenly returns with all hands missing. You must search the ship to piece together the events of its voyage, and try to determine what happened to as many of the crew as possible.

Search a derelict ship for clues to the fates or whereabouts of its crew and passengers.

Your only tools are a notebook and a mysterious stopwatch (or is it a compass?). The notebook contains a crew manifest, a drawing of all the crew and passengers, a map of the ship, and a few notes on where to look for initial clues. It is also used to log all of the pertinent information that you find. The other tool is the mysterious stopwatch that has the ability to manifest a recreation of the scene of a corpse's death. Where such a fantastical tool came from and why you have it is not really explained (at least not at first). When you find a body, you can activate the stopwatch to see how that person died. The stopwatch manifests a 3-D freeze frame of the moment of the person's death and replays the last things the person heard before he (or she) died.

The whole game consists of exploring these scenes to try to figure out who the deceased person is, how they died, and to cross-reference the scenes to figure out who everyone else is and what happened to them. It's actually a lot more challenging that it seems.

Try to figure out the names and fates of as many people as you can, using the clues provided to you.

A vague picture

A big part of that challenge comes from the game's unique art style, which is simultaneously one of the game's greatest strengths and one of its most annoying flaws. The whole game is rendered in a monochromatic, dot-matrix format (similar to stippling in art). This art style looks good and helps to create a sense of mystery and intrigue. It also makes it hard to decipher some of the details that are oh so important to piecing the game's mystery together.

Sometimes it's just hard to tell what exactly you are supposed to be looking at. Is this person being strangled by the creature assaulting her? Or being mauled? Does it make a difference? Is that person being stabbed by a spear? Or being hit with a blunt pole? Thankfully, Obra Dinn is forgiving enough in its rules that you don't need to be 100% precise in order to get credit for many deductions.

The dot-matrix art style works surprisingly well.

Obra Dinn will, however, require you to be paying very close attention! It will not hold your hand or spell out exactly what's happening or what you are supposed to do. You are given a set of vague clues in your notebook and one single corpse, and you have to follow the breadcrumbs from there, wherever they may lead. And they can lead to some really weird places! The breadcrumbs are generally very easy to follow, and I never once found myself completely unsure of where to go next.

Even though I never got lost, I apparently wasn't observant enough. I failed spectacularly in my first playthrough of Return of the Obra Dinn. Part of that was due to the game being a bit misleading with regard to whether it was going to end or not. On the one hand, the game made it perfectly clear that leaving the ship would be a point of no return.

But there was also a chapter in the book that told me that it wouldn't be given to me until I had left the ship. So even though I was nowhere close to having solved everyone's fates, I still went ahead and left the ship thinking that maybe I'd be given additional information or another vignette that would clear up some remaining confusion.

I failed spectacularly in my first playthrough.

Nope. The game ended, and I was given what I can only assume is a "very bad" ending.

Circumstantial details

I replayed the game again with a couple of friends in the hopes that more minds would be better at picking out the small details, and that one of us might recognize things that the other two may miss. It worked, and this second playthrough was much more successful than the first. Though I'm not sure if that had more to do with the collaboration, or with the fact that I had already played through the game and knew how to pick out important details.

Circumstantial details like race is critical to
identifying some of the crew and passengers.

In that first game, I avoided trying to make guesses. I assumed that the game would give me all the clues that I needed, and that I would recognize the clues when they were provided. This was not the case. Return of the Obra Dinn seems to be designed to steer the player towards making certain leaps of logic based off of circumstantial evidence, and sometimes maybe even to just brute-force your way through using trial-and-error.

The game will only give you feedback as to the accuracy of your deductions after you correctly deduce the identity and fate of any set of three people. This is to prevent you from just plugging in all 60 names once you have a cause of death for any one individual. However, once you are confident that you have two people's identity and fate nailed down, you can resort to simply plugging in all remaining names for a third person who's death is known, but who's identity is still a mystery.

In addition, we also employed a certain degree of racial profiling. For example, there are four Chinese topmen listed in the crew manifest. So when we saw the cause of death of one Asian-looking crewman, we simply tried all four Chinese names. I'm not sure if this was the designer's intent, or if Lucas Pope had provided some other evidence of the individual's identity beyond his race. In any case, it worked!

Logical leap

There are some minor presentation issues that crop up here and there. For example, the game gives you a set amount of time to review a death scene before it unlocks the chapter entry in the book. For larger scenes, this means you get cut off before you can fully examine everything. For smaller scenes, it sometimes means you have to just stand and wait for the timer to expire before you're allowed to do anything.

There's also this sparkly effect that guides you to the location of the next corpse. However, it doesn't appear until after you've already found the corpse within the previous death scene. The sparkles don't move unless you are looking at them, so you can't just run to where the body is going to be (because you already know where it is from the previous scene), and the body doesn't appear until the sparkles have reached the location. So you have to follow the windy, meandering path that this sparkle effect takes, even though you already know exactly where you're supposed to be going. I'm not sure why this was included in the game, as it doesn't seem to do anything other than waste a bit of the player's time.

Even when Obra Dinn explicitly names a person, it's still up to the player to fill in the correct name.

These problems are only minor hiccups in an otherwise immensely compelling game. The mystery of what happened to the Obra Dinn is intriguing enough on its own, but I doubt that the mystery alone would have carried a full, six-hour game. Instead, this game works and held my interest for two full playthroughs because it is entirely player-driven. Return of the Obra Dinn doesn't hand anything to the player, nor are you ever simply picking from a small selection of possible solutions. Even in the few instances in which it explicitly names a person and shows you how he or she died, it is still up to the player to open up the book and manually fill in that person's name and cause of death.

I don't feel like I'm just walking through a boat, picking up notes or memos, and having the game automatically fill in all the details for me (as is a problem in so many walking simulators). No, I feel like I am actually personally solving a mystery with my own powers of observation and deduction. And even though the game doesn't hold my hand or give me information that I didn't earn, it does still give me plenty of useful tools for keeping track of everything that I do know.

I could have easily just looked up the solutions or the endings and been done with it after that first failed playthrough. But I wanted to figure it out (even if I had to enlist a little help from my friends).

The glossary and map of the ship filled us in on the details of 19th century sailing ships.

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Welcome to Mega Bears Fan's blog, and thanks for visiting! This blog is mostly dedicated to game reviews, strategies, and analysis of my favorite games. I also talk about my other interests, like football, science and technology, movies, and so on. Feel free to read more about the blog.

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