I had only managed to progress about thirty minutes into the ship-based antics of inkle’s Overboard!, and yet in just a few playthroughs I'd already been arrested once, flirted heavily with the boat's commander, and currently found myself on a wild murder spree, trying madly to kill everyone on board. Such is the way of this delightfully chaotic new offering from inkle, which sees you trying to cover up a murder you definitely caused, and maybe, if you're able to get into the right people's good books, even plant it on one of the other passengers or crew. Fans of the developer’s 80 Days will be familiar with the colourful graphics and the ability to choose from lots of different dialogue options that lead you down different paths. But the extra little twist here is that you get to play someone with a much more devilish side, with often hilarious and unexpected results.
It's 1935 and you play Veronica Villensey, a fabulously cold British starlet on her way to New York aboard the SS Hook with her husband Malcolm. But a newspaper headline heralding the journey suggests all is not well. Malcolm is in dire financial straits, and Veronica, as a woman of means, doesn't seem like the kind of lady to stick around with a penniless pauper for a partner. In the very first cutscene, you see how far she's prepared to go to get rid of her problem as she pushes poor Malcolm overboard to his death. The easy part done, it's down to you as the player to somehow find a way to make it through the next eight in-game hours to reach land without anyone suspecting it was you – and if you've got enough skill, even putting someone else on the hook for the murder instead so you can make some insurance money out of it.
You start in your cabin the morning after your murderous deed, when a steward knocks on your door. Interacting with people in Overboard! is done similarly to 80 Days in that dialogue options, or sometimes actions, appear as choices in boxes at the bottom of the screen for you to click. During conversation, your character's face and torso normally appear on one side of the screen with the person you're speaking to shown on the other, with text bubbles popping up in the middle. So, when first interrupted you could ask who's there, tell them to come in, or order them to go away. After you've completed one playthrough of the game, any options you've already picked are helpfully displayed in green, so you'll never find yourself trying to remember which ones you haven't experimented with so far.
Certain dialogue choices or actions you pick will change how people think of you, and a box will flash in red at the top of the screen for a moment to let you know. It's a little like The Walking Dead's “... will remember this” trope, except in Overboard! you get a bit more information. For example, if you manage to convince a passenger who found one of your earrings on the deck that you didn't drop it there, a note will let you know that they now don't think you were present on the deck the evening before, which may come in handy as an alibi later. Any items you pick up during your wild journey, from money to said lost earring, are shown at the top left-hand side of the screen in your inventory, and will pop up as options to include in conversations at the relevant time.
After leaving your cabin, you'll be able to navigate the ship and talk to the different characters on board. A cross section of the whole boat pops up when you choose to leave your current location, showing you each room or area you can travel to by clicking on it, and what characters you'll meet when you get there. A clock at the top of your screen continually tells you what time it is. As you might expect for a murderer trapped aboard a ship, time is of the essence, so whilst the game doesn't go into such detail as to reveal how long every action or dialogue option you choose will take, it does tell you what time it will be if you travel to a different part of the ship, with further sections naturally taking longer.
Information about timing is important, as each person here has their own agenda and moves around the ship as they please. So if you agreed to meet the dashing Commander Anders in your quarters for a bit of “rocking the boat” at 11:30, but end up investigating the nosey passenger Clarissa's quarters for clues on what she has on you first, more in-game minutes will pass and by the time you get back to your room, the chance for some first-class service (!) might be gone. Naturally, the captain will also act differently to you if you stand him up, replying in a more standoffish tone and refusing to stick up for you later. It's these clever little consequential details that bring the world and characters of Overboard! wonderfully to life.
As with 80 Days, the game's multiple dialogue and action choices allow you to really roleplay the way you want. So, whilst you could decide to charm every guest and play everything very straight, you can also be wonderfully rude to them, whether by rejecting them, insulting them, or worse. For some reason I was very open to trying to kill all the guests if they got in my way, which in the right circumstances you can do. The varied and occasionally very sadistic choices throughout made every encounter a joy that encouraged coming back to try new things.
The game does give you an opportunity to redeem yourself if you make mistakes (with the likes of Commander Anders...or anybody!) you’d like to undo. You're given the chance to rewind a scene to its beginning by pressing a button in the corner if you don't like the way the conversation is going. But to make it fair, you can only do this once per scene. I’ve resisted using it, though, instead preferring to just let fly and enjoying the chaos when it happens, especially as each playthrough is only around twenty to thirty minutes long – or a lot less if you end up getting caught quickly!
Replaying Overboard! is essential to getting the most out of the story, so to avoid repetition and speed things up you have the option to auto-play previous choices and skip through dialogue. Another way the game helps keep things feeling fresh and exciting is by introducing extra objectives alongside the main goal of getting away with everything. For example, you may overhear that Clarissa (that annoying nosey parker again!) has something on you. You'll then get an objective added to a checklist on the left-hand side of the screen saying, “work out what Clarissa knows,” which you can try to solve at any point in any subsequent playthrough.
There's no reward for getting these optional tasks ticked off your list apart from the odd achievement on Steam, but further exploring and unlocking more of the characters' stories or game endings adds welcome depth to everything Overboard! has to offer. Getting off the ship scot-free is only just scratching the surface of what you can do whilst on board. In fact, if and when you do manage to disembark without being arrested, you'll find the game sets you still more new objectives, like trying to somehow make it someone else's fault rather than appear like an accident, so that you get the insurance money too.
As you'd expect from a team with such a proven pedigree for top-class writing, each character you encounter has a lot more to them than meets the eye, with a fully realised backstory that may take multiple playthroughs to completely uncover. Of course, my eyes were only for the dashing, lonely Commander Anders, but you'll also meet other members of the ship's crew, as well as its enigmatic, inquisitive passengers like Major Singh, a retired Sikh army officer who may be old but certainly hasn't lost any of his mental capacity when it comes to putting two and two together. Each can help play a part in your escape – or your capture. There's not a huge number of people to deceive (I think I met six), but given the short amount of time you have to interact with everyone, it feels just about right.
Whilst only the opening cinematic (when poor old Malcolm meets his fate of sleeping with the fishes) is fully voiced, gameplay itself is filled with music and sound effects to make up for it. The clattering of plates and clinking of glasses fills the air as you enter the ship's restaurant, whilst your arrival on the deck will naturally be greeted with the gentle swoosh of waves brushing against the boat's side. In fitting with both the time period and the state of frenzy you'll be in trying to prove your innocence, raucous jazz plays as you're on the boat’s map screen deciding where to visit next, whilst the opening menu serenades you with a harmonised version of the gospel song “Mary Don't You Weep.” The end result is that every little effect and music piece makes the story feel that much more immersive and fun to play.
The lush, bright graphics, reminiscent of those wondrous Art Deco travel posters beckoning people to visit exotic places by train or by plane, are also very appropriate to the setting. Each character's face has been lovingly drawn with plenty of detail, from our smirking Veronica to the haughty Lady Honoria. There's no animation for facial expressions, with speech bubbles scrolling up the screen with each new bit of dialogue being the main focal point of movement, along with scene changes as you move from place to place and some subtle environmental motion such as the sea rolling in the background. But with the gorgeous art and normally brief scenes complemented by the immersive ambient sound, the various backdrops never seem static or boring.
With its deceptively simple mechanics, Overboard! gives you so much to experience, brilliantly combining the need to strategise with the tempting potential to unleash absolute mayhem. It’s brimming with well-realised characters to fall in love with or kill (or both!), and it’s all packaged in a beautiful '30s art style. It's smooth sailing all the way in this entertaining inverse-Cluedo-style story, so don't miss the boat on inkle’s latest glorious narrative adventure.