Return of the Obra Dinn Review [PC]

A creepy vessel, a mysterious pocket watch and an insurance claim to file

Prepare yourself for an immersive voyage on the Obra Dinn, a doomed vessel that went through a brief but quite eventful journey. If you like deductive/investigative games this one will definitely not disappoint. It will actually make you crave for more.

“Return of the Obra Dinn” is the latest game of developer Lucas Pope, who has already shown his capabilities of skillful storytelling and game design with his previous game “Papers please”. Here he is at it again with a neatly crafted adventure/puzzle game.

“Memento Mortem” – remember death. It’s 1807, England, and you’re a representative of the East India Company. The vessel Obra Dinn, after being lost at sea, has unexpectedly made it back to port from its voyage: but no one is on board and all the crew members have disappeared or are possibly dead.

That’s where you come in. You have to lead the investigation and find out what happened to each member of the crew, so that The Company can properly file an insurance claim for damages. You have only 2 tools at your disposal. First is a book with the ship voyage map, its decks layout, a list of the 60 people that were on board (complete with full name, role on the ship and nationality) and 2 drawings of each. Second, you have a special pocket watch that allows you to see the exact moment when a person died (their Memento Mortem).

By using the pocket watch each time you find some remains, the game will recreate the scene that caused that person’s death. This scene is static – frozen in time, and by looking around you have to pick up the clues of what has happened and what has caused the person to die. Some scenes are quite complex and show many people at the same time, each one busy doing something. It is by looking carefully at these scenes that you will find enough hints to assign to each person involved a name and a cause of death.

By looking at each Memento Mortem scene, you will unlock the various chapters that make up the story of the unfortunate voyage of the Obra Dinn: there are 10 and each one of them is divided in parts (much like acts). Clues are scattered all around. Therefore, before you can name a person you might need to unlock a different chapter or another scene.

Every time you succeed in assigning the correct name and cause of death to 3 people, the game confirms your correct guesses by removing those people from the list of the “unknown” crew members in the book. It therefore makes it somewhat easier to guess the name of the remaining persons.

As you are informed right from the start of the game, you won’t find perfect clues about who’s who and how each person perished. Therefore, a certain amount of guessing (mostly “educated” but sometimes wild guessing as well) is expected and required. This aspect of the game is both a good and bad thing. During my play through, after I revealed all chapters, I still had more than half of the crew members to name and assign a cause of death to. It was expected, so no problem with that. At that point though, the “guessing” phase started. I went back to each Memento Mortem, picking up a clue that I didn’t notice before or simply viewing the scene again with the extra knowledge of the events that led to that moment – knowledge that I didn’t have the first time I saw it. This allowed me  to make pretty good educated guesses that turned out to be correct. The deep satisfaction of seeing the game telling me that “3 more fates have been revealed” can’t be easily described, possibly it comes very close to scoring a headshot from really far away with a 2x scope on a moving target in a FPS/BR game!

On the other hand though, sometimes the clues are so subtle that no matter how many times you go back to a scene, you might not be able to see them. When this happens, either you’re stuck or you start wild guessing – which tends to fuel some frustration. If that happens, the best move is to leave the game and come back later!

Graphically, the game is presented with pixelated art style with monochromatic colours reminiscent of the early low-res CRT monitors. This choice is quite bold, but overall it feels perfect. The setting (early 1800s), the gritty and dramatic story engulfing the ship and its members, along with the overall sober tone all come together perfectly with a 2-colour palette – it really works in immersing you in the story. The same can be said for the music, which is quite moody and “kicks in” every now and then at the perfect time. This means that many times you can hear only just the silence of the sea and the unnerving creaking of the wooden boards of the vessel: really creepy and atmospheric! Voice acting is very well delivered and is also an integral part of the “clue finding” mechanics: different accents and a different spoken language can help identify the missing crew members.

Suggestions for the Developer:

It would have been nice to be able to interact with objects and get hints from those as well. Relying only on the Memento Mortem scene sometimes felt limiting. By also having the “objects speak”, it would have added more depth to the game.

I’ve found Return of the Obra Dinn really entertaining and fun to play. The story is very well told and interesting by its own right, and the game mechanics are very well conceived. The retro style graphics are not only nostalgic in the right way but immerse you in the game’s story even more. The latter part of the game feels a bit repetitive, when you can’t find the remaining clues and the wild guessing starts, but this is not a game that has to be played & won in a single session; it has to be sipped and enjoyed slowly.
  • Good story line
  • Intriguing game mechanics
  • Moody setting and graphics
  • Good voice acting
  • Atmospheric music and sounds effects
  • Some repetition towards the end
  • Wild guessing “necessary” at some point

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