**Review copy provided by the publisher**
Return of the Obra Dinn is the new game from Lucas Pope, the developer of the excellent Papers, Please. Both games have you solving puzzles to identify people, but the similarities mostly end there. Papers, Please had you solving simple puzzles as quickly as possible. Return of the Obra Dinn gives you complicated puzzles but as much time as you need to complete them, which is a good job because Obra Dinn is tough.
Return of the Obra Dinn takes place in 1807 aboard the titular merchant ship the Obra Dinn. The Obra Dinn set sail for Asia in 1803 however it never reached its destination. Four years later, the Obra Dinn mysteriously floats back into port, without anyone on board. Well, no one alive anyway. You play the role of an investigator for an insurance company, assigned to discover the fates of the sixty people who were on board when it set sail. If for some reason playing as an insurance investigator doesn’t float your boat, excuse the pun, then you can just imagine you’re playing as a detective which is basically what you are.
The only tools at your disposal are a journal that you’ve been asked to complete by a figure known as H.S. and a pocketwatch ominously embossed with a skull. The journal includes a map, a list of the crew and passengers, plus some pictures drawn by the resident artist. Upon finding a dead body, the pocketwatch will reverse time and let you see and hear the final moments of that person’s life. You need to examine these scenes carefully and deduce the identity of the victim, the cause of death, and, if applicable, the killer.
I don’t want to say much about the strange events aboard the ship, so I’ll just say that the story is decent enough without being especially memorable. You uncover scenes out of order so the fun part is piecing it all together until you can create a timeline of events. Once I’d done that, the story didn’t hold much interest, nor did the ending. There are unknowns and questions to dwell on, but not particularly interesting ones.
Return of Obra Dinn initially looks like it will be a fairly relaxing experience. You arrive on the ship, watch a couple of murders and make some simple deductions as to who is who. You hear names and titles used, references to family members, etc, so it’s not too tricky. The journal is divided up into chapters, so I assumed you would solve each chapter one by one until you had a complete story of events on board the ship. That is not how it plays out.
After solving the first mystery, you’re left on your own with little in the way of direction other than some visual clues pointing you to the next body. I went from death scene to death scene, filling out images in the journal but unable to solve much other than the cause of death which is usually obvious. And then it all stopped. Without realizing it, I’d watched every available death scene and had all the information required to fill out the entire journal, except I had only uncovered three more fates and had over fifty more left to solve. I honestly thought I must have missed a significant mechanic because there seemed to be so little to go on.
Then, gradually, it all started falling into place, especially once I realized I didn’t need to nail down every fact with 100% certainty. You’re specifically told that you need to make assumptions and, while this initially feels a little odd, you get used to it, and the inferences are logical enough that you never feel like you’re being tricked. Just don’t expect to find convenient name tags lying around and people giving away clues on their deathbeds by saying things like “I can’t believe John stabbed me—the first mate—in the chest.”
Once you expand beyond looking for the obvious clues, the magic of the Obra Dinn’s puzzles starts to become clear. You’ll need to consider what jobs people do on the ship, who they spend their free time with, their nationality, accents, and plenty more. I was even keeping notes of sock colors at one point.
The clues are spread over via multiple scenes and—given the limited monochrome display on offer—it can get tough to pick out all the minor details you need to be aware of. Trying to keep track of sixty people would be tough enough in real life, let alone with 1-bit sketches. I would have loved the ability to make notes within the game, perhaps by scribbling on the pictures or with more tagging options. You can bookmark one person at a time to follow their story on board the Obra Dinn, but I constantly wanted to do more, such as seeing all the information I had on each individual when I selected them. For example, if I know someone is Russian, but I’m not sure of exactly which particular Russian person they are, it would be great to see that quickly. You can’t even alt-tab out of the game so making notes on a second screen is tricky. If you like to make notes during games like this, I recommend playing in windowed mode with alt-enter and taking some screen grabs to annotate separately as you go.
Return of the Obra Dinn tries to stop you making outlandish guessing by only confirming that you have the correct answer in batches of three complete fates. For the most part, this strikes a good balance between giving you feedback and stopping you from brute forcing your way through, but there were definitely a few times when I just wanted to know if I was correct on one particular fate. There were a couple of times I progressed by guessing at the correct identities, such as which person was the carpenter and which was his mate and the exact identity of two brothers. That’s not to say that there weren’t clues to help me pinpoint which was which, just that I couldn’t find them. I’m fairly confident in saying you should never have to make these fifty-fifty guesses if you’re observant enough. For example, there definitely is a way to distinguish between two of the female passengers on board even though it may not initially seem obvious.
While I described most inferences as logical, that doesn’t mean they don’t occasionally feel “dodgy” for want of a better word. The graphics don’t do a great job conveying causes of death like burning, for example, and numbers can be tough to make out. A fair few of the crew members also go missing but still need to have their fates identified. These crew members tend to play minor roles in the story and are therefore hard to name. Their cause of death is typically more of an educated guess than most others. This was often an area I fudged my way through and I think it could have been handled better. Again, I suspect I missed clues here, but these parts were far less enjoyable to solve than the murders anyway, so it felt like unnecessary extra content.
There is one major area of concern which is worth mentioning for non-native English speakers. More than once during my playthrough, I used a fairly rudimentary knowledge of accents to help identify people, such as the Irish and Scottish crew members. I can’t say with absolute certainty that you need to be able to do this to complete the game, but I did. There are subtitles for all the audio, but as far as I can tell, there are no indicators for these accents. In addition, I needed to know things like Nick is short for Nicholas and Charlie is an alternative for Charles. It’s obvious to English speakers, but I can imagine a non-English speaking person not knowing that Nick spelt nicK was short for Nicholas which starts with nicH. There are also slang terms and at least once I had to pull on information not provided by the game itself (that I could find).
Regardless of what language you speak, Return of Obra Dinn is a hard game. It took me twelve hours to complete, and as I mentioned, there was some guesswork involved at times. If you want to solve each fate with 100% certainty then it may well take longer. Or not, of course. I had a quick look at steam reviews and it seems many people are completing Obra Dinn in around ten hours, so make of that—and my intelligence—what you will. Personally, I found this to be an incredibly challenging game. The way you’re just thrust into the experience with little guidance and a lot of information to weed through reminded me of my first time playing Myst, although I far preferred this experience.
This lack of guidance is in many ways this is the game’s greatest strength. Games such as The Witness have heavy tutorial elements which ease you into new puzzle types until you can tackle the tough ones, however this also means that it’s hard to go back to after a lengthy break because you’ve forgotten how the puzzle works. Return of Obra Dinn doesn’t have this problem. It’s as tough after the first hour as it is after hour ten and you’re using the exact same set of skills the entire way through. I might have binged this game in one day, but you don’t need to.
The journal provides some hints such as suggesting that you focus on identifying some of the easier fates first so at least you have a vague idea where you should be looking. Occasionally, the challenge felt a little too tough and I was overwhelmed by all the information, but then I would spot a clue that helped me identify one more person and had a ripple effect when I labeled him in other scenes. Some discoveries can lead to you getting three or four fates correct in just a couple of minutes. Knowing that you can discover something huge any second makes it hard to tear yourself away. I got sucked into Return of Obra Dinn for hours on end, wandering around the ship, listening to my footsteps in the storm as I looked for the next piece of the puzzle.
Other than the Myst games, I can’t think of any obvious points of comparison to help you decide whether or not to give Return of the Obra Dinn a chance. The lack of guidance and completely open nature of the puzzles separates it from the likes of The Vanishing of Ethan Carter which had you solving smaller puzzles one at a time. This originality is the exact reason you should try it for yourself. I can’t guarantee you’ll love it as much as I did, but I’m certain it will keep nagging away at you in the back of your mind, encouraging you to boot it up one more time to see what else you can discover.